The Slatest

What Did Jeffrey Epstein Contribute to the MIT Media Lab?

The trickle-down sexism of indulging a sketchy donor.

Joi Ito, former MIT Media Lab director, as seen in 2008.
Joi Ito, former MIT Media Lab director Roger Barnett/Flickr

According to Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, dealing with ethically dubious funders is an unavoidable part of fundraising. Jeffrey Epstein “is an extreme case,” Negroponte told the Boston Globe, but screening individual donors is time-consuming, and it’s hard to name a single company that’s squeaky-clean. “We all knew he went to jail for soliciting underage prostitution, but we thought he served his term and repented,” he said.

At an all-hands Media Lab meeting in September about the lab’s ties to Epstein, Negroponte defended the decision to take money from the financier, who died by suicide in August while jailed on sex trafficking charges. Epstein funded the lab with his own money and with donations he procured from friends and associates; he also put $1.2 million into the personal investment funds of Joi Ito, who served as the lab’s director from 2011 until a New Yorker investigation into Epstein’s relationship with the lab prompted his resignation on Sept. 7. Ito told the audience at the all-hands that he’d only accepted all this money after seeking input from advisers who’d encouraged him to take it. Negroponte was one of them. “If you wind back the clock,” Negroponte said at the meeting, “I would still say, ‘Take it.’ ”

Dayna, a woman who’s worked at the lab for years and who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid potential retaliation, says Negroponte’s defense of Epstein’s funding as necessary to keep the lab flush made some students and Media Lab staff furious. She’s heard people say they would have rather had the choice of whether to benefit from Epstein’s money—that they would have gladly forgone their complimentary laptops, for instance, if they’d known the lab was taking money from a child rapist to fund it.

“There’s both disgust and frustration that for some reason, at a place as innovative as the Media Lab, we haven’t figured out how to fund our projects in a way that’s as innovative as the work that we’re trying to do,” Dayna told me. “There’s a lot of anger, but there’s a lot of not-surprise” she said, that the lab still fundraises by courting the “old boys’ network” with the kinds of dinners and home visits Ito had with Epstein.

On Sept. 18, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Rafael Reif said in a faculty meeting that several women at the university had come to him with complaints about “the culture” of MIT, calling it a “last-straw moment.” According to these women, Reif said, “allowing Jeffrey Epstein to stain our reputation was only the latest example of how many in our community, and the tech world in general, devalue the lives, experiences and contributions of women and girls.”

Dayna describes the Media Lab as a workplace where gender dynamics play out in different ways at different levels of power and visibility. On one hand, the MIT Media Lab is home to several female luminaries at the top of their research fields, including Rosalind Picard, Neri Oxman, and Pattie Maes—who’s also leading the search for the Media Lab’s next leader. (Oxman recently revealed that some of the Epstein-related funds supported her research.) But at the same time, Dayna says, there are a lot of men in decision-making positions backed by women who execute those decisions behind the scenes. She’s witnessed higher-ranking women tasked with ordering food or taking notes in meetings, and she laments a lack of systems in place to help, say, female graduate students feel comfortable saying no when asked to after-work drinks with someone from a company that funds the lab. “That sort of shit happens all the time,” she said. “The Media Lab thinks it’s an exception to so many things, and it’s just not.”

The Media Lab does have gatekeepers charged with making sure funders don’t exert direct influence on research or ask for specific deliverables, Dayna said. But millions of dollars finding their way into the coffers of a university apparatus, especially one with transactional private-sector ties as sturdy as the MIT Media Lab’s, tend to create a ripple effect within.

Take the account of whistleblower Signe Swenson, a former Media Lab development associate and alumni coordinator who resigned in 2016. Swenson was a main source in the New Yorker article that showed Epstein had closer ties to Ito and was more deeply involved in the lab than Ito or MIT had previously admitted. She met with Peter Cohen, then the lab’s development director, in 2014, when she’d applied to move from her job in central MIT fundraising to one at the Media Lab. In that job interview, by Swenson’s account, Cohen divulged that the lab had been working with Epstein and wanted to increase his involvement. “It was definitely a test” to see if she would be a trustworthy and confidential steward of the secret donations, Swenson told me. “I apparently passed it.”

Asked about the job-interview anecdote, Cohen, who now works at Brown University, wrote in a statement to me that he was “disgusted and distraught by Jeffrey Epstein’s conduct.” “Notwithstanding my personal discomfort regarding Mr. Epstein and his involvement with MIT, I did not believe I was in a position to change MIT’s policies and practices,” Cohen wrote. “I did not witness anything I understood to be illegal, and I never solicited gifts from Mr. Epstein.”

When a donor is prominent enough at an institution that his contributions bear mentioning in a job interview, it’s hard to imagine that an applicant who expresses reservations about him would fare as well as one who welcomes the opportunity to keep those donations coming. The question of whether or not a prospective hire will quietly accept an institution’s ties to a notorious sexual abuser is unavoidably gendered. It is all but impossible for a workplace to hire equitably and treat women fairly when wooing a sexual abuser is a condition of employment.

Swenson told me that she raised concerns to multiple people about Epstein’s donations. One was Richard MacMillan, then a senior development director for MIT’s central fundraising department. (MacMillan was a participant in leaked email chains about anonymizing Epstein’s gifts; in a recent statement, he said his department “did all that we could to reject any money from Epstein” but “could not control what Mr. Ito did.”)

MacMillan “clearly didn’t care, or he was obviously aware,” of Epstein’s donations, Swenson said. Now that she’s seen the evidence that MIT leadership knew about Epstein’s connections to the lab, she understands why he didn’t seem surprised by Swenson’s revelation. “It just felt to me that this is just the way things are,” she said, which made it “hard to feel … that there’s any possibility to make a stand or to change the way they’re doing things.”

The Epstein scenario was one of several that caused Swenson to feel ignored at her job. She recalls several times when she’d suggest an idea that would get dismissed or go unaddressed, only to have a male co-worker raise the same idea and be commended for it. “I started seeing a therapist during my time at the Media Lab because I questioned my judgment, my perspective, my ability,” Swenson told me. “Because in this [Epstein] instance and others, I shared my perspective and expertise in development and it didn’t matter.”

Both Dayna and Swenson told me that, due to the uneven gender distribution of duties at the Media Lab, women made up the bulk of people who had to execute orders to process Epstein’s funding, whether they wanted to or not. Ditto the people who took the money and used it to purchase supplies or equipment, often without knowing where the money came from. According to Dayna, the Media Lab’s administrative staff is disproportionately female. “Women are the most vulnerable in the lab when it comes to this concept of administrative evil,” she said. “Unbeknownst to them, they were contributing to their own debasing as a sex in our society.” Now, she told me, women in the lab are “grappling with this deep guilt about somehow being complicit in his horrific acts of violence to women and children, by simply doing the work that we do every day.”

The trickle-down sexism of Epstein’s cashflow didn’t end there. The summer after Swenson’s interview, in an incident she recounted to the New Yorker, Epstein visited the lab to meet with some faculty members. Ito instructed Cohen to allow Epstein’s two female “assistants” to accompany him around the lab; Cohen directed his staff to keep Ethan Zuckerman, a professor who’d been critical of Epstein, away from the area. Swenson reported feeling upset by the notion that a “pedophile” would be welcomed into the office, and she became more agitated when she saw the two young “models” arrive with Epstein. She said the women on staff discussed what they might do to support Epstein’s assistants should it become clear that they were there under threat or coercion.

No employee of any gender should be asked to engage in intraoffice subterfuge to ensure that a sexual abuser has a pleasant, uninterrupted visit. But again, this was not a gender-neutral assignment: Female employees were the ones worrying over the question of whether a child rapist had brought two of his victims into their workplace. They were the ones who went so far, Swenson told me, as to look through the trash cans in the office that day, just in case either of Epstein’s guests had left a note asking for help. According to Swenson, all the administrative assistants who were forced to facilitate the meetings between their respective faculty members and Epstein that day were women, too—and at least 30 people were involved.

“There were a lot of people who were forced to interact with [Epstein] who didn’t want to, myself included,” Swenson said. “It was certainly a part of what contributed to Epstein rebuilding his reputation, and his reputation allowed him to rape even more young girls.”

In some cases, women at the lab were asked to interact with Epstein or facilitate his relationship with the university in spite of their vocal objections. Swenson said she and other women repeatedly informed their supervisors, who were often men, about their discomfort and ethical misgivings regarding Epstein’s donations and his campus visit. She doesn’t know whether those objections were ever elevated to people in higher leadership positions, but she didn’t see them lead to any changes in the university’s relationship with Epstein. She also says she took it upon herself to inform other women in her office once she learned that Epstein would be stopping by because, although she was told to keep it secret, she didn’t want anyone to “walk into that [situation] uninformed.”

Epstein also exercised some influence over how the money he gave the Media Lab was spent. That’s not out of the ordinary for big-time donors, but it does contradict the message spread by some of the lab’s defenders: that his public anonymity made his donations value-neutral. Scan the list of individual scientists Epstein backed, or read some accounts of the lunch-and-learns he organized, and you’ll find just one or two names that belong to women.

Dayna points out that even if Epstein was more likely to fund men’s work than women’s, that wouldn’t make him at all out of the ordinary among STEM and startup funders. But she also says that women in positions of power would be far more likely than men to “smell [Epstein’s] shit a mile away” and refuse to work with him. Indeed—Lightning Labs CEO Elizabeth Stark told the New York Times that when a Media Lab employee contacted her in 2015 with an offer to invest some of Epstein’s funds in her company, she Googled Epstein, found an article about his history of abuse, and made a decision she called “a no-brainer”: She declined.

Beyond the abuse, there was the well-known, cartoonishly masculinist bubble Epstein operated within, where male scientists nodded along with his bizarre theories while young women served as decorations. Somehow, Ito and his advisers saw fit to bring this type of influence to bear on the Media Lab. One of Ito’s failures was his “willingness to believe that [Epstein’s] ideas were more important than the potential risk of being associated with him, and bringing him around women,” Swenson said. A Media Lab spokeswoman told me that a “primary focus” of the lab’s interim transition team is “ensuring that, moving forward, decision-makers are more aware of the consequences of their actions and act in a way that does not compromise the integrity of any member of the Media Lab community.”

Swenson told me she’s been wrestling with “a weird mix of emotions” over the past several weeks—a feeling of relief, because the public record will finally show what she’s long known to be the truth, and also pain, because of the bad memories it’s dredged up and the knowledge that so many in Epstein’s orbit have suffered far worse. Dayna says she’s “still grappling” with the question of whether it’s possible to accept money from a philanthropist like Epstein and maintain a women-friendly workplace.

The totality of her experiences in the lab has her leaning toward “no.” “This is a sort of macro version of what goes on at the lab in micro every day,” she told me, in that the men at the top sometimes fail to consider the unintended consequences the decisions they make might have for their staff—particularly their female staff. “Sometimes they’re intentionally, willfully, ignorantly not getting it because it’s easier, and sometimes they’re just terribly naïve,” Dayna said. “We’re all feeling like, once again, we’re having to clean up a dude’s mess.”