Joichi Ito gave himself some advice in 2008: “Reminder to self,” he wrote on Twitter. “Don’t invest with or take money from assholes.”
Then, over the next decade, he accepted about $1.7 million from Jeffrey Epstein.
That money from Mr. Epstein, the disgraced financier who killed himself in jail last month while facing federal sex-trafficking charges, was split between Mr. Ito’s own investment funds and the prestigious center he leads at M.I.T., the Media Lab. His apology last month prompted two academics to announce plans to leave and led to calls for Mr. Ito to step down from the lab, an institution that is proudly indifferent to scholarly credentials and seeks a future marrying technology and social conscience.
On Wednesday, at a meeting billed in an email as the start of “a process of dialogue and recovery” that two attendees said had begun with a group breathing exercise, the rift was unexpectedly pulled open just as it appeared to be closing.
Roughly 200 people gathered to address the lingering anger at Mr. Ito — a tech evangelist whose networking skills landed him in the White House to discuss artificial intelligence with President Barack Obama and prompted the psychedelic proselytizer Timothy Leary to call him his godson. Mr. Ito, who has helped the lab raise at least $50 million, revealed that he had taken $525,000 from Mr. Epstein for the lab and $1.2 million for his own investment funds.
“The division I’ve caused among the students created a tremendous amount of damage,” Mr. Ito said, according to the two attendees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting.
But before the session could end, the divide got deeper.
Nicholas Negroponte, a prominent architect who helped found the lab in 1985, told the crowd that he had met Mr. Epstein at least once since Mr. Epstein’s 2008 guilty plea in Florida for soliciting a minor for prostitution, and had advised Mr. Ito about the donations.
“I told Joi to take the money,” he said, “and I would do it again.”
The words stunned the crowd, just before the meeting adjourned. Mr. Ito saw the comments as so damaging to his conciliatory efforts that he fired off a message to Mr. Negroponte just after midnight. “After I spent 1.5 hours apologizing and asking permission to make amends, you completely undermined me,” Mr. Ito wrote in the email, which was reviewed by The New York Times.
Mr. Ito did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Negroponte said in an email to The Times after the meeting that he would give that advice knowing only what he knew at the time, without the benefit of hindsight.
Mr. Ito said during the meeting that he had visited Mr. Epstein’s Caribbean island twice to raise money, which he has pledged to return or donate to causes that support sex-trafficking victims. He also acknowledged that he had “screwed up” by accepting the money, but that he had done so after a review by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and consultation with advisers.
The university has begun an inquiry into the donations. Its provost, Martin A. Schmidt, has couched the review as an attempt to “identify lessons for the future” rather than “an investigation of any particular individual.”
Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the Media Lab, in 2015. He told the crowd at the meeting on Wednesday that he had advised the lab’s director, Joichi Ito, to accept Mr. Epstein’s offer of money.CreditPier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
Other organizations have also stood behind Mr. Ito. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where he has been on the board since 2011, said in a statement that it believed his apology “is sincere.” The MacArthur Foundation said Mr. Ito “has addressed his associations in a manner that warrants no action by the foundation at this time.” The New York Times Company, where Mr. Ito has been a board member since 2012, declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Ito is far from the only notable figure whose relationships with Mr. Epstein has drawn scrutiny and caused soul-searching. The financier’s ties to people like President Trump, former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew and a number of well-known scientists have led to pointed questions. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned after an outcry over his role in Mr. Epstein’s 2008 plea deal.
Mr. Ito has been a popular figure at the lab since taking over in 2011, pulling it out of a postrecession lull while dazzling students and well-heeled donors alike. He has continued to receive broad support even after disclosing the donations; more than 200 signed a petition urging him to stay on.
Lab members who defend him said academia had a long history of accepting funding from dubious characters. And Mr. Negroponte told The Times that he had sought donations from disgraced figures, including Alberto Vilar, a major donor to the Metropolitan Opera who served time in jail for financial crimes.
The lab “attracted edgy people,” Mr. Negroponte said. “Some were scoundrels.”
The lab’s contrarian ethos runs deep — Mr. Negroponte called it “literally a place for misfits” — where Mr. Ito’s unorthodox background was celebrated.
Mr. Ito dropped out of Tufts University and the University of Chicago, ran a Tokyo nightclub called XY Relax and led a series of internet companies — as well as a guild in World of Warcraft, the online role-playing game. He had an eye for good ideas, investing early on in Twitter, Kickstarter and Flickr, but it was his mastery of cultivating relationships that was especially valuable to the lab.
Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn, once said Mr. Ito “makes well-networked professionals look like hermits.” His mentors include Lawrence Lessig, the influential law professor and founder of Creative Commons, the nonprofit advocate for public intellectual property rights, where Mr. Ito was once chief executive. His online photo albums include pictures of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the astronaut Leland Melvin and the filmmaker J. J. Abrams, a “director’s fellow” at the lab. And when Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, toured the United States last year — before the death of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — he attended a reception at the Media Lab.
It was perhaps inevitable that Mr. Ito would meet Mr. Epstein, another prolific networker. Both men attended the 1999 Billionaires’ Dinner, an annual event put on by the literary agent John Brockman, and belonged to the invitation-only Trilateral Commission in 2003.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Ito said he had met Mr. Epstein in a hotel lobby during a conference in 2013, five years after Mr. Epstein’s plea in Florida. Mr. Epstein long cultivated relationships with celebrity scientists, many of whom Mr. Ito also knew, and eagerly associated himself with the Media Lab. In 2014, he issued news releases about donations to restore Mark Rothko murals on the campus and teach coding to 5-year-olds. (The Media Lab later called those statements inaccurate.)
The lab served as an avenue for Mr. Epstein to seek connections to the wider tech world.
Elizabeth Stark, the chief executive of the cryptocurrency start-up Lightning Labs, was not affiliated with the lab but knew Mr. Ito and several others there. When she was raising money for her company in 2015, someone at the lab contacted her and offered to invest Mr. Epstein’s money. Ms. Stark found a news article about Mr. Epstein’s history and turned it down.
“In five minutes I was able to Google and make a determination that seemed like such a no-brainer,” she said.
Critics who called for Mr. Ito’s resignation cited his decision to ignore warnings about Mr. Epstein.
Ethan Zuckerman, a longtime friend of Mr. Ito’s who said he would leave the lab over Mr. Epstein’s donations, wrote in an online post that he had rejected an invitation from Mr. Ito to meet Mr. Epstein in 2014, and had urged Mr. Ito to do the same. Sarah Szalavitz, a social designer and external fellow at the lab, said in an interview that she had told Mr. Ito in December 2013 that the lab should stop collaborating with Mr. Epstein, and had given him a memo outlining her concerns.
Mr. Ito did distance himself from Mr. Epstein eventually, after a damning article in The Miami Herald last year about Mr. Epstein’s 2008 plea deal. Mr. Ito told the gathering that Mr. Epstein had sent a $25,000 check to the lab, which he had promptly returned.
Rosalind Picard, who runs a research group at the lab, said Mr. Ito — who once gave a fellowship to a convicted murderer turned community activist — had believed Mr. Epstein’s claims of being reformed.
“Joi recognizes that not everybody takes the straight and narrow path, and that sometimes people need the chance to redeem themselves,” she said. “He didn’t know Epstein was the monster we now know he was.”
Mr. Epstein’s contributions have already disrupted the lab’s work. It will not hand out this year’s Disobedience Award — a $250,000 prize that has recognized #MeToo activists and others “challenging the norms, rules or laws that sustain society’s injustices” — as Mr. Ito focuses on “healing the Media Lab community,” according to an email he sent that was reviewed by The Times.
One person who was on the award committee, the writer and former Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, told his fellow members in an email he would not participate in 2020 unless the lab was purged of people tied to Mr. Epstein.
“A plutocratic predator was welcomed into a citadel of American thinking and doing, and this welcome was personally exploited beyond the original relationship,” he wrote.
For many associates of the lab, the situation remains complicated. Mr. Zuckerman, who pledged to leave next year, expressed support on Twitter for those who had spoken up, “including those who think Joi’s apology was sufficient and we should move on.”
Mr. Negroponte’s comments could make that more challenging than it might otherwise have been. On Thursday, three prominent professors who had organized the meeting to buttress support for Mr. Ito sent a message to the lab disavowing Mr. Negroponte’s comments.
“While we appreciate what he has done for the lab in the past, he no longer speaks for us,” they wrote in the email, which was reviewed by The Times. “And through his behavior he has demonstrated that he has no part in building the future we want.”
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