Two Donors, Two Deaths, Two Responses
As we write, the story of the MIT Media Lab’s connection to Jeffrey Epstein is front page news. Not long after Epstein’s death, it transpired that our Media Lab had accepted substantial donations from or engineered by Epstein even though Epstein’s record of sex trafficking of minors, particularly underage women, was by then established in a court of law, so much so that he was marked as “disqualified” in MIT’s donor database. As the revelations mounted, Joichi Ito resigned as director of the Media Lab and as an employee of MIT, and several faculty and staff resigned in protest. On behalf of MIT, Rafael Reif issued an eloquent mea culpa, promised to donate the equivalent of what MIT had accepted from Epstein to charitable causes, and (on the day of Ito’s resignation) announced that MIT had hired a legal team to do a thorough investigation of the affair. MIT is taking this issue very seriously, as it should.
While all this was happening, another major MIT donor, David Koch, alumnus and lifetime member of the MIT Corporation, passed away of natural causes. Unlike Epstein, Koch was not involved, so far as we are aware, in any crime or major personal scandal and had given generously to MIT in support of unequivocally good causes, such as cancer research and the MIT childcare center; indeed, our cancer research center is named for him and we all take pride in its mission and accomplishments.
Yet, without diminishing the gravity of Epstein’s despicable acts, it is important to recognize that David Koch damaged global human welfare on a massive scale and for many generations to come.
With his brother Charles, he funded an extensive and highly effective disinformation campaign designed to protect the Koch industries’ core business. This endeavor has set back, perhaps catastrophically, any serious attempt to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
The existence of this campaign is well documented (see, for instance, this article in the New York Times) and involves, among other things, a concerted effort to misinform the public about climate science and to smear the reputations of dedicated climate scientists throughout the world. The campaign has been highly successful, judging from the rapid collapse (dating back at least to the administration of George W. Bush) of bipartisan support for measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions. As we watch the terrible consequences of climate change unfold, from the rapid demise of glaciers to mass migrations to wildfires and more intense rainstorms and hurricanes, one name remains foremost in our minds: Koch.
MIT’s response to David Koch’s passing could not have been more different from its continuing response to the Epstein revelations. In a glowing obituary published by MIT News, there is not one single mention of Koch’s organized campaign of disinformation or its devastating consequences.
Such an omission is not only an affront to members of the MIT community who care deeply about climate and the environment but also carries reputational risk beyond campus, especially when a major donor is also a lifetime member of MIT’s governing board. Indeed, in a strong critique of MIT’s obituary, the Los Angeles Times called it, accurately enough, a whitewash.
In this case our concern is not the philanthropy itself. In fact, the undersigned think that MIT was right to accept Koch’s donation for cancer research and a childcare center though we must carefully examine the reputational benefits derived from donors in making such gifts. The money has been used for excellent purposes, and as a bonus it thereby became unavailable for disinformation efforts. But it was wrong to whitewash Koch’s legacy in the obituary and ignore his central role in accelerating climate change – for integrity and credibility’s sake we should acknowledge the ethical price we paid in accepting his money and forever being linked to his legacy.
These recent events bring to the fore the difficult and delicate question of the ethics of accepting certain donations to our mission, especially now when so much of what we do depends on such donations. On the one hand, we cannot and should not hire investigators to pry deeply into the personal lives of everyone who donates to MIT. On the other hand, we cannot accept donations from known criminals. In between these two straightforward extremes lies a gray area that we also have to deal with on a regular basis. At the moment, there seem to be few ground rules in play with decisions about whether to accept donations made behind closed doors on what appears to be an ad hoc, case-by-case basis with no meaningful input from the community. Yet every employee of MIT is a beneficiary of donations and by turning a blind eye to the source of donations we may be unwitting accomplices to the Epsteins and Kochs of this world. Shouldn’t we at least have a serious discussion about the framework in which MIT solicits and accepts donations?
The world is watching us, and so are our students. One group of students, Fossil Free MIT, is organizing a campaign to rid the campus of the Koch name altogether and called out MIT’s hypocrisy in its relative treatment of the Epstein scandal and the Koch obituary.
Whether or not one agrees with these students’ tactics, we must be concerned with the impression made on our students in condemning one donor for personal crimes and entirely overlooking the destructive transgressions of another, especially when the latter involves disinformation and attacks on science . . . the very antithesis of MIT’s mission as an educational institution.
So, what should we do? MIT cannot and should not involve the community in every decision about every potential donation. But we can and should have a serious formal discussion about the ethics of accepting donations (and while we are at it, the ethics of investing) with the aim of providing at least some guidelines. The issue is complex and not amenable to simple decision trees, and it may all boil down to an uncomfortable calculus of the ethical costs and benefits of donations and investments.
We owe it to ourselves as faculty and to our students to undertake this difficult conversation, which could also set an example for other institutions with educational and charitable missions. Rafael Reif shared in a recent email that the senior administration is “assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values.” We welcome and support this action but urge the administration to go one step further and include the creation of a forum in which the whole community can engage in this conversation.
Editor's Note: The above also appeared in the September 19, 2019 The Tech.