Hundreds of outraged doctors, researchers, and students staged a walkout at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine on Tuesday after reports it is considering hiring a prominent scientist who has been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations that three other prestigious institutions found credible.
“WTF NYU… STOP PROTECTING HARASSERS… HONK FOR SAFER WORK ENVIRONMENT… #NO TO SABATINI,” their hand-drawn signs read.
A few truckers responded by honking, but likely none of the passing drivers had any idea that the signs referred to David Sabatini, a one-time star biotech researcher who resigned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this month after it revoked his tenure for having engaged in an sexual affair with a fledgling research doctor 20 years his junior. Science magazine was first to report that NYU is considering giving him a job.
Dr. Deborah DeLair (r) and Dr. Esther Adler.
Michael Daly/The Daily Beast
Dr. Deborah DeLair was among those who gathered on the sidewalk opposite the school on First Avenue at 2 p.m.
“I believe that just considering hiring this individual, by doing this, NYU is sending a message that sexual harassment and coercion is acceptable,” DeLair said as she stood beside Dr. Esther Adler, a fellow NYU pathologist and protester.
A young MIT doctor accused Sabatini of pressuring her into sex while he was in a position to influence the course of her career as a graduate student at the time. The first sexual encounter came after he offered to take the place of her mentor, a female scientist who had fallen ill with ovarian cancer.
No other women have accused Sabatini of coercing them into sex, but court papers cited a number of people who worked in his lab who confirmed her description of it as “highly sexualized” to the point of being “toxic.” They share his accuser’s recollections of regular “whiskey tastings” where the talk was, the young doctor texted to a friend, “85% sexual [and] 15% science.”
“At some point, Sabatini told one of his male graduate students not to ‘settle down’ early because, once the student becomes established and successful (like Sabatini), he could ‘fuck’ whoever he wants,” the accuser says in court papers.
The lab was at the MIT-linked Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, which launched an internal sexual harassment survey in 2020 as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. The first allegations against Sabatini came from researchers other than the young doctor. They complained of a frat-house atmosphere in his lab. The young doctor made her charges only after an administrator asked about her experiences in the lab.
Sabatini admitted to having sex with the doctor but insisted it was consensual and described her as a “peer.” That in itself was enough for Whitehead to fire him and for MIT to essentially shun him. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute withdrew its funding for his work.
Sabatini was still held in high enough regard that he might have redeemed himself with a heartfelt apology. He instead filed a defamation suit that sought to portray him as the victim.
“This case involves the manipulation and abuse of laws and policies designed to ensure workplace equality to instead punish an ex-lover,” the suit contends. “The result has been to inflict substantial and potentially irreparable damage to the career of Dr. David M. Sabatini, a brilliant scientist.”
At one telling point, the suit notes the young doctor’s home address but not Sabatini’s. The suit alleges: “Even after Dr. Sabatini was fired or forced to resign, [the young doctor] has continued to inflict damage on his career by spreading lies about him to their shared professional colleagues, including by making false statements that Dr. Sabatini ‘abused’ her and that he was ‘a Harvey Weinstein.’”
In response, the young doctor filed a counterclaim. Among other things, it notes that the brilliant scientist Sabatini told another woman at a meeting about “a project trying to figure out why pubic hair is the length that it is.”
As recounted in the counterclaim, the young doctor was devastated upon learning in March 2018 that her mentor, MIT biology professor Angelika Amon, had cancer with a dire prognosis.
“[Sabatini] positioned himself as the person on whom [the young doctor} could rely as a mentor, in Amon’s absence, and someone who would open doors for her going forward,” the counterclaim says. “In early April of 2018, Sabatini offered to introduce [the young doctor] to others in his professional network at a conference in Washington, D.C. [The young doctor] was flattered. She agreed to meet Sabatini and looked forward to the visit… She flew into town for the purpose of meeting with Sabatini and being introduced to his professional colleagues.”
Upon her arrival, Sabatini told her that he had decided not to go to the gathering.
“Contrary to what he had promised, there was no introduction to anyone else, let alone luminaries in her field,” the counterclaim says.
Sabatini invited her to join him for drinks and dinner. She agreed.
“They talked about science and about Amon,” the counterclaim says. “Sabatini seemed sympathetic but warned [the young doctor] that, of course, she could be at a distinct disadvantage if Amon passed away, because Amon would not be able to champion and vouch for [the young doctor] early on in her career, something that is essential for young scientists. Sabatini reiterated… that he would step into the breach, assuring [the young doctor] that he would be there for her. After the dinner, Sabatini suggested that [the young doctor] come with him to his room to continue a scientific conversation they were having.”
The counterclaim continues, “When they arrived, [the young doctor] stood at the door, as he lay down on his bed, instructing her to lie down next to him. When she told him she was not comfortable doing that, Sabatini started talking about how he and another established woman scientist do some of their best thinking together in this fashion. He pressed her to enter the room.”
The counterclaim says that the young doctor “did not—by word or conduct—indicate that she welcomed his advances.”
“Sabatini began his advances and, realizing that she was not responsive, he told her to ‘relax’ and proposed that they have a relationship where they have casual sex on the side. [The young doctor] got visibly upset. She tried to resist his advances, telling him, among many things, that Sabatini was her mentor and thus had control over her career. She told him that any sexual relationship between them would be against the rules. Sabatini brushed aside her concerns and warned [the young doctor] not to tell anyone about what he was doing. Sabatini persisted in his advances and got angry as she continued to tell him why he should not proceed. He ultimately said that he was so aroused that she either needed to submit or get out.”
The counterclaim reports, “In the end, although she never consented, he had his way.”
The court papers say that the young doctor continued to feel trapped in the days ahead.
“Telling people—even her mentor, Angelika Amon—of what had happened that evening was not a realistic option if she wanted to preserve her career. Sabatini had explicitly instructed her not to do so, and she feared what would happen if she did not heed that warning.”
“[The young doctor] talked with him about why him engaging with her sexually was inappropriate. She spoke of wanting to be taken seriously as a scientist and not wanting to have her contributions diminished by any perception that he was helping her along because of a sexual relationship… Sabatini dismissed her concerns and told her that their sexual encounters would be fine as long as she did not tell anyone. He told her that he was ‘offended’ that she had gotten so upset during the previous sexual encounter… His demands for sex did not stop.”
At a Whitehead Institute scientific retreat in New Hampshire in September 2018, Sabatini texted “about his need to have sex because he had a ‘raging boner’… That he was all ‘revved up,’ and, if she would not meet up with him immediately, he would have to take matters ‘into [his] own hand,’ and that he had a ‘half-chub in [his] pants.’”
Protesters outside NYU Medical Center demonstrating against NYU potentially hiring biologist David Sabatini.
Michael Daly/The Daily Beast
The counterclaim reports that the young doctor ended up having sex with him more than 10 times over a two-year period.
“For the first time since [the young scientist] had identified science as the endeavor in which she was most passionate and thus the prime source of meaning in her life, to which she was singularly devoted, she began to withdraw from the scientific community and experience debilitating feelings of entrapment and hopelessness,” the counterclaim says. “He responded by telling her she was ‘crazy.’”
Then came what the counterclaim describes as a sorry kind of deliverance.
“Finally, Sabatini secured the interest of his next sexual partner. Sabatini had tried to have another Whitehead faculty member bring this young woman on as a ’Visiting Scientist’ though she was not qualified, and, when that did not work, he brought her into his own Lab so that he could woo her. At that time, Sabatini told [the young doctor] that they should be ‘friends.’ [The young doctor] reiterated the need to cut ties which Sabatini, finally, seemed to accept.”
That might have been that if a prominent scientist named Dr. Ruth Lehmann had not departed her position as head of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at NYU to head the Whitehead Institute in 2019.
“Very serious and highly regarded scientist, strong believer in equality and fairness, but not a strident women’s lib type, considered quite visionary in her research in embryonic development, a bit cold and arrogant and tough as nails, and zero sleaze factor,” says a scientist who knows her.
Lehmann ordered the sexual harassment survey that led to the allegations against Sabatini. She fired him on the grounds that he had broken the rules even if he had only done what he acknowledged doing. He included her in his defamation suit, describing her as party to a supposed conspiracy to destroy him.
One knowledgeable source told The Daily Beast that Lehmann had a contentious relationship with Robert Grossman, the NYU School of Medicine dean and CEO of NYU Langone Health. Grossman is said by the source to have been unhappy when Lehmann suggested in the journal Cell that NYU had strayed from basic science in pursuit of specific medical problems.
At the same time, Grossman has been friendly with billionaire philanthropist Bill Ackman. Science magazine has reported that Ackman spoke sympathetically of Sabatini at a recent Manhattan gathering and suggested science would suffer if the one-time star were sidelined. The knowledgeable source says Grossman’s relationship with the billionaire was likely a more important factor in the decision to try and bring on Sabatini than Sabatini’s father, also named David, who is a professor emeritus of cell biology at NYU.
In retrospect, it seems Grossman may have been paving the way for hiring the younger Sabatini with the most recent of his monthly emails to the NYU medical community.
“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,” the April 21 missive titled “Civility Rules” says. “This is tolerated in academia, where nameless accusers can disparage a colleague’s science and life’s work, even when their claims are unfounded.”
Another Grossman email—addressed to “Dear Colleagues” and titled “An Important Message”—came after Science reported that Sabatini was being considered.
“Allow us to share some thoughts on the concerns we have heard in recent days about the possibility that Dr. David Sabatini could join us at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The circumstances regarding Dr. Sabatini’s departure from MIT have been in the news of course and so it’s understandable that our community would form opinions from the coverage.” Grossman went on to say that “we have undertaken a careful and thorough due diligence process that includes a full examination of all available facts and evidence in this case,” adding, “That process is ongoing and has included a diverse set of leaders from across our community.”
Grossman also took a shot at Science magazine’s reporting even before it was published, saying, “We also gather that the story may contain a number of inaccuracies. We urge you to disregard rumor and insinuation and wait for a full and fair accounting of the facts.”
NYU School of Medicine did not respond to a query from The Daily Beast regarding the supposed “inaccuracies” in the Science story. The school did offer a lengthy statement about Sabatini’s possible hiring, also talking about “an extensive and careful due diligence process with a broad group of stakeholders” as “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.”
Sabatini responded through a representative with a statement of his own, saying, “I am enormously proud of the many scientific achievements at my lab” and thanking his supporters there “as I have tried to persevere in this troubling process.”
The statement continues: “Although I have taken full responsibility for having had a consensual personal relationship with a professional colleague, the outcome thus far has been out of all proportion to the actual, underlying facts. As I have maintained consistently from the start, I differ sharply with the way this matter has been characterized and I intend to set the record straight and stand up for my integrity.”
While a number of Sabatini’s former lab colleagues are said to have signed an anonymous letter supporting him, one former colleague, computational biologist Anne Carpenter, took to Twitter to make clear she was not among them.
“I will not sign,” Carpenter, now with the Broad Institute, wrote. “I was not surprised to see the [MIT] investigation (which did not involve me) found ‘issues of particular concern’ relating to lab climate.”
At other times at other schools, protesters have seemed to be mobs run amok. But the people who walked out of the NYU School of Medicine on Tuesday afternoon did so out of legitimate concern that hard-won progress for women in science was threatened.
“We’re not shy, we’re not timid,” they chanted. “We are angry. We are livid.”
DeLair, the pathologist, told The Daily Beast that she had read both the defamation suit and the young doctor’s counterclaim. Her conclusion was written on cardboard.