In recent weeks, condemnations of MIT’s Media Lab — a place usually lavished with praise — kept rolling in. The lab’s director, Joi Ito, was criticized for taking billionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s money years after Epstein’s conviction as a sex offender. MIT insiders claimed the lab knew of Epstein’s record (how could it not?) and deliberately covered up his donations. Attacks on the lab heightened after the New Yorker published emails confirming this charge, and Ito quickly resigned.
Epstein’s case opened a door for critiques of the Media Lab and elite universities more broadly. Many critics were indignant: how could a revered place of learning like MIT take money from a sex trafficker like Epstein? Ethan Zuckerman, a faculty member at the lab, resigned in protest, saying he can’t pursue work on “social justice” when his employer takes Epstein’s money. Others delivered dramatized disavowals of the lab, using the occasion to draw press attention to themselves. Once the New Yorker piece came out, several of Ito’s prominent allies who had initially signed a petition in his support called for him to step down.
When it became clear that the Media Lab was following procedures approved by MIT’s president, more condemnations flowed from within. A petition written by faculty expressed “great and heartfelt dismay” that the university was involved with Epstein. According to these faculty, this alliance represents “a void where basic values should prevail” and signals “a cultural crisis that the administration must work to repair.” One faculty member, quoted in the Boston Globe, was likewise appalled by MIT’s “drastic step of accepting money from a disqualified donor.”
Epstein used his relationship with prestigious institutes and scientists not only to launder a horrific sex trafficking operation, but also to find a sounding board for the eugenic visions that accompanied his behavior. Yet, it does not minimize Epstein’s crimes to recognize that MIT has a long history of normalizing evil. The outrage at Epstein’s ties merely shows which crimes, and which affiliations, matter to liberal critics. Those critics, with their selective indignation, reinforce the university’s self-styled progressive image — an image that is in turn sold to criminals and murderers.
In spring 2018, MIT and Harvard hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) on a secretive visit that served to extend partnerships with his government. At the time, MBS was presiding over a devastating U.S.-backed war on Yemen, which continues to the present. Tens of thousands of Yemenis have been killed, while millions are facing famine and deadly disease as a result of the war. According to U.N. estimates, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes every ten minutes in Yemen, and war has led to a rise in violence against women and children, including rape and child marriage. In Saudi Arabia, MBS’s government has jailed women fighting for human rights, subjecting some to torture and sexual violence. The government has even tried to coerce some jailed activists, like Loujain al-Hathloul, to retract their abuse allegations as a condition for release (she has resisted).
MBS’s campus appearance is emblematic of universities’ long-standing servitude to the American empire and the rich. MIT’s celebration of its new Schwarzman “College of Computing,” only months after MBS’s visit, is a case in point. Like every well-supported initiative at MIT or Harvard, this one was based on secretly negotiated partnerships with private corporations, donors, and the Pentagon. The college, ostensibly devoted to “ethical” computing, is named after Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman. Blackstone, the largest private equity firm in the world, is notorious for displacing tenants worldwide through its management of uninhabitable rental units, its ruthless evictions policy, and fighting against rent control. Blackstone also plays a role in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, damaging not only indigenous communities and sovereignty, but the earth as a whole. It is fitting, then, that MIT chose Henry Kissinger — architect of bloody coups and promoter of racist regimes — to speak at Schwarzman’s celebration.
Yet, many who are now inflamed about Epstein remained silent, then as now, about MBS, Schwarzman, and MIT’s war profiteering. This silence is not for lack of information, nor a lack of potential allies. Residents in Cambridge, Massachusetts protested MBS’s visit to the city (months before the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi) as well as the Schwarzman celebration. The city of Cambridge even passed a resolution condemning MBS and the way universities handled his visit. The silence on these issues, from many appalled by Epstein, is explained by a white supremacist logic that doesn’t see the university’s routine operation — which is complicit with the misery of the poor and non-white in the name of American empire — as sufficient cause for outrage.
But to be enraged about ties to Epstein, once brave victims and journalists made the issue unignorable, is cheap. Resisting academia’s investment in war is not. Elite universities expecting to produce the next generation of weapons engineers or foreign policy elites won’t easily deviate from the agenda of the state and allied corporations; especially as whole academic departments are funded by companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, major profiteers of arms sales to the Saudi-led war coalition. Once the U.S. government reaffirmed the Saudi alliance, MIT fell in line, concluding that nothing really needs changing.
Instead, the university establishment remained focused on cultivating its own progressive image. Seven months after MBS’s visit (merely weeks after Khashoggi’s murder), in November 2018, the Media Lab held its second annual “Disobedience Award” ceremony, funded by Silicon Valley mogul Reid Hoffman. The same people who hosted MBS were now presiding over a celebration of “dissent.”
Unfortunately, many embraced this seizure of activism by venture capital by going along with the charade. Here too, the problem was not lack of knowledge. Just as MBS’s agenda was known before Khashoggi’s murder, so were the Media Lab’s tactics clear before Epstein. Receiving a mark of “disobedience” from venture capitalists, in a setting resembling the “Billionaires’ Dinners” that Epstein regularly attended, is no feat of social justice. It is a transaction that elevates powerful donors who co-opt the language of social movements. That the words “The Patriarchy Isn’t Going to Smash Itself” were projected on a big screen during the ceremony is only a contradiction in theory. In practice, the neoliberal ethos absorbs nearly anything.
The truth is that monstrous alliances, served with a progressive veneer, are foundational to how universities operate. This is why, as historian Robin DG Kelley argued, it is misguided to criticize universities in the hopes that they’ll become liberatory “engines of social transformation.” When the establishment at places like MIT or Harvard starts dropping activist lingo — as Joi Ito did in his mea culpa, invoking “restorative justice” — it is best to head for the exit.
Nonetheless, universities do have exceptional pockets, always precarious and under threat, and repeated campus protests show that the administration’s agenda doesn’t reflect that of the broader community. The long struggle is to make room for alternative visions and practices, in and out of campus, without becoming agents of the university’s false progressive image.
Yarden Katz PhD ’14 is a departmental fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School and former fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Grif Peterson is an alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.