The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has promised an investigation after the head of its prestigious Media Lab stepped down over revelations that he concealed funding from Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who committed suicide last month while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking underage girls.
Joi Ito, a technology entrepreneur who has led the Media Lab — which has a budget of $80m a year — since 2011, announced his resignation on Saturday. On Friday evening, the New Yorker published a story alleging that the professor had deliberately hidden Epstein’s donations to the prestigious Cambridge lab.
“Because the accusations in the story are extremely serious, they demand an immediate, thorough and independent investigation,” MIT’s president Rafael Reif wrote in a note published by the university, which confirmed Mr Ito’s departure. He added that MIT would engage a “prominent law firm” to carry out the probe.
Mr Ito, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, also stepped down from the board of the New York Times, a spokeswoman confirmed, and left the board of the MacArthur Foundation, which tweeted that: “The recent reports of Ito’s behaviour in The New Yorker, if true, would not be in keeping with the values of MacArthur. Most importantly, our hearts go out to the girls and women who survived the abuse of Jeffrey Epstein.”
MIT said in late August that the Media Lab and Seth Lloyd, a physics professor, had received about $800,000 in gifts from the financier over two decades, and continued to accept his money even after he was charged in 2006 of unlawful sex acts with a minor and his jailing in 2008 for soliciting a prostitute.
Both Professor Lloyd and Mr Ito issued statements apologising for accepting the money and expressing support for Epstein’s victims. MIT also announced a review of the donations, which is continuing. Two researchers affiliated with the Media Lab, Ethan Zuckerman and J Nathan Matias, resigned in protest, the New York Times reported.
The latest revelations show how Mr Ito and a colleague marked Epstein’s donations as “anonymous”.
The New Yorker alleged that Epstein helped secure $7.5m of donations for Media Lab, far higher than the sum MIT disclosed in mid-August, and that the Media Lab continued to accept gifts from him even though he was listed as “disqualified” in MIT’s official donor database
The New Yorker also reproduced correspondence between Epstein and Mr Ito, including one email in which Mr Ito inquired after Epstein’s health. “On Wednesday, Joi stood up in front of all of us and spoke about what happened,” a Media Lab staff member told the Financial Times.
“He knew this New Yorker piece would be coming out on Friday night . . . He made it seem like he wasn’t that close to Jeffrey Epstein, now we see he even knew when he was ill . . . He was there to apologise, and talk about restorative justice, but he wasn’t being honest himself.”
The person added that there would be more departures from the Media Lab unless MIT appointed a credible director who represented the Media Lab’s values.
A founder of a fund who has links to the Media Lab described the Epstein affair as “a lot to digest” but said “the community is showing incredible resilience and is committed to heal, come out stronger and set an example of how to turn things around”. He added that his fund had never received any money from Epstein or his foundations.
In his apology on August 15, Mr Ito said that he had first met Epstein at a conference in 2013 where he was fundraising for the Media Lab, which has more than 30 faculty members and hundreds of other experts working on “disruptive technologies” in everything from wearable computing to digital currencies and artificial intelligence.
“I invited him [Epstein] to the Lab and visited several of his residences,” Mr Ito wrote, adding that “in all of my interactions with Epstein, I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of”.
He went on to express regret for taking money for his lab from Epstein, and for allowing him to invest in several of funds which Mr Ito used to invest in tech start-up companies outside of MIT.
In his note published on Saturday, MIT’s president described accepting Epstein’s gifts as “a mistake of judgment”. “We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future.”