Ethan Zuckerman ’93 steps down from MIT Media Lab over Epstein concerns

David Shakirov

Ethan Zuckerman ’93, a prominent internet media scholar and entrepreneur, announced Aug. 20 that he is resigning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, stating that the lab contradicted its own values in working with Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier and the leader of a pedophilia ring who recently committed suicide while awaiting trial.

In May 2020, Zuckerman will leave his post as director of the MIT’s Center for Civic Media. “My logic was simple: The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view,” he wrote in the blog post announcing his resignation. “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.”

On Aug. 15, Joi Ito, then-head of the MIT Media Lab, issued an apology for accepting of over $500,000 in donations to the lab and $1.2 million to his personal venture fund since 2013 from Epstein. In his apology, Ito promised to donate equivalent sums to groups that advocate for sexual assault survivors and to return all donations and investments.  

Zuckerman’s department is one of 26 different subsidiaries within the lab. Zuckerman told the Record he learned of the Epstein connection roughly a week before Ito’s public apology and “was quite worried it would turn into a major issue for Joi [Ito] and the lab.” 

Zuckerman – who helped organize the lab’s annual  disobedience award, which last year recognized #MeToo activists – expressed concern that Ito was “underestimating the public reaction to Epstein.” Ito resigned on Sept. 7. 

Epstein donated close to $800,000 to MIT alone and $525,000 to the lab, although the conditions of these donations included portraying Epstein’s involvement as anonymous. Soon after, however, this line began to blur. Epstein met with Joi Ito in 2015, The New Yorker reported, after the two tried to override Epstein’s “disqualified” status in the donor and development office at MIT. Ito admits he “invited [Epstein] to the lab and visited several of his residences.” Zuckerman claims these gifts “were not anonymous” as intended and that they “[bought Epstein] contact with the thinkers he craved.”  

Zuckerman expressed hope that the lab be “open and honest with their colleagues about their decisions.” He went on to characterize the lab as a place where faculty have significantly more control over research decisions than students or staff, and hopes the lab leadership can use this moment as an opportunity to correct the inequity.  

Going forward, Zuckerman seeks other institutions where he can “teach PhD students [with a] Williams BA.” 

Overall, he characterizes the Media Lab controversy as a lesson to major institutions and individuals alike about being effective against injustices in the workplace. Zuckerman says it starts out small — first by calling out the predator in “the corner office,” or refusing a six figure donation from one “to launder [their own] reputation.”