Are Elite Ivy Institutions Life Sustaining?

Recent events at MIT and Penn may make us question how life supporting they are.

Posted Sep 14, 2019

Developments at Media Lab, the super-elite center at the super-elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as in the counseling department of the University of Pennsylvania, may  cause us to question how well those at the top of our social ladder are managing their — and our — lives.

The Media Lab’s Director, Joi Ito, was forced to resign when the extent of his and the Lab’s financial relationship with convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein were revealed in a New Yorker article by Ronan Farrow. Further revelations showed that awareness of Epstein’s gifts — along with efforts to keep them secret — extended to the top of the MIT hierarchy.

The key source for these revelations was Ito’s assistant, Signe Swenson, whose protests were ignored (along with other women’s) and who was forced to resign and to become a whistleblower before she could make her objections heard. MIT and the Lab did not seem concerned with the feelings of this sub rosa group of women.

The program is a major ongoing operation, to wit:

The Media Lab admits graduate students (currently 189), hires faculty, and awards a degree (Media Arts and Sciences). It has 30 faculty and senior researchers, and more than 175 postdoctoral and staff researchers, visiting scientists, and lecturers.

It requires much feeding, provided by major corporate donors (in addition to Epstein). Ito — who was also on the boards of the New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation (from which he also resigned) — is a power player and world class networker who was able to bring in the millions of dollars necessary for the care and feeding of such a massive, prestigious operation.

But what was all of this being done in the service of: knowledge, students, non-academic staff, university countenance, universal rights of the underprivileged (which the Lab proudly and loudly proclaimed)? Or was it to feed high-level faculty prestige, corporate interests, MIT’s status on the world scene, or simply the desire of some high flyers to attend billionaire dinners (with which the Lab was associated) and to live the high life (Ito traveled to Epstein’s private island for tropical revels)?

A tragedy of a different kind occurred at MIT’s sister elite institution, the University of Pennsylvania. Penn recently hired a well-known mental health figure to head its University counseling staff. Just before meeting with student peer counselors, he leaped to his death from his downtown apartment.

We can’t know what motivated him to commit suicide. We can imagine the impact on Penn’s morale — like that of Media Lab’s recent history is having for the Lab and MIT as a whole. 

How will these organizations proceed?

And are they really meant to be models for American society?