Why an MIT Media Lab professor resigned over the school’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein
"It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly."
A week and a half after his death, Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to MIT continue to roil the Cambridge university.
Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the MIT Media Lab and the director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, announced Tuesday night that he plans to resign at the end of the upcoming academic year following the recent disclosure of the research center’s ties to the deceased Florida financier, who is accused of trafficking underage girls for sex.
“For me, the deep involvement of Epstein in the life of the Media Lab is something that makes my work impossible to carry forward there,” Zuckerman wrote in a Medium post after The Boston Globe published a report Tuesday on his plans to resign.
The 46-year-old pioneering internet activist joined MIT in 2011 to research the relationship between media and social change, and international development. Zuckerman wrote Tuesday that he doesn’t have another job lined up and will be spending most of the year determining “if there’s another place,” whether elsewhere at MIT or at another university.
“Before I would commit to moving the work elsewhere at MIT, I would need to understand better whether the Institute knew about the relationship with Epstein and whether they approved of his gifts,” he wrote.
Zuckerman also made clear that we wasn’t resigning because of any personal involvement with Epstein, who he said he once refused to meet in 2014. Still, in Zuckerman’s mind, Epstein’s connections to his work at the Media Lab were too much for him to overcome.
How Epstein was connected to MIT
Epstein, a well-connected hedge fund manager and self-described “science philanthropist,” was found dead on Aug. 10 after an apparent suicide in his New York jail cell while he was awaiting trail on charges for allegedly trafficking and sexual abusing young women and girls.
The 66-year-old billionaire, who was first arrested in 2006, had donated millions to a number of Boston-area initiatives and causes — mostly related to Harvard — over the past two decades. But he also gifted at least $200,000 to MIT — and had particularly close ties to the Media Lab, which was founded in 1985 to research the benefits and challenges of new technologies.
Last week, Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab since 2011, publicly apologized for accepting donations from Epstein. Ito said he met Epstein in 2013, visited his homes, and accepted an undisclosed amount of money for the Media Lab and for his own tech investment fund. Ito said he was unaware of the “horrific” accusations against Epstein.
“I take full responsibility for my error in judgment,” he wrote. “I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab, and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network.”
However, Epstein had already entered the MIT network by the time he met Ito. Furthermore, Marvin Minsky, the late cofounder of the Media Lab, has been accused of being directly implicated in his sex ring.
The day before Epstein’s death, an unsealed deposition revealed earlier this month that one of his alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, told prosecutors in 2016 that Epstein’s longtime confidante directed her to have sex with the then-73-year-old Minsky, among other high-profile figures, while at Epstein’s compound in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2001. Giuffre was 17 at the time.
Zuckerman said he talked to Ito on the day the documents mentioning Minsky were released and learned how the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein “went much deeper,” referring to his financial support for the lab and Ito’s investment fund. After urging Ito not to meet Epstein in 2014, Zuckerman said they hadn’t spoken about him until Aug. 9.
“As the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab,” Zuckerman wrote.
“My logic was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view,” he continued. “It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship.”
Zuckerman has been on the selection committee for the Media Lab’s annual Disobedience Award. Last year, the prize went to three leaders of the Me Too movement in the science fields. Zuckerman called it “terrible irony” that their work might be damaged by an association with the Media Lab and said he wrote apology notes to the three award winners.
Zuckerman says he plans to wait until May to officially leave his post, since he had already made commitments to teach classes this academic year.
While he criticized the Media Lab for lacking transparency, Zuckerman said he supports those — including Ito, who remains the director of the Media Lab — committed to staying at the lab to make it “more consistent with its stated values.”
“I’m aware of the privilege that it’s been to work at a place filled with as much creativity and brilliance as the Media Lab,” he wrote. “But I’m also aware that privilege can be blinding, and can cause people to ignore situations that should be simple matters of right and wrong.”
Zuckerman’s announcement was quickly followed by another resignation Wednesday: J. Nathan Mathias, a visiting scholar at the Center for Civic Media, announced that he would also be leaving the lab at the end of the year and was taking his project CivilServant with him.
“I am in tears as I write this,” Mathias wrote on Medium. “Like Ethan, I hope that the Media Lab and the Lab community can turn this terrible situation into a chance to become a better place.”