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MIT Media Lab under scrutiny for ties to Jeffrey Epstein

In the latest development, two academics are leaving the Media Lab in protest.

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The MIT Media Lab building is a commanding presence on a quiet street corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jon Skillings/CNET

Two professors are leaving the MIT Media Lab in protest after it was revealed that the research center took money from disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. It's the latest development in an evolving scandal at the MIT Media Lab for its ties to Epstein, who died by suicide earlier this month while being held in jail on federal charges of sex trafficking

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, on Tuesday told the Boston Globe that he was moving his work out of the Media Lab due to its ties with Epstein. According to the Globe, Zuckerman was one of the main organizers of the Media Lab's annual Disobedience Award, which recognizes individuals and groups that challenge society's injustices. 

"The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view," Zuckerman wrote in a Medium post about his decision. "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 Wednesday, visiting professor J. Nathan Matias said he would also be leaving the Media Lab. Matias said in a Medium post that his project CivilServant, which works on protecting people from online abuse and harassment, cannot continue its work at a place with "the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It's that simple."

The Media Lab, which is known for wide-ranging research on everything from futuristic personal robots to online social experiments has been drawn into scandal over Epstein's ties to founding member Marvin Minsky and Director Joi Ito. 

In an open letter last week, Ito apologized for accepting money from Epstein on behalf of the research center and his personal tech startup funds. Ito also acknowledged that he had invited Epstein to the Media Lab and had visited the financier's residences. Ito said he met Epstein in 2013, several years after Epstein pleaded guilty to "soliciting and procuring" a minor for prostitution.

In a deposition unsealed earlier this month, a woman testified that she was told to have sex with MIT professor Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and founder of the Media Lab, when he visited Epstein's island in the US Virgin Islands. Minsky died in 2016.

Zuckerman declined to comment further. The MIT Media Lab, Ito and Matias didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Originally published Aug. 21. 1:22 p.m. PT.
Update, 1:49 p.m.: Adds that visiting professor J. Nathan Matias is also leaving the Media Lab.