• Nolan Hedglin

Does MIT have a problem with dirty money?

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

UPDATE #2 (9/10/19): this event really blew up after Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker published a report outlining the extent to which the Media Lab and members of the administration at MIT went to ensure that the Epstein funding they received was anonymous, even after Epstein was already listed on the banned donors list maintained by the school.

UPDATE (8/30/19): it appears that this has become a hot topic both within the MIT community (with many people coming out both in support of and against Joi Ito) and nationally. Interested to see how the administration will handle all this attention.

About an hour ago (8/22/19), President L. Rafael Reif sent an apology letter to the MIT community concerning recent news about two groups on campus, the Media Lab and Seth Lloyd, who received up to $800k in funding from Jeffery Epstein, in 2013 and 2017 respectively. Note that Mr. Epstein was convicted in 2008, so these donations came at least 5 years after he had been convicted. Both Joi Ito of the Media Lab and Seth Lloyd have written apology letters regarding the incident. Of course, Professors Ito and Lloyd should be ashamed in agreeing to take money from a convicted sex offender, but an individual slap on the wrist by the administration ignores the broader issue: MIT has a bad past in recent history with taking money from individuals or countries whose actions are opposed to the core value system of the institution.

An internal investigation might not be enough because this is not an isolated incident

President Reif promised to the community that an investigation would be launched immediately into the Epstein donations so that leadership can learn from their mistakes. This sounds nice, but it is the same promise the institution made after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi was linked back to a picture taken on MIT campus. The New York Times posted a picture of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Reif shaking hands during his visit to MIT, pointing out one of Khashoggi's killers in the background of the photo. The Saudi report concluded by discouraging the institution from cutting ties with the country, a decision which President Reif ultimately supported.

I am not challenging MIT leadership's capacity for change, nor am I questioning their moral compasses. Instead, I am reminding them that a subset of the student body has already shown protest for the way that MIT chooses to freely accept funding from a number of morally questionable locations. Several open letters have been written by researchers in the MIT community challenging the notion that MIT seeks to be a moral as well as academic leader globally. In response to the opening of the Schwarzman College of Computing, the authors of one notable letter assert:

For the MIT administration, as for Schwarzman, money trumps concerns for human rights and economic justice. [...] Rather than engaging with the community, the administration adopted an uncritically “celebratory” tone towards the college’s opening that caters to donors.

The school needs to start treading extremely carefully when it comes to how they because I believe the general opinion about the administration is that it is filled with hypocrites.

Why funding sources matter

It is easy to justify the ethics of taking dirty money by arguing that the project those funds go towards is a net positive for society, but I believe that such an argument is extremely naive. According to Harvard professor Sheila Jasanoff, the way we do science and the research we choose to pursue is a reflection of our societal values. She calls this the soft form of science's social construction. We choose to fund projects that are in line with the vision of the future we want. This is not inherently a bad thing, but one can draw the conclusion that, by agreeing to pursue a given research project, we also agree to the social events that made funding for that project possible. In the extreme case of Jeffery Epstein, this implies that the researchers who chose to accept money from him, and subsequently the institution itself that approved the donation, supported Epstein's behavior. I am sure that if you were to ask anyone in the MIT community whether or not they support what Epstein did, the answer would be a resounding no. But the real danger lies in the actions that can be construed as morally ambiguous, like choosing to accept money from the guy even if it resulted in a positive externality. These are the problems that MIT faces. The moral degradation of the institution may start slowly, but if the school fails to address the root of the problem immediately, then they will be hard-pressed to stop its insidious creep into all aspects of MIT culture.


Altogether, it is important to consider how accepting donations can be viewed as a tacit agreement that the recipient supports the actions and politics of the donor.

In response, we will commit an amount equal to the funds MIT received from any Epstein foundation to an appropriate charity that benefits his victims or other victims of sexual abuse.

I do admire that MIT has chosen to match donations like this. It is evident that President Reif feels remorse over MIT's affiliation with Epstein, but donation-matching only partially cleans up the damage that has already occurred. Especially since the institution is interested in promoting their new ethical research component of the Schwarzman College of Computing, perhaps they should start thinking a little more critically about where they choose to accept grants.

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