If you’ve missed the breaking Jeffrey Epstein-MIT Media Lab-Joi Ito drama, you can catch up quickly: Joi Ito apologies for taking Epstein money, an all-hands lab meeting gets messy, Ronan Farrow reveals more details, and Joi Ito resigns.
Now, Larry Lessig argues “..because [Epstein’s gifts were] anonymous, the gift wasn’t used to burnish Epstein’s reputation.” And, therefore, it was OK to take his money.
This is the crux of Lessig’s naïvety.
When a well-respected institution like MIT affiliates with someone, even anonymously, they give that person meaningful “walking around stories”, like “I just funded ___ at MIT” or “When I was at MIT the other day…”
Worse, there’s always ongoing quid pro quo: “Let me introduce you to _____” or “I’ll ask my MIT friend for a favor – s/he owes me” This is especially true when the prospect of future donations is dangled.
Then, the reputation launderer parlays their MIT relationship into something more elsewhere, so the next donee is thinking, “well, if MIT is OK taking his money, then…” As the group grows, fewer and fewer questions get asked. Even the worst reputation can be whitewashed…it just takes money.
MIT got played, that’s clear. If Lessig and MIT couldn’t see it at the time, that’s one thing. But if they still can’t see it, that’s a whole other bag of burritos.