The New York University (NYU) community was plunged into turmoil this week by the news that its Grossman School of Medicine is considering hiring prominent biologist David Sabatiniwho had been forced out of jobs at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for sexual misconduct.
On Wednesday, hundreds of students, staff, postdocs, and faculty protested across the street from the NYU Langone Health Medical Center. They held “Say no to Sabatini” and “Protect trainees” signs and chanted that they wanted safety “now.”
The medical school’s job talks with Sabatini “seem to be such a retrograde and very active decision to choose power and legacy when it’s obviously going to harm trainees,” says Joseph Osmundson, a nontenure track professor of biology at NYU who was in Austin, Texas , giving a talk at the time of the protest.
“Just seeing the upswelling of support and all of the people that will either be affected or care about us being affected was so touching,” says Melissa Cooper, a postdoc at the school of medicine who attended the protest.
But senior medical school administrators defended Sabatini yesterday in an 85-minute Zoom meeting with faculty and trainees; ScienceInsider obtained an audio recording of the meeting. In the forum, the NYU administrators challenged the methods and findings of an investigation conducted last summer by an outside law firm hired by the Whitehead, which found Sabatini guilty of sexual harassment and concluded he had committed other, unspecified, violations. They argued that MIT had followed the Whitehead’s flawed lead in recommending that Sabatini’s tenure be revoked. (The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which had been funding Sabatini’s research, also fired him as an investigator last summer for breaching its workplace behavior policies.)
“I hope that our faculty, males and females, are going to be proud that we are taking a position that may not be very popular now based on media. But we are taking the higher moral ground,” Dafna Bar-Sagi, the school’s vice-dean for science, who has driven the hiring process, said at the forum. She asked the attendees to “trust us” as the administration continues conducting “due diligence” on the potential hire.
After the meeting, many who attended were aghast. “You can’t walk into an elevator without hearing someone being furious about the situation,” says Cooper, who is also co-director of the medical school’s Women in Science group. She said that after the meeting ended yesterday afternoon, there was “barely a soul” in labs in the normally buzzing new Science Building. “I don’t think anyone could just bear to be here anymore.”
Underscoring the deep divisions on campus, NYU President Andrew Hamilton forcefully distanced himself from the medical school’s decisions in a statement on Tuesday. “The Medical School is pursuing this hire on its own, notwithstanding President Hamilton having strongly advised them against it,” NYU’s senior spokesperson, John Beckman, said in an emailed statement first reported by the washington squarenews. Beckman noted that the medical school has the authority to make non-tenure-track hiring decisions on its own.
Protest letters to medical school dean and CEO Robert Grossman and Bar-Sagi continued to gather signatures. As of Friday, letter signers included more than 600 NYU medical school alumni108 current faculty members, and 360 mostly external scientists, students, and trainees. They vowed to boycott medical school events and collaborations until the hiring process is stopped.
A competing, anonymous letter purportedly from 45 former and current Sabatini lab members supports his hiring. “I felt compelled to sign because I have had such a positive and professional experience in his lab from him. He is an excellent, inspiring mentor,” says one woman scientist who was a Sabatini trainee and says she signed the letter. (She asked not to be identified for fear of career reprisals.)
In the restricted-access virtual forum Wednesday, Bar-Sagi and three other medical school administrators, all women, sought to reframe the debate over Sabatini’s hiring. “There is this concern that there is a hostile environment and that we are proposing to let loose a sexual predator and have unsafe labs,” said Annette Johnson, the medical school’s general counsel. “We are dealing here with a narrative that we believe is not accurate.”
Johnson alleged that the Whitehead’s investigation was unfair and lacked due process, and that its conclusion was in error. She also emphasized that MIT officials did not cite sexual harassment but a breach of MIT’s consensual sexual relationship policy when they concluded Sabatini’s tenure should be revoked, triggering his resignation earlier this month. The Whitehead declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation. MIT said in an emailed statement that it “stands by the outcome of its process, which was carried out with integrity by the senior academic leaders charged with reviewing the matter.”
Listeners were shocked, Cooper says, when Johnson named the woman who told Whitehead investigators that Sabatini sexually harassed her; she has not been named in media accounts. “Everyone gasped,” she says. “The fact that they thought it was OK to do that shows that they don’t have a clear grasp of the severity of the situation.”
Johnson went on to present a detailed account of what she called a purely consensual relationship between Sabatini and a junior scientist who had accused him of sexual harassment. Johnson cited details laid out in Sabatini’s defamation lawsuit, which he filed in October 2021 against the Whitehead; its director, Ruth Lehmann; and his accuser of him, including how the junior scientist attended whiskey tastings in Sabatini’s lab, and the contents of text messages between the two. After Sabatini ended the relationship, Johnson said, “the narrative began to change and [his accuser] began to state that this was not a consensual relationship and that she felt coerced.”
NYU have to policy prohibiting consensual relationships in which one party has power or authority over another. However, at the medical school, “we don’t police relationships,” Nancy Sanchez, the medical school’s vice dean for human resources, told the gathering. “The intent behind the policy is not to penalize or punish people for having a relationship,” but only to “factor [it] in if a relationship “goes south.”
The administrators’ description of events behaved with a new statement issued by Sabatini through a spokesperson yesterday: “I understand how upset many in the NYU community who have not heard all of the facts are about the possibility that I might join the faculty there. concern is based on a misunderstanding of what happened in Boston regarding a romantic relationship I had with a 30-year-old principal investigator who had her own separate lab.” Sabatini had served on the woman’s Ph.D. thesis committee, and on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) award application, she had designated him as her mentor in a Whitehead fellows program she was entering. .
In the forum, Johnson did not mention allegations in a counterclaim filed by Sabatini’s accuser in December that said his lawsuit was retaliatory. The junior colleague alleged that Sabatini created a highly sexualized and offensive lab environment, including suggesting studies of pubic hair and asking one master’s student whom in the lab she wanted to f—. She described “his manipulation and improper grooming of young women who have sought him out for training and support, and his threats of retaliation against anyone who has dared to cross him.” She alleged that when she said no to intercourse, Sabatini grew angry and she gave in, fearing he would damage her career if she said no.
Two lawyers for the accuser said in a statement today that they take no position on whether NYU should hire Sabatini. But they vigorously attacked the NYU presentation yesterday and stressed that multiple women had made complaints about Sabatini. “The comments captured on audio are unfortunately as irresponsible as they are inaccurate,” Ellen Zucker and former Judge Nancy Gertner wrote in a statement today. “NYU has done no investigation, has not checked its facts, and has not reviewed the full record available to and reviewed by three other institutions and an outside law firm. They are apparently content to smear these institutions and their decision-making as well as those who had the courage to come forward despite Prof. Sabatini’s threats.”
Bar-Sagi told the forum that Sabatini approached her about working at the medical school, and that he does not have private philanthropic backing. “There is no private donation coming with Sabatini,” she said. (Science reported on Monday that billionaire hedge fund founder Bill Ackman had vigorously defended Sabatini at a 1 March dinner that Bar-Sagi and Sabatini attended.)
If NYU hires Sabatini, it appears he would be eligible to apply for NIH funding. The agency, with a few exceptions, funds institutions rather than individuals. NIH can remove a principal investigator from an award if it concludes they are no longer qualified, which can include when an investigator’s home institution makes findings of sexual harassment, the agency’s Office for Extramural Research noted in an email. But such findings would need to be made while a grant is active.