Ito and the Board Oversight Problem

Over the weekend, there was more fallout from Jeffrey Epstein: Joi Ito, who was the director of MIT’s Media Lab and who had received money from Epstein for both the Media Lab and his own ventures, resigned and left the Media Lab. Lots has been pundited about this, but there’s one tidbit about Ito that seems minor, but I think explains a lot about the U.S.’s craptacular governance. Before he resigned as Lab director, Ito was on the board of directors of twenty institutions, including the NY Times–he has since resigned from at least four of those boards, leaving…sixteen.

There is no way someone with a demanding job–I’m sure he put in more than forty hours per week as the Media Lab director–could possibly conduct the oversight supposedly required by a member of a board of directors when he’s on twenty such boards. I realize sometimes people are put on boards to help entice others to join who will either do the actual work or who donate money to the institution, but there’s no way someone who is so overcommitted could provide a useful service. But organizations often want prestigious people as board members to raise their own profile, as opposed to providing meaningful governance.

Unfortunately, institutions, both internally, as well as those affected externally by those institutions, rely on boards of directors to provide some oversight. I can’t imagine Ito, especially at prestigious institutions where people will want to join (who wouldn’t want to be on some of those boards), is the only one who is doing this. My impression is that he is (was?) the rule as much the exception. At the same time, those working at these institutions simultaneously have to take the board’s suggestions seriously, no matter how spurious or ill-informed, while also attempting, if they’re doing something wrong, to pull wool over the eyes of the board. One former Media Lab member described it as a “place rich in physical & human capital, but dire in social capital. A place that was easy to capture politically by someone cunning.” Someone on twenty boards, no matter how smart he is, will not be able to provide good advice or oversight needed to prevent that capture.

If you wonder why some institutions seem to really go off the rails, this is probably an underappreciated, but important, reason.

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