Opinion staff column

What’s wrong with accepting dirty money?

Cashing checks is not inherently wrong, but condoning donors’ evil acts is

One afternoon, while my lab was discussing MIT's Epstein scandal, a labmate admitted that he didn't see anything wrong with taking money from Epstein, and I see his point. If Epstein had to give away part of his wealth to the MIT Media Lab as a stipulation of his conviction in 2008, MIT cashing the check would not be immoral. But that's not what happened.

In 2008, Epstein was convicted, but he kept his wealth and evaded prison because of his esteemed connections. If in 2013 he had just sent a check to MIT for $800,000 without any other communication with MIT, and MIT cashed it, I would also think MIT had done nothing wrong. But again, that's not what happened.

As MIT accepted money from Epstein and his friends, we enhanced his friend circle and gave him an exclusive visit to our campus. We perpetuated Epstein's social safety net that helped him evade justice in 2008. And even worse, by our actions, we showed other billionaires that if they do untold damage to our community and the world, a donation to us will boost their social stature.

But these modern day indulgences are not limited to Epstein. Let's look at David Koch. Last month, the chair of the MIT Corporation called him a ‘model philanthropist,’ ignoring that he actively spread fake news about climate change and that he gave a smaller fraction of his wealth than the percent given by the average household living in poverty in the US. As the number of deaths from heat stroke creeps up with global warming, three buildings on campus honor the person who allowed these people to die. It was not taking money from Koch that was wrong. We are guilty for representing him as someone worthy of following, giving moral support to his climate science disinformation campaigns.

Corporate sponsors are not exempt from MIT’s preferential treatment either. The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) prominently displays the energy company BP as a founding member, showing news stories where BP works with MIT to suggest aggressive policy actions in combating climate change. Nowhere does MIT publicize that BP America contributed $12.8 million, more than any other organization, to stop the 2018 state ballot measure creating a fee on greenhouse gas emissions in Washington. BP paid MIT, and MIT produced deceptive publicity.

Numerous examples show that with the acceptance of money, MIT uses its name to help donors avoid public criticism by publishing on favorable topics and by giving them the social capital necessary to avoid justice. To change this, we need to align our practices with our values. 

MIT’s development office should balance pressuring donors to give more and convincing them to act with integrity. MIT News and departmental publications should release stories representing both sides of institute sponsors. MIT should be transparent about donation sources and regularly review how MIT publicizes large donors to make sure we are not biased. To make these changes, we need to convince the business-focused corporation members that achieving our mission is not measured with our revenue, endowment, or rankings. It comes from ensuring that all of our actions work to lift up humanity.

Some self-reflection can go a long way in seeing if we are meeting our goals. Has MIT contributed positively to curbing human trafficking? Has MIT moved our society toward taking action on climate change? Due to our history of supporting powerful patrons and letting them perpetuate their egregious acts, I don’t think we can clearly say yes to either question. If MIT props up groups that actively work against us, our own donors will continue to thwart our dream of a better world. It’s not accepting dirty money that’s bad; it’s that we change our behavior when we cash the check.