The now-former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab went from hero to zero in a couple of news cycles. Once heralded for overseeing projects that use technology for social good, Joichi Ito resigned after revelations that he had tried to hide the source of donations from sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.
It was the cover-up that ultimately did him in. Before that, there was some back and forth on the morality of taking good money from bad people — a subject on which hypocrisy often takes center stage. Few of the fortunes that shower colleges, medical facilities and the arts with millions were made in a totally squeaky-clean fashion. Hedge funders, for example, collect billions pillaging American companies, destroying thousands of jobs.
If some corporate creep offers $100 million to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, should a medical research center take the money? In almost all cases, yes.
When Ito sought Epstein’s contributions, all that was widely known of the financier’s dark past was his having pled guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution. Going to a prostitute, as the young woman was then labeled, did not seem a heinous crime. Epstein said he was chastened and had taken steps to ensure that would not happen again.
Until recently, few knew of Epstein’s alleged subsequent abuse of underage girls on an industrial scale. That would presumably include Ito.
“I told Joi to take the money,” Nicholas Negroponte, a famous architect and one of the lab’s founders, said. Based on what was known at the time, he added, “I would do it again.”
Harvard University, by the way, had accepted $6.5 million from Epstein and rightly says it has no intention of giving it back. If it did, the money wouldn’t disappear. It would go somewhere else, perhaps a less-worthy destination. Also relevant is that Epstein’s fortune came out of his financial wheeling and dealing and not his alleged sex trafficking of minors.
Which brings us to another controversial source of charity: the Koch brothers. Koch Industries’ immense wealth originated in the fossil fuels business. There’s nothing inherently evil about oil money or even coal money. Early in the last century, coal powered the country. It is on its way out, being rapidly replaced by cleaner natural gas and very clean renewable energy.
The scientific consensus says global warming is a threat to our civilization and fossil fuel use is much the cause. But in their lust to amass still more wealth, the Koch brothers funded a massive disinformation campaign to deny the existence of human-caused climate change. The Kochs are also unapologetic polluters of the American heartland.
Theirs is bad money from bad people. Upon David Koch’s recent death, much has been written about the $1.3 billion the billionaire gave to good causes. Do I begrudge New York’s Metropolitan Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Center and Hospital for Special Surgery for cashing Koch’s checks? I do not.
But this sum doesn’t come near compensating for the harm he and his brothers have done to our natural world. Nor does pasting his name on revered institutions clean his reputation, at least not in the history books.
Take his money, sure, but institutions should exert more judgment on naming rights. The David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum is one thing. The David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the Museum of Natural History is quite another. There’s something unseemly about naming an exhibition dedicated to science after an enemy of scientific scholarship.
I don’t anticipate there will be any “Jeffery Epstein School of” anything in the conceivable future. But if good institutions can use his money to advance good missions, go ahead.