The director of M.I.T.’s prestigious Media Lab stepped down on Saturday after an outcry over his financial ties with the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, whose contributions to the proudly contrarian lab roiled and divided its members.
“After giving the matter a great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks, I think that it is best that I resign as director of the media lab and as a professor and employee of the Institute, effective immediately,” the director, Joichi Ito, wrote in an email to the provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Martin A. Schmidt.
Mr. Ito acknowledged this past week taking $525,000 of Mr. Epstein’s money for the lab, as well as $1.2 million for his personal investment funds. He stepped down less than a day after an article in The New Yorker described the measures that officials at the lab took to conceal its relationship with Mr. Epstein, who killed himself in jail last month while facing federal sex trafficking charges.
In a separate email to the lab community, Mr. Ito again apologized. “While this chapter is truly difficult, I am confident the lab will persevere,” he wrote.
Mr. Ito shared the emails with The Times after repeated requests for comment. He was a board member of The New York Times Company since 2012, but on Saturday, the company announced that he had resigned from the board.
Mr. Ito, who took over the Media Lab in 2011, had enjoyed strong support inside the lab, where he had helped raise more than $50 million in donations over the years. But the revelations in The New Yorker article eroded his support. Names began disappearing on Saturday from an online petition in support of him that had been put up last month.
The internal lab emails, which a former lab employee shared with The New York Times, described donations that Mr. Epstein made and solicited over the years — including from Leon Black, the founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, and a $2 million gift from the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
In an email in October 2014 — six years after Mr. Epstein had pleaded guilty to a sex charge involving a minor in Florida — Mr. Ito wrote that the gift from Mr. Gates was “directed by Jeffrey Epstein.” Peter Cohen, then a development official at the lab, wrote in a subsequent email, “For gift recording purposes, we will not be mentioning Jeffrey’s name as the impetus for this gift.”
A spokesman for Mr. Gates issued a statement on Saturday afternoon, saying: “Epstein was introduced to Bill Gates as someone who was interested in helping grow philanthropy. Although Epstein pursued Bill Gates aggressively, any account of a business partnership or personal relationship between the two is simply not true. And any claim that Epstein directed any programmatic or personal grant making for Bill Gates is completely false.”
Mr. Cohen, now the director of development for computer and data science initiatives at Brown University, did not respond to messages seeking comment on Saturday.
Signe Swenson, who served as a development associate and alumni relations coordinator at the lab from 2014 to 2016, shared the internal emails concerning Mr. Epstein with The Times.
She said she had told supervisors at the lab several times of her “disgust” at Mr. Epstein’s involvement with the lab.“That was never listened to,” Ms. Swenson, who worked under Mr. Cohen, said in an interview on Saturday that also included an attorney from the group Whistleblower Aid.
Ms. Swenson said she learned of Mr. Epstein’s connection with the lab when she interviewed for a position in March 2014. She said she later told Mr. Cohen that M.I.T. listed Mr. Epstein as “disqualified” as a donor, but Mr. Cohen replied that Mr. Ito had a relationship with the wealthy financier.
In one 2014 email shared by Ms. Swenson, Mr. Ito wrote about a $100,000 donation from Mr. Epstein, asking the development staff members to “make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” Mr. Cohen wrote in a subsequent email that the donation was “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous.”
Other emails suggest that Mr. Epstein sought out donations from others. In the correspondence about the donation from Mr. Gates, Mr. Cohen wrote that Mr. Ito “did not talk with Bill Gates” and that the lab “did not solicit this money.”
Mr. Ito acknowledged receiving money from Mr. Epstein in an online apology on Aug. 15. That prompted M.I.T. to begin an internal review.
On Saturday, the university’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said he had asked M.I.T.’s general counsel to hire an outside law firm to conduct “an immediate, thorough and independent investigation.”
“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 M.I.T.’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future,” he wrote in an email to the university community. “Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead.”
One series of emails, from May 2014, indicated that Mr. Epstein also helped connect the lab to Mr. Black, the founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management who Mr. Epstein had advised on issues including philanthropy.
Mr. Cohen wrote that Mr. Black wanted to make a large donation “in honor of a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous,” and later asked Mr. Ito to find out from Mr. Epstein whether Mr. Black himself wanted to remain anonymous. One email indicated that Mr. Black had given the lab a gift of $4 million by wire transfer.
Mr. Cohen also asked Mr. Ito whether Mr. Black would like a thank-you note from M.I.T.’s president. Mr. Black’s preference would be something “you or Jeffrey knows best,” be wrote.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Black, who leads one of the world’s largest private equity firms, did not immediately comment on Saturday. Mr. Black has sought to distance himself from Mr. Epstein, describing his interactions with him as limited to tax strategy, estate planning and philanthropic advice. He has also said Apollo had never done business with Mr. Epstein.
Some colleagues at the lab had called for Mr. Ito to step down, questioning his judgment for taking contributions from Mr. Epstein. Two scholars said they would leave the lab at the end of the academic year because of them, and one of said he had urged Mr. Ito not to associate with Mr. Epstein.
The meeting last Wednesday was intended to help bolster support for Mr. Ito. He told the crowd that he had “screwed up” by accepting the money, but that he had done so after a review by the university and consultation with his advisers.
But near the end, one of Mr. Ito’s staunchest supporters, Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the lab, said he had told Mr. Ito to take the money and would do it again. That prompted Mr. Ito to send an email to Mr. Negroponte in the middle of the night, complaining that he was undercutting his ability to make amends.
Mr. Ito also held board positions and advisory roles at a number of organizations, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. On Saturday afternoon, the MacArthur Foundation said that Mr. Ito had resigned from its board, adding, “The recent reports of Ito’s behavior in The New Yorker, if true, would not be in keeping with the values of MacArthur.”
A spokesman for the Knight Foundation, Andrew Sherry, said on Saturday that Mr. Ito had resigned from its board as well.