NYU may hire biologist pushed out of MIT, Whitehead for sexual misconduct | Science

The New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine is in discussions with biologist David Sabatini about hiring him as a faculty member, according to multiple sources at the school. Since August 2021, Sabatini has been forced out of or fired from three leading institutions for sexual harassment or for violating workplace or consensual sexual relationship policies. The hiring discussions have been taking shape over several weeks, according to NYU sources.

“Any decision about a potential role [for Sabatini] at NYU Grossman School of Medicine would be subject to careful and extensive due diligence and consultation with a broad group of stake holders,” the school said in a statement yesterday.

“David defers to NYU on this process,” a Sabatini spokesperson said.

In an email to faculty and staff last week, the medical school’s dean decried what he called “cancel culture.” And last month, a prominent research philanthropist defended Sabatini to a crowd of elite medical researchers in New York City.

But numerous faculty members at NYU’s medical school are disturbed by the prospect of hiring Sabatini, saying the move sends a message of tolerance for sexual misconduct and hostile lab environments. “We are deeply concerned that recruiting an individual found guilty of having broken the policies of prestigious institutions such as MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]the Whitehead Institute and HHMI [the Howard Hughes Medical Institute] may profoundly damage our culture and reputation,” reads a letter to the dean and vice dean that had 37 faculty signatures by midafternoon today.

“I’m concerned about the culture of the institution. For the students. For the trainees,” said one faculty member, who asked to be anonymous for fear of retaliation by the medical school administration. “The accusations made are really serious. … Is this signaling that in the future students that come forward for any kind of faculty misconduct will be disregarded?”

However, some current and former Sabatini lab members are enlisting anonymous signatures for an online letter supporting him. The letter says the signers “never experienced or observed an abusive lab culture or a sexualized lab environment, and we did not witness sexual harassment. … Working in David’s lab was one of the most influential and fortunate events of our careers. … We hope that this letter will contribute positively in your decision to hire David.”

Sabatini, a prominent cancer biologist, resigned from MIT earlier this month after senior officials recommended revoking his tenure. They found he had violated MIT’s policy on consensual sexual relationships and expressed “significant concerns about his professional behavior from him to some lab members,” President L. Rafael Reif wrote to MIT faculty on 1 April.

William Ackmann
Billionaire Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, who defended biologist David Sabatini in remarks at a recent dinner TRIPPLAAR KRISTOFFER/Sipa via AP Images

In August 2021, Sabatini was forced out of the Whitehead. An outside law firm had “found that Dr. Sabatini violated the Institute’s policies on sexual harassment and other policies unrelated to research misconduct,” Director Ruth Lehmann wrote to Whitehead staff. HHMI, which had funded Sabatini’s Whitehead lab, fired him at the same time, saying he had violated workplace policies.

The institutions have not provided details about the behaviors that led to Sabatini’s removal, but the Whitehead compiled a 229-page report, according to a defamation lawsuit Sabatini filed in October 2021 against the Whitehead, Lehmann, and a junior colleague who told investigators that Sabatini had sexually harassed her. He had served on her Ph.D. thesis committee, and she became a Whitehead fellow with her own lab in a program he was soon appointed to direct. She filed a counterclaim against Sabatini in December, arguing her lawsuit was frivolous and retaliatory. (Science does not name targets of alleged sexual misconduct without their permission.)

Sources at NYU say the potential Sabatini hire has the backing of NYU medical school dean and CEO Robert Grossman and is being driven by Executive Vice President and Vice Dean for Science Dafna Bar-Sagi.

Sabatini’s hire may also have support from a benefactor who could make up some of the funding Sabatini lost when HHMI fired him. Billionaire hedge fund founder Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management supports coveted awards for early-career cancer researchers. Both Sabatini and Bar-Sagi are scientific reviewers for the Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research and both attended a 1 March Pershing Square Foundation dinner at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin restaurant. In his remarks about him, Ackman bemoaned what he called Sabatini’s unfair treatment and said sidelining Sabatini’s work would be detrimental to the field. (Ackman was not available for comment.)

On 21 April, Grossman sat a monthly email to medical school faculty and staff under the heading “Civility Rules.” “A mob feels compelled to stridently ‘cancel’ someone with different thoughts, or to baselessly attack an individual in ways that can be difficult to disprove. … [This is] tolerated in academia, where nameless accusers can disparage a colleague’s science and life’s work, even when their claims are unfounded.” Grossman declined to comment further.

Former Sabatini postdoc Anne Carpenter, now a computational biologist at the Broad Institute, noted on Twitter that in early April she was asked to sign the anonymous letter of support because universities considering hiring Sabatini had requested such information.

“I will not sign,” Carpenter wrote in a Tweet thread on 10 April. “I was not surprised to see the [MIT] investigation (which did not involve me) found ‘issues of particular concern’ relating to laboratory climate.”

In his lawsuit, Sabatini had cited Carpenter’s successful career as an example that “contradicts a finding that women were disadvantaged” in his lab. But in the tweet thread, Carpenter called that logic “appalling. … My success is not evidence that he did not break policies. It is not evidence that the lab had a professional, supportive environment for all. It does not prove that he treated men and women equally in the lab.”

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