Ito knew, Ito lied

Joi Ito is toast. The latest revelations about Epstein’s association with MIT are damning.

The M.I.T. Media Lab, which has been embroiled in a scandal over accepting donations from the financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, had a deeper fund-raising relationship with Epstein than it has previously acknowledged, and it attempted to conceal the extent of its contacts with him. 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. Perhaps most notably, Epstein appeared to serve as an intermediary between the lab and other wealthy donors, soliciting millions of dollars in donations from individuals and organizations, including the technologist and philanthropist Bill Gates and the investor Leon Black. According to the records obtained by The New Yorker and accounts from current and former faculty and staff of the media lab, Epstein was credited with securing at least $7.5 million in donations for the lab, including two million dollars from Gates and $5.5 million from Black, gifts the e-mails describe as “directed” by Epstein or made at his behest. 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.”

All this was after Epstein was convicted of raping children. MIT had judged him “disqualified” from making donations on paper, but the MIT Media Lab had continued to clandestinely allow Epstein to slip them money under the table, and get influence in return. Further, billionaires like Bill Gates were still listening to Epstein’s advice and following his recommendations about where to make donations. Ito knew, and kept the pipeline open secretly.

Then there’s this little anecdote. His colleagues and coworkers are squeamish about being associated with a pedophile, so Ito makes arrangements for a visit that objectors won’t know about, and Epstein is so blatant that he won’t go anywhere without his retinue of young attractive women.

In the summer of 2015, as the Media Lab determined how to spend the funds it had received with Epstein’s help, Cohen informed lab staff that Epstein would be coming for a visit. The financier would meet with faculty members, apparently to allow him to give input on projects and to entice him to contribute further. Swenson, the former development associate and alumni coördinator, recalled saying, referring to Epstein, “I don’t think he should be on campus.” She told me, “At that point it hit me: this pedophile is going to be in our office.” According to Swenson, Cohen agreed that Epstein was “unsavory” but said “we’re planning to do it anyway—this was Joi’s project.” Staffers entered the meeting into Ito’s calendar without including Epstein’s name. They also tried to keep his name out of e-mail communication. “There was definitely an explicit conversation about keeping it off the books, because Joi’s calendar is visible to everyone,” Swenson said. “It was just marked as a V.I.P. visit.”

By then, several faculty and staff members had objected to the university’s relationship with Epstein. Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor, had voiced concerns about the relationship with Epstein for years. In 2013, Zuckerman said, he pulled Ito aside after a faculty meeting to express concern about meetings on Ito’s calendar marked “J.E.” Zuckerman recalled saying, “I heard you’re meeting with Epstein. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” and Ito responding, “You know, he’s really fascinating. Would you like to meet him?” Zuckerman declined and said that he believed the relationship could have negative consequences for the lab.

In 2015, as Epstein’s visit drew near, Cohen instructed his staff to insure that Zuckerman, if he unexpectedly arrived while Epstein was present, be kept away from the glass-walled office in which Epstein would be conducting meetings. According to Swenson, Ito had informed Cohen that Epstein “never goes into any room without his two female ‘assistants,’ ” whom he wanted to bring to the meeting at the Media Lab. Swenson objected to this, too, and it was decided that the assistants would be allowed to accompany Epstein but would wait outside the meeting room.

On the day of the visit, Swenson’s distress deepened at the sight of the young women. “They were models. Eastern European, definitely,” she told me. Among the lab’s staff, she said, “all of us women made it a point to be super nice to them. We literally had a conversation about how, on the off chance that they’re not there by choice, we could maybe help them.”

I guess the dollar signs in Ito’s eyes were obscuring his ability to see what he was enabling, but not enough that he was unaware of how ugly this would all look to outsiders.

He’s done. He should resign post-haste, before the university decides to throw him to the sharks in a forlorn attempt to save face.


  1. garnetstar says

    Yes, Ito’s done and now MIT will have to cut him loose. Sadly, the administration rewards that kind of behavior in professors. Until it becomes too public, of course. And their dumping individual professors who do become too public won’t change the administration’s encouraging other professors to suck up money from any source, and rewarding them for doing it.

  2. robro says

    …consulted him about the use of the funds…

    Not to diminish the ugliness of Ito pandering to Epstein, but what sort of influence do rich donors have on the “use of the funds”? Is this typical? Can they influence the kinds of projects? The methods used? The outcomes and how/if they are reported? Seems to my uneducated mind, such influence would raise concerns about the integrity of any research directly funded by wealthy donors.

  3. unclefrogy says

    when money is the highest value and the means to do everything this is apparently where we end up but I have this feeling that this ain’t the end but just the current stage and no real limit of corruption possible.
    kind of discouraging with my morning coffee
    uncle frogy

  4. says


    I don’t know about science disciplines, but centers for academic legal research definitely have the topics chosen by a center affected by donors’ preferences. I think we still do a pretty good job of actually doing the research, but there are people who, having done the research, will still spin things to their desired conclusions regardless of what the research actually showed.

    The thing about criticizing centers for academic legal research for this, though, is that I think that the people who are ideologically driven to form the same conclusions regardless of what the research turns up were almost certainly ideologically driven to do so before any donations came in.

    So, yeah. There’s definitely agenda skewing to please donors in academic law. And I know that there’s a certain amount of above-board agenda skewing in science (when Honda funds a center for battery research, you’re going to do battery research or get yourself another job). I’m okay with a certain amount of it, but the problem is that I don’t really know (nor can anyone) when it actually crosses a line that makes the donor influence NotOkay™. I doubt law is the only discipline where this is a problem.

  5. garnetstar says

    @Robro and Crip Dyke,

    I know that in studies of new drugs, the ones funded by the company that sells the drugs dispropotionately find that the drug works, is very effective. In fact, so often that now company-funded studies are not credible to other scientists (they still often manage to foist off their results on the public). I think that the money often stimulates unconsious bias in scientists to get the result that they want, which you really have to watch out for in science research. It's amazingly easy for your "hard" data to tell your exactly what you want to hear.

    So, I'd be wary of that in other science studies if there's some corporate or donor interest involved.

  6. drsteve says

    From what I recall, the Media Lab has always touted its funding model as being less reliant on traditional grant sources and more open to corporate partnerships, which I assume is how a venture capitalist with no academic background came to be running it in the first place. So the opportunities for corruption in this specific case are rather more straightforward than usual.

  7. nomdeplume says

    “I guess the dollar signs in Ito’s eyes were obscuring his ability to see”. Well yes, I guess, but I wonder if there was an element of being attracted to the apparent glamour and excitement of Epstein – a long way removed from humdrum academia?

  8. tbp1 says

    I’m not opposed to all private research funding, but this shows one of the many problems with making private funds the primary source for so much research funding.

  9. bowdsquared says


    Does anyone remember Dr. Hook and the song called “Millionaire”?

    Today it would be a simple cover to replace the M with a B and still be scarily topical?