Note: This is a version of a previous post that has been updated with additional commentary.
It is increasingly clear to me that our institutions of higher learning are addicted to money, and they are more desperate for it than they are concerned about raising capital from those whose values don’t align. For example, MIT took funds from dubious Saudi Arabian donors despite persistent opposition from within the institution. “MIT’s continued collaboration with the Saudi government sends the message that human rights violations can be overlooked in favor of financial considerations,” a group of students wrote in a letter to the university.
Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on one school. Tufts University, for instance, has had a hand-in-pocket relationship with the Sacklers, the family behind Purdue Pharma, the largest opioids maker. And it’s not just universities — whether it is museums, hospitals, or tech startups: many organizations are happy to overlook the provenance of the money that supports them.
But for good reason, this week my concerns have been primarily focused on MIT — and I am certainly not alone. I am as shocked as anyone to find Joi Ito, the head of the MIT Media Lab, swept up in the scandal around Jeffrey Epstein’s heinous and criminal web of exploitation. (I should note that Epstein also had a well-chronicled relationship with Harvard.) Ito met Epstein in 2013 — about five years after Epstein became a convicted sex offender — and apparently, despite his record and reputation, decided to do business with him. As the extent of this affiliation has become public, Ito has issued a statement. He has apologized to MIT and the world at large.
Frankly, it’s all a bit puzzling. My path has crossed with Ito over the years as part of the technology landscape. Knowing him, this news has been unsettling, to say the least, and certainly unexpected. How could Ito willfully ignore Epstein’s documented past (not to mention the allegations that swirled around him) and not only bring him into the MIT circle but have him invest in startups Ito was backing?
This clearly didn’t sit well with Ethan Zuckerman, the much-admired head of Center for Civic Media at MIT. He took to his blog to announce that he was leaving his position.
“I am not resigning because I had any involvement with Epstein. Joi asked me in 2014 if I wanted to meet Epstein, and I refused and urged him not to meet with him,” Zuckerman wrote. “The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship.”
Zuckerman seems to be an example of something very rare in today’s society: a man of principle. Even armed with the same (if no more damning) information, many people in Zuckerman’s position would not have turned down that 2014 meeting. Nor would many in even more powerful positions. And make no mistake: inviting disreputable people into academic and technological circles is, indeed, akin to endorsement.
Epstein’s rise to preeminence in intellectual circles was, to a great extent, enabled by John Brockman, the literary super-agent and force behind the Edge Foundation. As someone who has enjoyed the Edge Foundation’s website and its repository of thought-provoking information, I feel a sense of disappointment that it would also serve as an entry point into the world of academia for Epstein and his ilk.
“In Brockman’s world, billionaires, scientists, artists, novelists, journalists, and musicians all blend together to produce enormous value—for each other and, of course, for Brockman,” Evgeny Morozov writes in The New Republic. (By the way, Brockman’s agency represents Morozov — it is refreshing to see someone with skin in the game actually be honest.) With such a powerful network, Brockman should have been more careful about who he allowed in. Brockman’s validation paved the way for Epstein to form connections with Ito and many others.
The fact is, Epstein’s wickedness was not any subtler than his wealth. But many people were willing to tolerate the former for a shot at the latter. They will come up with mealy-mouthed statements, banal apologies, and justifications. And chances are, after the media circus moves on, these people will make the same mistake again. Epstein was not the first rich clown with evil in his heart, and he won’t be the last. Is it too much to ask that people do a simple Google search before going into business with someone?
As I said before, this is not just a problem plaguing the halls of universities. I fear this is a symptom of a larger problem in our society — one that is perhaps most clearly illustrated by Tinder, the dating app. It encourages you to choose your partners quickly based on their looks, their pithy profile, and their availability. This pretty much sums up our modern ethos. People are no longer known by the company they keep or the values they live by. Instead, if their superficial presentation satisfies a certain need, then they will do. It is a cold, short-term approach to matters that warrant a more thoughtful consideration. But increasingly, it also seems to be the norm.
I see a lot of this happening in the technology sector. As an investor, one thing I frequently observe is that founders are often in an incredible rush. “I have never understood why founders want to run a lightning fast process to select business partners who they may have to ‘live with’ for the next seven to ten years,” Fred Wilson recently wrote on his blog. I am with Fred. There is a lot of value in building a relationship and learning about each other as investors and founders. While definitely slower, it is a much healthier approach than swiping left or right after a quick glance at each other.
As the technology industry scales and becomes big business, it is getting more attractive for everyone. The best and the brightest are knocking on our doors, and so are the flimflam artists. That means it is ever more important to take some time before getting into any kind of relationship. If the Epstein-MIT episode teaches us anything, it’s that shortcuts often lead to long-term problems.
“It is hard to resist the money,” Fred wrote in a tweet this week, “I think you have to be burned before you truly understand the cost.”