People holding signs
People holding signs

NYU Defends Against Backlash Over Potential Hire

Hundreds of the school’s faculty, students, and trainees are protesting its consideration of David Sabatini, who left his previous posts after alleged sexual misconduct.

amanda heidt
Amanda Heidt

Amanda is an associate editor at The Scientist, where she oversees the Scientist to Watch, Foundations, and Short Lit columns. When not editing, she produces original reporting for the magazine and website. Amanda has a master's in marine science from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and a master's in science communication from UC Santa Cruz.

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Apr 29, 2022

ABOVE: Demonstrators protesting NYU Langone on April 27 after it was revealed that the university is considering hiring David Sabatini Keenan Lacey

Update (May 3): Speaking through a public relations firm, Sabatini announced that he is withdrawing his name from consideration for the position. “False, distorted, and preposterous allegations about me have intensified in the press and on social media in the wake of reports last week that New York University Langone Health was considering hiring me. I understand the enormous pressure this has placed on NYU Langone Health and do not want to distract from its important mission. I have therefore decided to withdraw my name from consideration for a faculty position there. I deeply respect NYU Langone Health’s mission and appreciate the support from individuals who took the time to learn the facts. I remain steadfast in believing that the truth will ultimately emerge and that I will eventually be vindicated and able to return to my research.” NYU's Grossman School of Medicine has since confirmed that it "will not be possible for him to become a member of our faculty."

When news emerged that New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine was considering hiring David Sabatini, “it felt like a gut punch” to Rebecca Grande, a PhD student in the school’s immunology department. She had first heard whispers among students last Friday (April 22), but it was only after a Science story published the following Monday that it felt real to her—if not easily explained. Sabatini, a biologist known for his contributions to mammalian cell signaling, was also the subject of an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct that led to him resigning from or being fired by three institutions. “I didn’t understand how this could possibly be happening. It really didn’t make any sense,” Grande tells The Scientist

David Sabatini
David Sabatini
PORTER GIFFORD

Many researchers at NYU and beyond have now joined Grande in voicing their displeasure with the university administration’s decision to consider Sabatini, saying that it sends the wrong message to trainees about how sexual misconduct will be treated, or even tolerated, at Grossman and NYU. In the days since the news broke, there have been open letters, walkouts, and threats of a strike. The university also held a forum to reassure the NYU Langone community, which one attendee instead described as “disturbing.”

“Trainees are the lifeblood of every institution in science, and this has completely broken our hearts,” says Julia Derk, a neurobiologist postdoc at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Center who previously completed her PhD at Grossman. “I feel as though there’s no more poignant signal that you don’t care about trainees than to prioritize protecting and vindicating this one individual over our mental health and physical safety.”

From celebrated scientist to alleged harasser

Sabatini originally gained recognition for his role in discovering the protein mTOR, which directs cell division in mammals, as a graduate student in the 1990s. He started his lab at the Whitehead Institute in 1997 and joined the faculty there and at MIT in 2002. Beginning in 2008, he received funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

In December 2020, an internal diversity, equity, and inclusion survey at Whitehead revealed “issues of particular concern” related to the culture of Sabatini’s lab, according to a 2021 Boston Globe article. A subsequent investigation by a third-party law firm, Hinkley Allen & Snyder, revealed that Sabatini had failed to disclose a relationship with a colleague “over whom he held a career-influencing role,” according to an email to the MIT community about the outcome of the probe. The investigation found that Sabatini violated the institute's policies on sexual misconduct due to his relationship with a woman who was a graduate student in another lab at MIT before starting her own lab as a fellow at Whitehead in 2018. Those policies forbid sexual relationships between faculty members and trainees and require faculty to relinquish any career-influencing roles in romantic relationships that do form. Sabatini resigned from the Whitehead Institute in August 2021—at the same time that he was fired by HHMI—and resigned from MIT earlier this month after the university recommended that his tenure be revoked. 

See “Cell Biologist David Sabatini Fired for Sexual Harassment

In the aftermath, Sabatini filed a defamation lawsuit against the Whitehead Institute, its director, and the woman with whom he had had the relationship (who is not being named by The Scientist because she is the alleged victim of sexual misconduct). The woman, in turn, filed a countersuit claiming that Sabatini had fostered a highly sexualized environment in his lab and that he otherwise crossed professional boundaries, culminating in him periodically pressuring her for sex between 2018 and 2020. Sabatini asserts that the relationship was consensual and that the woman retaliated after he ended it. Both suits are currently pending, as are independent filings by Sabatini compelling Hinkley Allen & Snyder to release documents pertaining to its investigation.

Responding to questions sent via email by The Scientist to a public relations firm retained by his lawyers, Sabatini reiterated his claims of innocence and acknowledged the NYU community’s discomfort. “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. . . . I only want a fair assessment of the facts of the situation and to get back to work.”

A place for Sabatini at NYU?

Shortly after the Science piece ran this week, NYU Langone—the campus that houses the Grossman School of Medicine—released several statements defending the decision to consider Sabatini, stating that a “group of stakeholders” was “reviewing all of the evidence, including information that has not previously been presented publicly and has not been reported in [media] coverage.” Asked by The Scientist what types of new information were being considered and who was involved in assessing it, NYU Grossman School of Medicine spokesperson Lisa Griener says that “for many weeks we have been hearing from dozens of Dr. Sabatini’s peers and colleagues who each describe an independent, first-hand view that is starkly at odds with the investigation and its outcome.” She also specified that the stakeholders included a “diverse group of leaders, women and men alike, from several key departments.”

Sabatini’s father, David D. Sabatini, is an emeritus professor of cell biology at Grossman but has not commented publicly regarding his son’s potential appointment. Multiple outlets have reported that Sabatini does have some support, including from NYU medical school dean and CEO Robert Grossman, Executive Vice President and Vice Dean for Science Dafna Bar-Sagi, and some alumni from Sabatini's lab at Whitehead. In addition, billionaire philanthropist Bill Ackman, who oversees the distribution of lucrative early-career research awards through the Pershing Square Foundation, recently defended Sabatini during a foundation dinner, according to Science

In screenshots of an email sent by Grossman and Bar-Sagi to colleagues that was shared on Twitter, the two stated that “we are aware of an upcoming Science story, and while we provided that publication with a brief statement, we also gather that the story may contain a number of inaccuracies.” In a monthly email sent by Grossman to members of the medical school on April 21, which he titled “Civility Rules,” he decried so-called “cancel culture” without naming Sabatini. Speaking to The New York Times, Bar-Sagi also cast doubt on the conclusions of the Whitehead investigation, saying that “we are looking closely at Dr. Sabatini’s case because it is clear that many aspects of his departure from M.I.T. and the Whitehead Institute were never publicly scrutinized. Moreover, dozens of Dr. Sabatini’s peers and colleagues have shared with us views that are at odds with the investigation and its outcome.”

people holding signs
The April 27 walkout
Keenan Lacey

But among staff and students at NYU and beyond, the reaction has been swift. Hundreds of people attended a walkout on April 27, while others have signed a handful of open letters criticizing the decision. In one letter, signed by more than 110 people, scientists agreed to cease giving or attending talks and events hosted by NYU Langone, to avoid teaching classes there, and to stop collaborating with Langone researchers. Another, signed by self-identified alumni from around the world and asking the administration to “rescind any offers to hire Dr. Sabatini and, instead, devote themselves to efforts that protect and empower trainees at NYU,” has so far garnered more than 550 signatures. 

To Grande, the collective response has been a rare high point of the last few days. “It’s interesting in that I don’t feel like NYU is not supportive of trainees—it’s that I think the administration is not supportive of trainees. Because as I saw from the walkout, faculty, students, postdocs, staff—we are all against this.”

“Defensive” NYU forum stokes concerns

Following the walkout and other criticisms, NYU Langone organized an online forum yesterday (April 28) to address community concerns, led by Bar-Sagi; Nancy Sanchez, the executive vice president and vice dean for human resources and organization development and learning; and Annette Johnson, a member of NYU Langone and Grossman School of Medicine’s legal team.

Initially, the invitation was extended to all NYU Langone employees, according to two people who attended the forum, but shortly after the original email inviting participants to submit anonymous questions, the event was limited to only faculty and trainees. Several people had trouble signing in, and once they did, each person’s screen was watermarked with their email address, which attendees speculated was so that anyone who might leak the video could be identified.

“I thought it was very disturbing,” says one attendee who requested anonymity because they fear retaliation by the administration. “I went into this webinar . . . thinking that it was going to be an assurance to the community that ‘we’re going to do our very best, we’re sorry that you feel unsafe, but this is our process.’ But right from the jump, it just felt like they were immediately defending David Sabatini.”  

Right from the jump, it just felt like they were immediately defending David Sabatini.

—A forum attendee

Joseph Osmundson, a clinical assistant professor at NYU who listened in by phone, says that he found it bizarre. “It was very much having NYU legal counsel defending Sabatini’s side of the story as though he were an NYU employee, which he is not.” 

Both attendees outlined a number of other points they found concerning that were verified in audio of the meeting that was reviewed by The Scientist: At one point, Bar-Sagi suggested that other faculty attending the event had benefited from the same due process afforded Sabatini despite “controversy surrounding around them,” while in another instance, Sanchez stated that the university doesn’t “police” every instance of consensual intimate relationships—despite most being in violation of NYU’s own policies. Sanchez said in the call that “yes, we have a consensual relationship policy that states that it’s not appropriate for a faculty member to have a relationship with a graduate student,” before elaborating later that “there have been many circumstances, because of the amount of hours that people spend at work, that relationships end up with people getting married, people living together.”

Some speakers also suggested that Whitehead’s investigation had not been conducted properly. “We are dealing here with a narrative that we believe is not accurate,” Johnson said. “There is this concern that there’s a hostile environment and that . . . we are proposing to let loose a sexual predator and have unsafe laboratories. This is coming largely from media.”

While NYU Langone had not yet shared details of the position for which they are considering Sabatini, including whether he would oversee students, NYU President Andrew Hamilton previously alluded to a “non-tenure-track” position in a statement “strongly” advising the medical school not to hire Sabatini. And in the recording, Bar-Sagi tells listeners that Sabatini first approached the medical school regarding the position, and that “if an offer were to be made, it will be at the level of nontenured position for a minimum of a three-year probation period.” As of the publication of this article, NYU has not yet announced a decision.

NYU’s reputation on the line

Regardless of the final outcome, several academics who spoke to The Scientist stated that irreparable reputational damage to NYU has already been done.

“I’m feeling very angry,” says NYU evolutionary geneticist Matthew Rockman, who is not part of the medical school but collaborates with colleagues there. “My department, and I think to a large extent the university, has invested a lot of time and energy in trying to make sure that we’ve built a workplace where we can recruit and train the very best scientists, and . . . this, I feel, really sets us back. The folks that I interact with are furious, and particularly among the trainees, there’s a real sense that everything the university has told them has been hypocritical nonsense.” 

Derk of Anschutz Medical Campus also notes that she has been speaking to dozens of former friends and colleagues from her time at NYU “on a minute-by-minute basis.” All, she says, are outraged and distracted, resulting in a “loss of collective focus” that has led to wasted time and effort. Asked what her decision would be if she were a prospective student today, she says, “I absolutely would not go there.”