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Joi Ito Resigns as Director of the M.I.T. Media Lab: raceAhead

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow published a devastating story in The New Yorker on Friday which detailed the surprising extent to which the M.I.T. Media Lab, and its director Joi Ito, not only accepted significant donations from convicted sex offender and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, but sought his input on the disbursement of the funds. Some of the money had been funneled into investment funds controlled by Ito.

Then, Ito went to great lengths to hide the Lab’s association with him. 

The story further asserts that Epstein was working behind the scenes on the Lab’s behalf and was credited with delivering millions of dollars in donations, including those from philanthropist Bill Gates and the investor Leon Black. (A spokesperson for Bill Gates denies this claim.) 

By Saturday, Ito had resigned his position, followed shortly by his board positions at the MacArthur Foundation and The New York Times Company.

L. Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T., published a message to the M.I.T. community announcing that he’d asked for outside counsel to be retained. "Because the accusations in the story are extremely serious, they demand an immediate, thorough and independent investigation," he wrote. "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. Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead."

In the short term, the path ahead will be filled with new revelations and hot takes, many upsetting.  

When the anonymous Epstein donations were first reported, some 200 of Ito’s friends signed an open letter in support for him. It has now been removed, but archived here. In an ill-advised follow-up, Ito’s friend and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, took to Medium yesterday to explain that it was basically okay to take Epstein money anonymously because the way the money was gained did no real harm to the world. "He was, the world assumed, a brilliant, savant-like investor, who was also a sexual predator." Not like, say, a corporate opioid kingpin.

Concerned colleagues scheduled a meeting last week billed as "a process of dialogue and recovery," and which began with some deep breathing exercises. In front of some 200 people, Ito apologized and asked to make amends, a process that was ultimately derailed by architect and lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte, who according to reporting from the New York Timesshrugged the issue off. "I told Joi to take the money," he said, shocking the crowd. "[A]nd I would do it again."

On the path will be a necessary review of what the Media Lab is actually doing, and difficult conversations about money, power, and what very rich people and organizations do to funnel cash to their own pet projects and away from others that deserve support.

Slate’s Justin Peters says the Media Lab had been failing to live up to its promise of independent invention and breakthrough thinking for well over a decade. And it had been such a beautiful idea! The vibe he once loved while writing his master’s thesis about the lab’s affective computing research group, now hangs in a fragile balance. "You didn’t have to squint to see that the Media Lab’s whiz-bang vibe was made possible—and was constrained—by the corporate partnerships it worked so hard to cultivate," he says.

"But at the Media Lab, the gulf between the corporate benefactors and the institution’s lofty rhetoric of scientific exceptionalism felt especially jarring. Founded in 1985, the Media Lab cultivated an image as a haven for misfit geniuses, for academics who, as the lab’s most recent director put it, 'don’t fit in any existing discipline either because they are between—or simply beyond—disciplines.' These thinkers were the latest inheritors of MIT’s 'hacker ethic': iconoclastic engineers who used applied science to try to make the world a better place. Yet the money came from modern-day robber barons, whose main interest in science was how it could be used to sell more cheese."

Much of which amplified by a media underprepared to evaluate what innovation actually looks like. 

While the vaunted Media Lab continues the process of dialog and recovery, I hope they linger on the path of difficult conversations about the kind of ingrained misogyny it takes to render a moral compass completely useless. 

Writer and tech expert Xeni Jardin was among the few who raised the alarm early and often to point out what should have been clear from the beginning: No money is completely pure, but this was not a complicated case. 

"It’s 2019. Jeffrey Epstein’s tech philanthropy tour was 2013. Took 5+ years for science & tech Jeffrey Epstein $ recipients to realize it was bad to take millions from a convicted sex offender," she tweeted on August 17, triggering a spate of online harassment that continues to this day. "He wiped his reputation off with the dirty money you took. Then he raped more kids."

Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com
@ellmcgirt

On Point

Where are my St. Louis people? Join me tomorrow at 7 p.m. when I sit down with Minda Harts, author of the now best-selling book The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table. Harts has been crisscrossing the country promoting the book and, no doubt, collecting stories for her next one. In The Memo, she breaks down exactly how women of color get lost in the leadership pipeline, how typical leadership advice fails them, and what everyone, including white allies of all genders, can do about it. Our conversation is courtesy of Saint Louis treasure Left Bank Books. Ticket and venue information below. See you there! Left Bank Books

Was racial profiling behind the mass panic at Newark Airport? The airport was evacuated last week after an Alaska Airline employee hit an alarm and yelled “evacuate,” triggering a scene described as “confusion and chaos.” But according to this reporting from Buzzfeed, the two Chinese-born men at the center of the incident claim they were racially profiled. The two men, who weren’t traveling together and didn’t know each other, say a uniformed airline employee approached them out of the blue and peppered them with an odd series of questions. “Why are you acting suspiciously?” “How much are they paying you?” “Did they give you a visa?” “Do you make a lot of money?” Han Han Xue, 29, is a product designer at Lyft, and Chunyi Luo, is a 20-year-old student. Both currently live in the Bay area. Buzzfeed News

A ‘Dateline’ report on criminal justice reform gets an unusual response from President Trump It was an honest look at mass incarceration, capped by a visit to Louisiana State Prison, where host Lester Holt spent two nights locked up in maximum security. While inside, he had a series of important conversations with people involved in all aspects of the prison, including some now-elderly men who were locked up for crimes they committed as teenagers. In a there-by-the-grace-of-the-higher-power-of-your-choice moment, Holt even accompanied incarcerated men to their hard labor in the fields. The prison’s nickname is Angola, as a nod to the country of the formerly enslaved people who once worked the same patch of land. “I certainly can’t escape the optics, look around, mostly black men, working on a former slave plantation, under the watch of armed guards on horseback,” he said, while picking carrots. Bryan Stevenson offers important commentary. But all of that went by the wayside when the president tweeted out a stream of complaints that the show failed to credit him for signing legislation that reduced mandatory minimum sentences in some cases. (It did.) He also attacked artist/activist John Legend who appeared in the show, and his “filthy-mouthed” wife, Chrissy Teigen, which turned out to be a huge mistake. NBC Dateline

Walter Mosely: ‘I am the n-word in the writer’s room’ Novelist, screenwriter, and black national treasure Walter Mosely published this op-ed detailing a conversation he had with a human resources rep from the network where he was employed as a screenwriter. Someone had phoned in a complaint that he’d used the n-word in the room, a violation of their conduct. The word was used in the context of a story that happened to him; he was quoting verbatim—in character, I imagine—something said to him by a Los Angeles police officer, in a room of creative professionals whose job it is to create scenes. For those who don’t know Mosely’s work it is hard to explain just how extraordinary the complaint seems. “There I was, a black man in America who shares with millions of others the history of racism. And more often than not, treated as subhuman. If addressed at all that history had to be rendered in words my employers regarded as acceptable.” He chose to quit, and can afford to. But the reason why is particularly on point. New York Times

On Background

Praying to St. Dymphna Writer Anne Thériault has written an extraordinary piece about a martyred teenaged saint who accidentally created a humane and effective mental health system. It’s one Thériault herself would have relished, she says. “I fantasized about a system where care is ongoing and mental health isn’t treated as a binary of ‘fine’ and ‘crisis;’ where patients are considered complex individuals rather than a list of dysfunctions; where clinicians understand the difference between staying alive and actually living.” She has found it in Geel, a tiny Belgian city whose residents continue a centuries-long tradition of taking in “boarders,” people with mental illnesses who come to get treatment while living integrated into the community. But Geel’s tradition of welcoming the mentally ill into their homes has a horrific origin story in the form of a seventh century Irish princess named Dymphna, a devout Christian who fled her homeland after her father went mad. What happens next is nothing short of a miracle. Broadview

Now that ‘white fragility’ has gone mainstream… Slate’s Lauren Michele Jackson takes the pulse of the white self-awareness movement, expertly stoked by whiteness studies professor, author, and now workshop guru, Robin DiAngelo. While her seminal book White Fragility still has value, it seems that adherents are having difficulty moving past the confessional phase to actual systemic change. None of this is new or surprising, and Jackson provides a helpful analysis of the long history of “whiteness” thinking. But she also offers an important critique: The lack of black scholarship in the white awareness community is fairly typical. But in DiAngelo’s work, it’s a glaring omission. “Among all this work lies the suggestion that nonreciprocal expertise about white behavior, white history, white ethnics, and white sociality has always been mandatory for nonwhites in America,” she writes.  Simply put, for the “conversation” to evolve, the whiteness movement needs to accept the insights gathered by its first and best observers, who are black. Slate

‘Dew glistens white on grass’ today, soon it will be ‘crickets chirp around the door’ The Japanese calendar beautifully honors the moments in nature that mark the passing of time, with 72 , or microseasons, that last around five days. Although the seasons were inspired originally by the Chinese, they were re-written in 1685 by a court astronomer to, one assumes, more accurately reflect the Japanese aesthetic. It’s a lovely way to think about the world; for example, U.S. tax day falls during “first rainbows,” and my birthday is right in the middle of “peonies bloom.” Please mark your calendars. Nippon.com

 

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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Quote

“You don’t get a Nobel prize for doing what you’re told.” 

Joi Ito