When it comes to money, how tainted is too tainted?
After the MIT Media Lab came under fire for accepting funding from alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, its co-founder, Nicholas Negroponte, outraged a lot of people by asking the awkward question on a lot of other people’s minds: why, exactly, was Epstein’s money beyond the pale? “Epstein is an extreme case,” he told the Boston Globe. “But then do you take Koch money? Do you take Huawei money? And on and on?”
Negroponte was right. Around the corner from the Media Lab stands a cancer research institute funded by the Koch brothers, who poured their money into climate-change denial. In February, MIT refused to cut its funding ties with Saudi Arabia after the country’s leaders allegedly ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2016, four months of student protest failed to convince the university to divest money from fossil-fuel companies.
In the absence of clear guidelines, fundraisers’ chief ethical criterion appears to be to just avoid scandal. And one might well ask, as Negroponte did, why funding for serious research should be hostage to what’s scandalous at any given moment.
But just because there haven’t been clear ethical guidelines up to now doesn’t mean there never will be. Funding is increasingly coming under scrutiny. Most prominently, world-famous museums like the Guggenheim and the Louvre have begun to turn down money from the Sacklers, the family whose company manufactured OxyContin, the painkiller blamed for worsening the US’s opioid crisis.
So let’s say that a university like MIT—or Harvard, or any of the other numerous institutions and scientists whom Epstein graced with his largesse—let’s say such a place wanted to institute a clear ethical policy, henceforth and forever more, on what kinds of money it was and was not okay to take. What might that policy look like?
It’s won’t be easy to figure out. And it’s not just because people will debate endlessly who is worse—Jeffrey Epstein or the Saudi royal family?—but because it raises thorny questions about what morality even means when it’s applied to money.
Create transparency It’s not that there are no rules at all, says Robert Reich, a Stanford political theorist and author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. “All non-profits are already making decisions [about funding ethics] in the background.”
But these decisions—which Reich calls “gut checks”—are usually neither systematic nor transparent. The Boston Globe contacted 20 top colleges and universities to ask how they vetted donors, and only one responded. We asked MIT about a list of “disqualified” donors it reportedly maintained and got no answer. (We eventually learned from Media Lab whistleblower Signe Swenson that most of the people on it were “disqualified” only in the sense that they weren’t considered likely to donate.)