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MIT under scanner over financial ties with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein

MIT’s Media Lab had deep financial relations with Jeffrey Epstein, who helped it raise $7.5 million. Following the revelations, Joi Ito, director of the lab, resigned.

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Director of MIT Media Lab Joi Ito resigned after the revelations 

Financial connections between Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) research centre and billionaire financier-cum-sex offender Jeffrey Epstein has rattled the world of academia. Epstein, convicted for several sexual offences, was found dead in his prison cell in August this year.

An article published in The New Yorker magazine on 6 September by Ronan Farrow said that MIT’s Media Lab had deep financial relations with Epstein — who helped the lab raise $7.5 million. The amount raised is much higher than what MIT had previously revealed. Moreover, the article said the lab staff had actively tried to hide their relationship with Epstein.

Following the revelations, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, announced his resignation. Meanwhile, MIT’s president Rafael Reif said, “Because the accusations in the story are extremely serious, they demand an immediate, thorough and independent investigation.” 

Who was Jeffrey Epstein? 

Epstein’s life had all the characteristics of the ‘great American dream’, until it all went wrong. 

He started as a teacher at a reputed high school in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually, Epstein went on to have a thriving career in the world of finance. He then became a “limited partner” at the investment banking firm, Bear Stearns, before starting his own firm in 1982.

While it was unclear what were the precise services Epstein’s firm provided, once he launched his firm, his wealth sky-rocketed. 

Soon, he was hobnobbing with celebrities, politicians and businessmen. Epstein’s friends included the likes of actor Kevin Spacey, former US President Bill Clinton and current President Donald Trump. 

In 2005, detectives from Palm Beach in Florida began to investigate Epstein for sexually abusing young girls. But in 2007, Epstein cut a deal with US Attorney Alex Acosta and spent only 13 months in jail. 

He was released in 2008, and almost a decade later, the scale of his sexual crimes were made public. He was accused of sex trafficking minors from Florida to New York. He was arrested on 6 July this year.

Epstein was found dead in his prison cell on 10 August and is believed to have committed suicide. 

MIT in murky waters 

While the connections between MIT’s research lab and Epstein were being publicly discussed for the last couple of months, no one was aware of its scale. Moreover, the most damning part was the revelation that the research lab at MIT was actively trying to hide its links with the infamous financier.

“Dozens of pages of e-mails and other documents obtained by The New Yorker reveal that although Epstein was listed as ‘disqualified’ in M.I.T.’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,” according to the report by The New Yorker

The fallout from these revelations have been rather grave.

Ito not only quit MIT’s Media Lab, but also a whole set of other consultancy positions. He resigned from Harvard University, MacArthur Foundation, Knight Foundation and The New York Times Company, among other organisations. 

A tweet put out by the MacArthur Foundation said, “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.”

Several other members of the research lab have also resigned in protest and the university has launched an investigation. 

MIT’s Media Lab is responsible for several cutting-edge innovations such as the digital ink behind Amazon’s Kindle. 

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