Donations from Convicted Sex Offender Offend MIT–What about China? | Charles Duelfer

Donations from Convicted Sex Offender Offend MIT–What about China?

The New Yorker posted a story on 6 September 2019 that described financial links (donations) to MIT’s highly regarded Media Lab from the now infamous sex offender Jeffery Epstein. The next day the President of MIT, L. Rafael Reif wrote a letter to the MIT community that included the following: “…the acceptance of the Epstein gifts involved a mistake of judgment. We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future. Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead.” MIT went on to hire a law firm to do a thorough examination of the facts. The director of the Media Lab, Joi Ito, resigned on September 7.

On 9 September 2019, President Reif wrote again about the review saying
“Once we have the results, and once our separate internal review of our current processes on gift acceptance is complete, we will be able to understand what happened and what needs to change.”

MIT is trying to apply moral standards to their income (donations) in the case of a sex offender. This is a relatively simple problem. MIT likes to think it solves tough problems. If MIT is going to determine their hierarchy of values relative to a convicted sex offender, then what of MIT’s relationship with China?

President Reif wrote in his usual “Note from the President” in the MIT News alumni journal that the competition with China cannot be won by blocking China’s access but by making sure that we sufficiently fund our own research (presumably at MIT).

This is an old argument and there is no categorical answer. Yet it is clear to the intelligence community among others, that China has progressed through government directed efforts to steal intellectual property, suck up as much advanced knowledge as possible through open sources (student and faculty deployed overseas), etc. American schools and universities welcome Chinese students and fellows because they pay full fare–and a lot of it.

I think it would be interesting for MIT to develop a policy on acceptance of resources from China–a country that is decidedly not just a competing country in the global market place. Yes, it is good to re-consider receiving funds from a sex offender. But why not consider the issues associated with MIT’s relationship with a country that has a large number of its citizens in re-education or detention camps? The NY Times of 19 November 2019 describes internal China documents addressing the plight of millions of Uighurs. Hong Kong is another story. The growing number of bases in the South China sea is another. The continuing cyber theft and intrusions in this country is another. Competing arguments to President Reif’s position should be considered. Are MIT’s policies aiding and abetting a substantial threat to the United States? Certainly looks that way.  The implicit argument that MIT should receive more funding from the US government has a wiff of the self-serving.  It would be a valuable exercise to just determine how much aid MIT gets from China and how much China gets from MIT.

Funding sources, their morality, and the outrage from the self-identifying intellectuals of Cambridge are not new. There have always been outraged members of the MIT community who shun the receipt of funds based on their source. In the 60’s and 70’s there was great debate and protests about defense contracts and even the CIA. Are there no Uighers advocates in Cambridge? Are all the Chinese students there too concerned about the source of their tuition to say anything?

Tough problem. MIT should not ignore it.

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