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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab has been roiled by controversy.

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Turmoil mounts at MIT Media Lab as scientist is ousted for sexual harassment

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) troubled Media Lab last week ousted longtime faculty member Michael Bove for violating the university’s sexual harassment policy. The Media Lab also announced mandatory sexual harassment training for all personnel.

Media Lab Executive Director Deb Roy sent a letter yesterday to students, staff, and faculty saying: “Michael was terminated solely as a result of a determination that he violated MIT’s sexual harassment policy. … [T]here are aspects of MIT policies and practices that I believe should be improved. I will work with colleagues at MIT towards better policies for the entire community.”

Bove had been a principal research scientist at the Cambridge lab and his last day of employment was 26 September, according to an email statement last week from Kimberly Allen, MIT’s director of media relations. Allen declined to comment on the details of Bove’s ouster, but wrote: “At all times we encourage any member of our community who has experienced or witnessed harassing behavior to report it using the resources MIT makes available.”

Reached by phone last week, Bove declined to comment, saying MIT has asked everybody involved with the matter to maintain confidentiality. However, in a statement he sent to MIT Media Lab students, faculty, and staff yesterday that was obtained by ScienceInsider, he wrote:

“Following allegations that I acted in a harassing or otherwise unwelcome manner toward some other members of the community, I am no longer at the Media Lab. I very much regret inappropriate and indefensible actions or words by which I have caused pain or discomfort to any of the remarkable, dedicated professionals in the lab, and offer my sincerest apologies. My past actions did not reflect my values, the values of the Media Lab, the values of MIT, or acceptable standards of behavior anywhere, and having at length examined my conscience I have learned essential lessons about responsible, respectful, and appropriate behavior that will guide me throughout my future interactions with people.”

Bove, who has a Ph.D. in media technology from MIT, was at the Media Lab for 23 years, most recently as head of its Object-Based Media Group.

The Media Lab has, until recently, been perceived as a standout hub of unconstrained innovation whose budget tripled to $75 million between 2009 and this year, much of it from corporate donations.

On 27 September, Media Lab leaders convened an all-hands meeting. Administrators acknowledged the tough times confronting the lab and said they were launching working groups to tackle some issues. They also informed lab personnel that they would be receiving 2 hours of mandatory sexual harassment training.

(The former director of the lab, Joi Ito, resigned on 7 September in the wake of revelations in an article in The New Yorker that he concealed the extent of the Media Lab’s relationship with donor Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein was a pedophile financier who died by suicide in a New York City jail in August.)

The lab faces other issues, too. On 20 September, Propublica and WBUR, the National Public Radio affiliate in Boston, published an exposé revealing that the Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative, already under scrutiny for overhyping its food computers, is under investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. A whistleblower has said the lab discharged wastewater with nitrogen levels of up to 222 parts per million—22 times the level allowed by state regulations—into a well at a research site in Middleton, Massachusetts.

One researcher who attended the all-hands meeting on 27 September said they left feeling “like there are at least some people who are trying to address some issues. There seem to be some processes in place now. Something is moving. And there’s a willingness to look at things.”

One local politician, however, is unimpressed. Quinton Zondervan, an MIT alumnus in electrical engineering and computer science who is a Cambridge city councilor wrote last week to MIT President Rafael Reif demanding an investigation into the environmental violations and “academic misrepresentation” by the Open Agriculture Initiative.

“I want a response, and specifically an investigation, just as [MIT is] doing with the Epstein case,” Zondervan told ScienceInsider.

MITs vice president for research responded to Zondervans letter yesterday. Maria Zuber writes in part that a thorough assessment of the unauthorized wastewater discharge is taking place, and MIT is committed to ensuring the absolute integrity of all [its] research.

*Update, 4 October, 10 p.m.: This story was updated to include Maria Zuber’s response.