Epstein Fallout: Joi Ito Resigns From MIT Media Lab, Multiple Boards

Xconomy Boston — 

The ripple effects from a report Friday in The New Yorker about ties between the MIT Media Lab and disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein continue to spread. After Joi Ito resigned as the Media Lab’s director on Saturday, he also relinquished high-profile board seats with The New York Times Company, the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Japan Society, and PureTech Health, a Boston-based biotech company. Ito also resigned a visiting professorship at Harvard Law School, according to a spokeswoman.

These are nowhere near all the boards that Ito is listed as sitting on. Xconomy has reached out to many others, including nonprofit  Connected Camps, Japan-based education technology company Digital Garage, and MIT’s venture firm and startup incubator The Engine, which Ito (pictured above) has advised.

MIT said it has hired an outside law firm to lead an investigation into the interactions between Media Lab officials and Epstein, who committed suicide in August while in prison.

Ito was toppled by a bombshell report in The New Yorker written by journalist Ronan Farrow unraveling details showing Ito had solicited far more donations from Epstein than was previously known. Ito and others at the Media Lab had reportedly worked to keep the gifts a secret.

The story lays out that “although Epstein was listed as ‘disqualified’ in MIT’s official donor database, the Media Lab continued to accept gifts from him, consulted him about the use of the funds, and, by marking his contributions as anonymous, avoided disclosing their full extent, both publicly and within the university.”

In one of the more damning details about how the university lab’s fundraising apparatus handled the ongoing influx of cash from Epstein, Farrow reveals: “The effort to conceal the lab’s contact with Epstein was so widely known that some staff in the office of the lab’s director, Joi Ito, referred to Epstein as Voldemort or ‘he who must not be named’.”

Ito revealed in mid-August that he had taken money from Epstein, who he claimed to have met at a conference in 2013. While the meeting came after Epstein’s 2008 conviction for soliciting a prostitute who was underaged, Ito wrote in an apology to the university that he never knew of the other “horrific acts” Epstein would later be accused of by federal prosecutors, including sex trafficking.

MIT then released an accounting of how much money the university had raised from Epstein and foundations he controlled: $800,000 over the course of 20 years, which went to the Media Lab or professor Seth Lloyd. Ito also reportedly said Epstein gave him $1.2 million for personal investment funds. Ito had claimed that Epstein was responsible for $525,000 in gifts to the lab.

The New Yorker reported Epstein helped the Media Lab secure a much larger amount: at least $7.5 million, which allegedly came from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and investor Leon Black. Epstein reportedly served as the go-between who helped solicit the money from Gates and Black, and the gifts were “‘directed’ by Epstein or made at his behest,” according to the article.

From Friday into Saturday, the calls for Ito’s resignation grew. MIT President Rafael Reif on Saturday announced Ito would leave the Media Lab, and also would no longer be an MIT professor or employee.

The website hosting a petition of support for Ito, wesupportjoi.org, was taken down after The New Yorker report came out. The last cache of the site can be viewed via the Wayback Machine here.

Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig on Sunday wrote a long reflection on the mess, which also addressed his signing the support petition for Ito a couple of weeks prior. In it, Lessig wrote that Ito reached out to him about the Epstein money and claimed to have been concerned that Epstein had not reformed himself after the 2008 conviction. Lessig shared his own thoughts about the dirty business of academic fundraising from less-than-squeaky-clean sources.

Lessig, who said he is an abuse victim himself, said he continues to stand by Ito. Toward the end of the post, Lessig added that he regrets not warning him of the hurt it could cause if word got out that he took the Epstein money.

“I am ashamed that I did not let him see just how hurtful it was to imagine slime like Epstein living within the walls of MIT, even if hidden by promises of anonymity,” Lessig wrote. “I fear that I have become so good at intellectualizing what happened to me that I am awful at showing the raw soul-wrenching destruction that that evil is. I should not have reasoned with Joi when he came to me. I should have wept. I’m not saying that would have stopped him. I’m not saying that was my job. But it was my job to be his friend. I wasn’t the friend I should have been.”

Last week, prior to The New Yorker’s story, MIT held a meeting to address the connections between Epstein and the Media Lab. Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte stood up to offer a defense of Ito’s fundraising, according to an account of the meeting published by the MIT Technology Review.

“If you wind back the clock,” he added, “I would still say, ‘Take it.’”

Negroponte later clarified his comments, saying he was only defending the original decision to take money from Epstein and he would not condone taking the money if Media Lab officials had known then about the recent sex-trafficking allegations, Tech Review reported.

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