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Letter courtesy of Signe Swenson / Whistleblower Aid

In late September 2014, Jeffrey Epstein typed a one-line email to former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito saying that Bill Gates wanted "a write up on our one science program."

Less than a month later, Gates informed Ito that he would be making a $2 million donation to the Media Lab. The gift was registered Oct. 17 and was followed up with an official letter from Gates' personal office on Nov. 7. The money arrived even though, as MIT money-raiser Peter Cohen put it, "we did not solicit this money and Joi did not talk with Bill Gates."

Gates asked that his donation remain anonymous, and placed no restrictions on its use. There wasn't even a gift agreement, which almost always happens when a multimillion-dollar gift arrives.

  • The money came from bgC3 (now Gates Ventures), and not from the Gates Foundation, which gave away more than $4 billion in grants in 2014. The foundation spent more than $280 million that year alone on the wages and benefits of professionals dedicated to giving away money in the most effective way possible. But the only money the Foundation ever recommended go to the Media Lab was a single restricted grant to the Center for Civic Media, which is a collaborative enterprise with MIT's Comparative Media Studies department.
  • As far as MIT was concerned, the Gates grant was Epstein money, and Epstein would help determine where and how it was spent, according to MIT sources.
  • But, a Gates spokesperson told the New Yorker that “any claim that Epstein directed any programmatic or personal grantmaking for Bill Gates is completely false.” Gates himself told the WSJ before Ronan Farrow's bombshell article in the New Yorker appeared that "I didn’t have any business relationship or friendship with" Epstein, even though he did fly on Epstein's jet.

Why it matters: Anonymous gifts have historically been applauded for their selflessness, but this gift wasn't really anonymous: It arrived on Gates's letterhead, after all. "Anonymous," in this context, really just means "secret."

  • Secrecy in the funding of academic programs is highly problematic, as University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan explains in a long Twitter thread.
  • "Companies and the billionaires who run them are always bending research agendas (and sometimes even results) to their interests," he writes. "Anonymity would prevent any examination or accountability."

The bottom line: The unusual was usual at MIT, it seems, whenever Epstein was involved. At one point, according to Farrow's report, Epstein suggested that the donations from Gates and billionaire Leon Black and might be matched by the Templeton Foundation — but then, the Templeton Foundation asked the Media Lab to fill out a grant proposal, according to emails provided to Axios by Whistleblower Aid, which represents former MIT employee Signe Swenson.

  • Cohen was shocked: "I didn't realize this was going through Templeton's regular proposal process," he wrote to Ito. "We'll have to send them something that a program officer and the board find credible."
  • The Templeton money never materialized in the end.

Go deeper:

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