Opinion guest column

Joi is gone, but billionaire culture remains

We have let our universities become altars to mega-wealthy donors and this cannot continue

Media Lab Director Joi Ito resigned this weekend after his ties to child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein became clear. I would also like to see Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, and all of Epstein’s other fellow billionaires consider, even for a second, resigning from the 1 percent.

The controversy at MIT over funding received from various morally bankrupt elites reflects a larger reckoning happening at universities, museums, and other institutions over billionaire philanthropy. This time last year, MIT along with Harvard and 60 other universities were reassessing their financial relationship with the Saudis following the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. MIT has also taken donations from the Sacklers, who are now known to have orchestrated an opioid epidemic that has killed over 400,000 and whose donations are being reconsidered at museums and universities across the world. The name “Koch” also continues to loom large over the campus, despite the role David and Charles Koch played in dismantling our country’s social safety net. I walk past these names and others everyday on campus, and they make me ashamed to be a student here.

The fallout from the Epstein funding should push us to consider what needs to change not only at MIT, but in regards to wealth in America. While he was alive, Epstein was surrounded by and protected by a billionaire culture that perpetuates the myth that some people, specifically a select group of white men, deserve vastly more than others. (Bill Gates gave to the Media Lab as part of Epstein’s network of funders. Reid Hoffman, who funded the Media Lab’s Disobedience Awards, held dinners where Epstein socialized with the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.)

As long as billionaires exist, museums and universities and research centers will continue bending over backwards to cater to the whims of the mega-wealthy. And the super-rich, with their plethora of eccentric tendencies and moral failings, will continue to act as gatekeepers for our society’s cultural and scientific production.

But billionaires don't deserve to have the final say on arts and science funding in the first place. They don’t deserve to be the people after whom libraries, art wings, or cancer research centers are named. Big donors are a tiny subset of the population — and terrifyingly skewed in terms of race, gender, and age — and it does our research no favors to be beholden to a funding structure that requires catering to their impulses. 

In fact, most billionaires don’t deserve their status at all, considering how the livelihoods of the 1 percent have been built on the backs of slavery, oppression, and tax evasion. Even the billionaires who aren’t convicted criminals are guilty of the crime of being too rich in a country where around 40 million people live in poverty. We have become too used to seeing billionaire names plastered in large font across our hospitals, our theaters, our parks. The next time we walk past them, let us remember the staggering injustices these big names represent. 

Students and faculty here have told me that billionaire funding “is what makes art and research possible.” They forget that it is not billionaires but scientists, artists, and students who make art and research “possible.” The debate over where we get our money should not be framed as simply a choice between “taking it” or “leaving it” — between bad money or no money at all — because all billionaire money is bad money. In the long term, failing to address the toxic nature of billionaire philanthropy is what will render the work universities do in advancing knowledge “impossible” because of the unsustainable moral hypocrisies it poses.

We must imagine other possibilities. By addressing wealth inequality in society, a multitude of other funding options for cultural and scientific work might become possible. Robust public funding programs could be put in place with money taxed away from billionaires. Public funding might actually be able to reach more underserved communities who may be less likely to be able to tap into billionaire networks. In a more equitable society, institutions would also naturally become less reliant on the philanthropic whims of “super-donors.”

Institutions all over the country have become too dependent on courting rich donors to stay afloat. To change this, we should not only take action within MIT but consider what we can do for this problem at large. Joi’s resignation will not rid MIT or the Media Lab of the many other unsavory funding sources which tie us to labor exploitation, racism and misogyny. If we only implement internal changes, we risk sheltering ourselves in an ivory tower from the larger issues.

The university must not only assess their own funding policies, but consider what else MIT is doing, as a leading research institution, to tackle the problem of wealth disparity in the world.  For individual students and faculty, there are many policy proposals and programs already out there for reducing inequality, and you can educate yourselves about them, and you can talk to your peers about them, and you can march in the streets for them. 

Cynthia Hua is a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab’s Poetic Justice Group.