Director of MIT’s media lab resigns after outcry over ties to Jeffrey Epstein

Director of MIT’s media lab resigns after outcry over ties to Jeffrey Epstein

Ito, a tech evangelist and master networker who led the MIT Media Lab — a program that prides itself on contrarian thinking — acknowledged last week that he had received $1.7 million from Epstein, including $1.2 million for his own outside investment funds.

Jeffrey Epstein
The emails provided by Swenson outlined the informal role that Epstein played at the media lab. (Reuters/File)

Written by Marc Tracy and Tiffany Hsu

Nearly a month after his death, Jeffrey Epstein continues to haunt some of America’s most prestigious institutions.

On Saturday, a prominent figure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stepped down after the disclosure of his efforts to conceal his financial connections to Epstein, the disgraced financier who killed himself in a Manhattan jail cell last month while facing federal sex trafficking charges.

Almost immediately, the MIT official, Joichi Ito, left the boards of three other organizations: the MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and The New York Times Co., where he had been a board member since 2012. He also left a visiting professorship at Harvard.


Ito, a tech evangelist and master networker who led the MIT Media Lab — a program that prides itself on contrarian thinking — acknowledged last week that he had received $1.7 million from Epstein, including $1.2 million for his own outside investment funds.

“After giving the matter a great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks, I think that it is best that I resign as director of the media lab and as a professor and employee of the Institute, effective immediately,” Ito wrote in an email Saturday to MIT’s provost, Martin Schmidt.

Ito’s resignation came less than a day after an article in The New Yorker described the measures that he and other media lab officials took to conceal its relationship with Epstein. The internal emails, which a former media lab employee shared with The New York Times, described the handling of donations that Epstein made and apparently solicited from the rich and powerful over the years, including a $2 million gift from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

In an email in October 2014 — six years after Epstein had pleaded guilty to a sex charge involving a minor in Florida — Ito wrote that the gift from Gates had been “directed by Jeffrey Epstein.” A development official at the media lab, Peter Cohen, wrote in a subsequent email, “For gift recording purposes, we will not be mentioning Jeffrey’s name as the impetus for this gift.”

In a statement, a spokesman for Gates said Epstein had been introduced to Gates as a person interested in helping increase philanthropy. “Although Epstein pursued Bill Gates aggressively, any account of a business partnership or personal relationship between the two is simply not true,” the statement said. “And any claim that Epstein directed any programmatic or personal grant making for Bill Gates is completely false.”

Gates — one of the world’s richest men and perhaps its most generous philanthropist — is one of many powerful people to face scrutiny for their connections to Epstein. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton have been forced to explain their associations with him. So have Britain’s Prince Andrew, high-profile scientists and business executives including Leslie Wexner, chief executive of L Brands, and Leon Black, founder of Apollo Global Management, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms. Alex Acosta, who as a federal prosecutor was involved in the plea agreement with Epstein in 2008, stepped down as labor secretary after that deal was heavily criticized.

Ito’s resignation from MIT was followed in quick succession by announcements from other organizations.

The MacArthur Foundation said reports about his actions, if true, were not in keeping with its values. “Most importantly, our hearts go out to the girls and women who survived the abuse of Jeffrey Epstein,” the foundation said in a statement.

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, and the company’s president, Mark Thompson, wrote an email to staff members that Ito had stepped down, effective immediately. “Our newsroom will continue its aggressive reporting on Mr. Epstein, investigating both the individuals and the broader systems of power that enabled him for so many years,” they said.

Signe Swenson, who served as a development associate and alumni relations coordinator at the MIT Media Lab from 2014 to 2016, shared the internal emails concerning Epstein with The Times. She said she had told supervisors several times of her “disgust” at Epstein’s involvement.

“That was never listened to,” Swenson, who worked under Cohen, said in an interview Saturday. Swenson shared the correspondence after consulting with the organization Whistleblower Aid.

She said she learned of Epstein’s connection with the media lab when she interviewed for a position in March 2014 and told Cohen that MIT listed Epstein as “disqualified” as a donor. She said Cohen replied that Ito had a relationship with the wealthy financier. In one 2014 email that Swenson shared, Ito wrote about a $100,000 donation from Epstein, asking the development staff members to “make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.”

Ito took over the Media Lab in 2011 following a rapid ascent in the tech world that made him an unorthodox choice to lead an academic program but not the freewheeling media lab. He was a two-time college dropout who had run a nightclub, then ran a string of internet companies and invested early in Twitter, Kickstarter and Flickr.

Ito’s ability to connect with both students and wealthy donors had helped him raise at least $50 million for the Media Lab, a sort of academic skunkworks. It has contributed to the development of technology related to touchscreens and GPS, is home to a program dedicated to democratizing access to outer space and hands out $250,000 awards to those “challenging the norms, rules or laws that sustain society’s injustices.”

Ito faced significant criticism from inside the Media Lab. Two scholars said they would leave at the end of the academic year, with one saying he had urged Ito not to associate with Epstein. While Ito did enjoy the support of many within the lab, there were calls for his resignation.

“We have worked literally for years to try to make STEM fields safe and welcoming, attractive fields for women and girls in the face of crushing sexism and gender bias,” said Kim Holleman, an artist who was a visiting scholar and a research affiliate at the media lab from 2013 through 2017. “It’s humiliating to know that men in these institutions, in 2019, still think so little of women’s dignity and safety.”

At a meeting Wednesday night with media lab personnel, Ito said that he had “screwed up” by accepting the money but that he had done so after a review by the university and consultation with his advisers.

On Saturday, the university’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said he had asked MIT’s general counsel to hire an outside law firm to conduct “an immediate, thorough and independent investigation.”

“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,” he wrote in an email to the university community. “Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead.”

The emails provided by Swenson outlined the informal role that Epstein played at the media lab. In the correspondence about the donation from Gates, Cohen wrote that Ito “did not talk with Bill Gates” and that the program “did not solicit this money.” In another, from May 2014, Cohen and Ito discussed Epstein helping connect the media lab to Black, the Apollo Global Management founder, whom Epstein had advised on issues including philanthropy.

Cohen wrote that Black wanted to make a large donation “in honor of a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous” and later asked Ito to find out from Epstein whether Black himself wanted to remain anonymous. One email indicated that Black had given the media lab a gift of $4 million by wire transfer.

Cohen also asked Ito whether Black would like a thank-you note from MIT’s president. Black’s preference would be something “you or Jeffrey knows best,” be wrote.

A spokeswoman for Black, of Apollo Global Management, did not comment Saturday. Black has sought to distance himself from Epstein, describing his interactions with him as limited to tax strategy, estate planning and philanthropic advice. He has also said Apollo had never done business with Epstein.

Cohen, now the director of development for computer and data science initiatives at Brown University, did not respond to messages seeking comment Saturday.

The departure of Ito from the media lab came after he spent days trying to make amends. At Wednesday’s meeting, which was organized by professors at the program, he reiterated his apology. He described for the first time the amount of money he had received from Epstein and said he had twice traveled to Epstein’s island home in the Caribbean to seek donations. He also told the crowd he had returned one check that Epstein had sent him earlier this year, after an article in The Miami Herald prompted heavy criticism of Epstein’s plea agreement in Florida in 2008.

But near the end, one of Ito’s staunchest supporters, Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the media lab, said he had told Ito to take the money and would do it again. That prompted Ito to send an email to Negroponte in the middle of the night, complaining that he was undercutting his ability to make amends.

The situation worsened with the disclosure of the lab’s internal emails. An online petition established in support of Ito put a disclaimer at the top that it had been set up before news of the emails circulated. A few hours later, Ito tendered the first of several resignations he offered on Saturday afternoon.


By Saturday night, the petition site was no longer online.