Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: MIT and other institutions should reevaluate donor process in light of Epstein contribution scandal

On Friday, The New Yorker reported that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MediaLab, a research institute focused on science and technology, made extensive efforts to conceal donations to their lab made by Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, a convicted sex offender, was arrested in July for alleged sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York, until his suicide in a New York jail in August. 

The research lab has been under fire in recent months for their ties to Epstein, but an investigation into MediaLab’s conduct revealed the extent of his donations and involvement were intentionally kept from MIT administrators and any internal dissenters once he was “disqualified” by the institution to be a donor. At one point, Epstein was referred to as “he who shall not be named.”

The choice of Joi Ito, director of the lab who resigned on Friday in lieu of the report, to continue accepting Epstein’s donations and allowing him a voice in the endeavors of the lab are representative of an unfortunate habit by many to turn the other cheek when a person of power is revealed as a sexual predator.

Prioritizing funds over morals is an unacceptable move for a prestigious research lab, which the likes of Google and IBM frequently access and that is housed by such a prominent and respected institution as MIT, which just last week was ranked second in the nation by The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. 

Emails between Ito and some employees made it clear MIT administration had no role in the concealment of Epstein’s donations, but this could spark conversation about any and all donations to research labs that are part of institutions, and how their respective finances should be approached in the future.

The school should investigate all of their finances, not just those of MediaLab, and fully reevaluate the system they use to “disqualify” donors, which is clearly ineffective and raises the question of what else may be slipping through the cracks.

MIT has made a great first step in mending the situation by pledging $800,000, the total of Epstein’s contributions, to victims of sexual abuse. The next step is to be proactive in making sure other large donors, especially those marked as “disqualified,” are representative of the values of the institution.

MIT can reassert itself as the victim without a hand in this circumstance, whose reputation has been damaged almost single-handedly by one former employee, or it can choose to make impactful and effective change in its donor process, and by doing so set a powerful precedent.

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