Hundreds of New York University students, alumni and professors who oppose a faculty appointment for biologist Dr. David Sabatini gathered outside NYU’s Langone Health campus Wednesday. Some held signs with slogans such as “Title IX over Sabatini.” This followed a bombshell report from Science This week indicating that NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine may hire Dr. Sabatini, despite his recently being pushed out of three other jobs—including a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—over sexual misconduct concerns.
In addition to the in-person protest, some of Dr. Sabatini’s (and NYU’s) critics organized online, under the hashtag #SayNoToSabatini. Many signed open letters challenging what they described as the university’s special treatment of a known harasser.
“We will not tolerate abusers in our midst under any circumstance,” says one letter, whose signers have committed to an effective academic boycott of Langone Health until NYU rejects his faculty candidacy. “To hire David Sabatini as a faculty member is to put his work above the safety of the women in NYU’s community. It is additionally completely hypocritical to the DEI efforts that NYU have made in the past two years.”
Another open letter from NYU medical school alumni says, “The world is watching NYU set this dangerous precedent and the decision to potentially hire Dr. Sabatini threatens the legitimacy and safety of the worldwide scientific enterprise.”
Dr. Sabatini did not respond to a request for comment immediately, but he has denied wrongdoing, including in an ongoing lawsuit that names the woman who accused him of sexual harassment as a defendant.
‘Guided by Facts’
Asked about backlash to the news that NYU is in talks with Dr. Sabatini about a faculty job, the medical school said in a statement, “We know there are concerns in our community about news accounts that we are evaluating the possibility of hiring Dr. David Sabatini, and we take those views seriously and are engaging with our stakeholders about that process.”
The medical school respects “the rights of faculty, staff, and students to peacefully express concerns in a public forum, and leadership will be engaging directly with members of our community as well,” the continued statement. “We would never make a hiring decision that would place any of our students, faculty or staff at risk, and we are in the midst of an extensive and careful due diligence process with a broad group of stakeholders. We are working hard to ensure that our conclusions and course of action are guided by facts and evidence rather than social media or incomplete press coverage. We urge the community to not prejudge or draw unwarranted conclusions until our full evaluation has been completed.”
While NYU is apparently doing its own vetting, MIT previously investigated Dr. Sabatini’s conduct. His chair, dean and provost there recommended revoking his tenure based on the findings. Dr. Sabatini ended up resigning this spring, without appealing the termination recommendation to a faculty panel, according to a letter to the faculty from MIT president L. Rafael Reif.
“Professor Sabatini behaved in ways incompatible with the responsibilities of faculty membership,” including by violating a policy on consensual relationships, Reif wrote at the time. “Professor Sabatini engaged in a sexual relationship with a person over whom he held a career-influencing role, he did not disclose the relationship at any time to his supervisors, and he failed to take any steps to relinquish his mentoring and career-influencing roles , as the policy requires.”
Dr. Sabatini stepped down from MIT’s Whitehead Institute last summer, after it commissioned an outside inquiry into his conduct there. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, his funder, fired him outright.
Officials first began looking into Dr. Sabatini last spring, after a general survey about the Whitehead Institute’s climate flagged issues with his lab in particular.
Dr. Sabatini sued the Whitehead Institute; its director, Ruth Lehmann; and the woman who accused him of harassment for defamation in October, alleging that he was the victim of a “sham” investigation. He said he’d broken off a consensual sexual relationship with his accuser and that she was now out to “destroy” him. He also said this alleged vendetta had cost him jobs outside academe, in biotechnology firms.
In December, Dr. Sabatini’s accuser countersued in a Massachusetts court, providing new insight into the actual allegations against him.
‘He Would Suffer No Consequences’
“This case is [about] a tenured professor at [MIT] who—up to the summer of 2021—beved himself so important and so influential that, no matter what his misconduct, he would suffer no consequences,” the lawsuit says. “It is about what Sabatini has done over time, given that presumed privilege: his creation of a highly sexualized and offensive lab environment in the laboratory he maintained at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research, 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.”
Dr. Sabatini’s accuser said that he groomed her when she was his graduate student mentee, asking her about and talking about sex often, and that he coerced her into sex when she was transitioning from a graduate student to a fellow at Whitehead. The first time, she said, Dr. Sabatini invited her to his hotel room at a scientific meeting to talk about science and then told her lie down next to him because he and another unnamed female scientist did their “best thinking together” like that. When he initiated sex, she resisted, the lawsuit says, but Dr. Sabatini got frustrated and told her to have sex or “get out.” After that, she said, she felt “trapped” and gave in to Dr. Sabatini’s demands for sex, about dozen times, from 2018 to 2019. He allegedly told her not to discuss the “casual” relationship with anyone.
The lawsuits says that Dr. Sabatini subjected other women to sexual comments and questions in the lab, as well, including by asking a master’s degree student if she was “fucking” another lab member, then asking her to rank male lab members based on whom she would “fuck.” Dr. Sabatini also allegedly asked a postdoctoral fellow to “choose” between two men in the lab for sex during a retreat.
Women in the lab were encouraged to have sex with a visiting postdoc, whom Dr. Sabatini called a “Catholic virgin,” according to the lawsuit. Alcohol was allegedly a frequent factor in the lab, with Dr. Sabatini hosting alcohol tastings in the facility. He also claims excluded a devout Christian postdoc from a lab retreat because she was “not fun” and would “ruin everything,” but he to pay for a female undergraduate offered’s change of flight and hotel room so that she could attend one of his talks abroad (the lawsuit says she declined).
Another woman who was allegedly considering joining the lab “froze” after Dr. Sabatini told her he wanted to study why pubic hair is the length it is, Dr. Sabatini’s accuser also alleges. Male and female members of the lab alike privately shared concerns about the climate there, the lawsuit says, but they felt like they couldn’t complain, in part because—as one male lab member allegedly put it—“People are scared of David and know he’s vindictive.”
The lawsuit mentions the existence of numerous text messages, including some from Dr. Sabatini himself.
‘The Lab’s Bro Culture’
Dr. Sabatini is well-known for his contributions to cancer research, specifically cell growth, metabolism and a signaling system known as the mTOR pathway. And he has backing from some of his former colleagues at MIT. Earlier this month, for instance, it came to light that some of Dr. Sabatini’s former lab workers were organizing a letter of support for him: in a Twitter thread, computational biologist Anne Carpenter said she’d been asked to sign such a letter, and she was told that universities considering hiring Dr. Sabatini had requested it. Carpenter said she didn’t sign, however, as her experience in Dr. Sabatini’s lab starting in 2003 was that it was “unprofessional.”
“I was the only female postdoc and I quickly learned to navigate the lab’s bro culture. I avoided being the target of mean comments, but I regret not standing up for those who were targeted. And a policy-breaching relationship is at issue in this case, not just lab climate,” Carpenter said. “Judging accusations like these wrongly in either direction is a horrible outcome. But why does anyone need to re-judge these accusations at all? Without all the information at hand, just on the basis of a support letter?”
Carpenter added, “Whitehead found policy violations. HHMI concurred and three senior MIT officials recommended revoking his tenure as well. There’s a civil lawsuit over whether the process was fair, just to be sure. These have far more information in hand than the rest of us.”
Beyond those organizing the support letter (whose signers are to remain anonymous, according to Carpenter’s account), Dr. Sabatini clearly has some support within NYU circles. His father, Dr. David D. Sabatini, is a professor emeritus of cell biology there. Science also reported that hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman defended Dr. Sabatini and his work in cancer research at a dinner for Pershing Square Capital Management’s foundation in New York in March, with Dafna Bar-Sagi, executive vice president for NYU Langone, in attendance. (Per Science, the medical school’s dean, Dr. Robert Grossman, also recently decried “cancel culture,” without mentioning Dr. Sabatini by name, in an internal publication.)
Beyond sexual harassment allegations, Dr. Sabatini has been accused in the past of data irregularities, mostly by anonymous critics via PubPeer. Dr. Sabatini has corrected published research but denied any purposeful wrongdoing or academic misconduct.
“PubPeer may have had a role at some point, but as far as I can tell, it is now a platform for a resentful, anonymous, petty scientists to harass those who actually make discoveries and occasionally make mistakes because they are human,” Dr. Sabatini said via Twitter in 2020.