NYU Trustees Defend David Sabatini, Challenge Sexual Harassment Findings | Science

The New York University (NYU) community was thrown into turmoil this week by news that its Grossman School of Medicine was considering hiring eminent biologist David Sabatiniwho had been forced to quit his job at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for sexual misconduct.

On Wednesday, hundreds of students, employees, postdocs and faculty demonstrated in front of NYU Langone Health Medical Center. They were holding ‘Say no to Sabatini’ and ‘Protect the interns’ signs and sang that they wanted security “now”.

Medical school work talks with Sabatini “seem like such a retrograde and very active decision to choose power and legacy when that’s obviously going to hurt the interns,” says Joseph Osmundson, non-tenured biology professor at NYU who was in Austin, Texas, giving a talk at the time of the protest.

“Just seeing the surge of support and all the people who will be affected or who care about us was so touching,” said Melissa Cooper, a postdoctoral fellow at the medical school who attended the protest.

But senior medical school administrators defended Sabatini yesterday in an 85-minute Zoom meeting with faculty and interns; ScienceInsider obtained an audio recording of the meeting. In the forum, NYU administrators challenged the methods and conclusions of an investigation last summer by an outside law firm hired by Whitehead, which found Sabatini guilty of sexual harassment and concluded that he had committed other, unspecified violations. They argued that MIT had followed Whitehead’s mistaken lead in recommending that Sabatini’s term be revoked. (The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which had funded Sabatini’s research, also fired him as an investigator last summer for violating its workplace behavior policies.)

“I hope our teachers, men and women, will be proud that we are taking a position that may not be very popular now based on the media. But we are taking higher moral ground,” said Dafna Bar- Sagi, the school’s vice dean for science, who led the recruitment process, at the forum, asking attendees to “trust us” as the administration continues to conduct “due diligence” on potential employment.

After the meeting, many who attended were appalled. “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 after the meeting ended yesterday afternoon there was ‘barely a soul’ in the labs of the normally bustling new science building. “I don’t think anyone could bear to be here anymore.”

Underscoring the deep divisions on campus, NYU President Andrew Hamilton forcefully distanced himself from medical school decisions in a statement released Tuesday. “The medical school is pursuing this hiring on its own, despite President Hamilton’s strong advice against them,” NYU senior spokesman John Beckman said in an emailed statement. reported for the first time speak Washington Square News. Beckman noted that the medical school has the power to make non-tenure hiring decisions on its own.

Protest letters to medical school dean and CEO Robert Grossman and Bar-Sagi continued to collect signatures. On Friday, the signers of the letters included more than 600 NYU Medical School Alumni108 current teachers and 360 for the most part external scientists, students and trainees. They have vowed to boycott medical school events and collaborations until the hiring process is halted.

A concurrent, anonymous letter purportedly from 45 former and current members of the Sabatini lab supports his hiring. “I felt compelled to sign because I had such a positive and professional experience in his lab. He’s a great inspiring mentor,” says a scientist who was an intern at Sabatini and says she signed the letter. (She asked not to be identified for fear of professional reprisals.)

In Wednesday’s restricted-access virtual forum, Bar-Sagi and three other medical school administrators, all women, sought to reframe the debate over hiring Sabatini. “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, general counsel for the medical school. “We are dealing here with a narrative that we believe is not accurate.”

Johnson alleged that Whitehead’s investigation was unfair and lacked due process, and that his conclusion was flawed. She also pointed out that MIT officials did not cite sexual harassment but a violation of MIT’s consensual sex policy when they concluded that Sabatini’s term should be revoked, triggering his resignation earlier this month. -this. The Whitehead declined to comment due to ongoing litigation. MIT said in an emailed statement that it “stands by the outcome of its process, which was conducted with integrity by the senior academic officials responsible for reviewing the matter.”

Listeners were shocked, Cooper says, when Johnson named the woman who told Whitehead investigators Sabatini sexually harassed her; she was not named in media accounts. “Everyone gasped,” she said. “The fact that they thought it was OK to do it shows that they don’t have a clear idea of ​​the seriousness of the situation.”

Johnson then gave a detailed account of what she called a purely consensual relationship between Sabatini and a young scientist who had accused him of sexual harassment. Johnson cited details exposed in Sabatini’s libel suit, which he filed in October 2021 against the Whitehead; its director, Ruth Lehmann; and his accuser, including how the young scientist attended whiskey tastings in Sabatini’s lab, and the content of the text messages in between. After Sabatini ended the relationship, Johnson said, “the narrative started to change and [his accuser] began to state that it was not a consensual relationship and that she felt coerced.

NYU has a policy prohibiting consensual relationships in which one party has power or authority over another. However, at the medical school, “we don’t monitor relationships,” Nancy Sanchez, the medical school’s associate dean of human resources, told the rally. “The intent behind the policy is not to penalize or punish people for having a relationship”, but only to “factor [it] if a relationship “goes south”.

The administrators’ description of events included a new statement released by Sabatini through a spokesperson yesterday: “I understand how upset many in the NYU community who have not heard all the facts are by the possibility that I could join the faculty there. the 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 doctoral dissertation committee, and as part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) fellowship application, she had named him as her mentor in a Whitehead fellowship program in which she enrolled.

In the forum, Johnson did not mention the allegations in a counterclaim filed by Sabatini’s accuser in December who said his lawsuit was a retaliation. The junior colleague alleged that Sabatini created a highly sexualized and offensive lab environment, including suggesting pubic hair studies and asking a graduate student who in the lab she wanted to fuck with. She described “his improper manipulation and preparation of young women who sought him out for training and support, and his threats of retaliation against anyone who dared cross his path.” She alleged that when she said no to sex, Sabatini got angry and she relented, fearing he would damage her career if she said no.

Two attorneys for the accuser said in a statement today that they take no position on whether NYU should hire Sabatini. But they vigorously attacked NYU’s presentation yesterday and pointed out that several women had filed complaints against Sabatini. “The comments recorded on the audio are sadly as irresponsible as they are inaccurate,” Ellen Zucker and former judge Nancy Gertner wrote in a statement today. “NYU has not conducted any investigation, fact-checked, or reviewed the full record available and reviewed by three other institutions and an outside law firm. They apparently just smear those institutions and their decision-making as well as those who had the courage to come forward despite Professor Sabatini’s threats.

Bar-Sagi told the forum that Sabatini had approached her about working at medical school and he had no private philanthropic support. “No private donations come with Sabatini,” she said. (Science reported on Monday that billionaire hedge fund founder Bill Ackman vigorously defended Sabatini at a March 1 dinner attended by Bar-Sagi and Sabatini.)

If NYU hires Sabatini, it appears he would be eligible to apply for NIH funding. The agency, with few exceptions, funds institutions rather than individuals. The NIH may remove a principal investigator from a fellowship if it concludes that they are no longer qualified, which may include when a researcher’s home institution does findings of sexual harassment, the agency’s office for extramural research noted in an email. But such conclusions should be made while a grant is active.

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