In Secret Meeting, NYU Defends Potential Hiring of Researcher Accused of Sexual Misconduct

NYU leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths to defend a researcher accused of sexual misconduct, acting as a functional PR team for him to their own community.

In recent days, NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine has been in an uproar over the potential hiring of cancer biologist David Sabatini, who left three other institutions—MIT, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—over claims of sexual misconduct against him. On Thursday, about 200 faculty and students staged a walkout over Sabatini’s potential hiring, while faculty members signed a letter of protest. Also on Thursday, in a lengthy Zoom town hall with some research faculty and trainees at the medical school, senior administrators defended the hiring process they’re currently engaged in, and strongly implied that claims of sexual misconduct against Sabatini were untrue.

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Audio of the meeting, which was provided to Motherboard and other news outlets, shows senior leadership at the medical school dismissing the controversy around Sabatini as a function of an incomplete investigation and social media-driven cancel culture, the latter of which dean and CEO Robert Grossman also denounced in a bizarre school-wide email earlier this month. 

“A few people have asked, why hire someone who has this type of controversy instead of hiring an equally talented scientist that doesn't have these accusations?” one administrator said during the meeting. “The only thing I can say is that we hired a fair number of people here that had controversy surrounding them, the only thing that changed is social media. That's really the only thing.” 

Sabatini resigned from MIT earlier this month, where he was a tenured professor, after three senior officials recommended revoking that tenure. According to reporting from Science, MIT found that Sabatini had engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman over whom he held “a career-influencing role,” the administrators wrote. Additionally, they said “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.” In 2021, Sabatini resigned from the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research after a sexual harassment investigation; he then went on to sue Whitehead for defamation, and also sued a junior colleague who said that he had sexually harassed her, saying he was the victim of a smear campaign made “to exact revenge against a former lover.” The woman countersued in December. At the same time that he left Whitehead, the institute’s funder, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, fired him, finding he’d violated the institute’s “policies on sexual harassment.” (Sabatini had been on leave from MIT since his August 2021 ouster from Whitehead while officials explored revoking his tenure there.) 

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All of which goes some way to show why students and faculty at NYU responded less than favorably to the news that NYU was considering hiring him. Sabatini’s father, David D. Sabatini, is a former longtime department chair and professor emeritus there. (A senior NYU official, Dafna Bar-Sagi, said in the Zoom meeting that she had not spoken with David Sabatini Sr. about his son’s hiring process. “There is no relationship between the way we are addressing this particular recruitment opportunity and the fact that his father is a very respected member of our community,” she said.) 

Thursday’s town hall invitation was initially extended to the entire NYU medical school community; later, administrators said that due to Zoom limitations, only “trainees, research faculty and research leadership” would be allowed to attend. 

In response, according to one postdoctoral fellow who spoke to Motherboard, people with the Zoom link organized viewings across various NYU buildings. The room the postdoc sat in was full of “rueful laughter” as they watched the proceedings unfold. According to the postdoc, as well as reporting by NYU student reporters, everyone invited to the Zoom meeting had a watermark of their email address emblazoned across the bottom of their screens, which some attendees took to be an intimidation tactic, and would mean any potential leaks would be traced back to their source.

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According to a meeting invitation viewed by Motherboard, the meeting was chaired by four senior administrators at NYU’s medical school: Dafna Bar-Sagi and Nancy Sanchez, both executive vice presidents at the school, Joan Cangiarella, an associate dean, and Annette Johnson, the school’s general counsel and chief legal officer. In the 90-minute meeting, Johnson said, “We are dealing with a narrative that we believe is not accurate.” She added, “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.” Johnson also said that one of the accuser’s attorneys is “a most zealous advocate for women's causes” and was married to someone at the Boston Globe. “So there's this is to us explains why there is the so much in social media and why the Boston Globe in particular has adopted the narrative of sexual predators that we find inaccurate.”

Johnson also said they believe the conclusions reached at MIT and Whitehead are not “entirely solid,” because, she said “of a lack of due process. Due process requires notice to the individual of the charges against you, and it requires an opportunity to be heard and to rebut the accusations against him.”  

Johnson also said that they believe Sabatini won’t have relationships with anyone else in a laboratory, while also implying there was nothing wrong with those relationships to begin with. “There is no reason to believe that he has not taken all of that to heart and recognize that the behavior that might have been permitted should not what should not be permitted in a professional laboratory,” she said. “So I, I am 100 percent certain that he is not going to have a relationship with person in the laboratory again. And this person, by the way, was not in his laboratory and had an independent laboratory.” 

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Bar-Sagi also told the meeting attendees that she was “convinced” an alternate narrative of Sabatini’s behavior would soon emerge. “I'm also convinced that over the next few days, you're going to see a fair number of hopefully balanced accounts of some of the ways people are thinking about it, because it garnered obviously a lot of attention. And I believe that now there are many people that are thinking about it from multiple, multiple standpoints.” She also said the medical school was in the process of “putting together something putting together an internal site that will contain some of the documents that we have discussed,” meaning documents related to the previous investigations into Sabatini’s behavior as well as the “due diligence” NYU is conducting.

“If you want to believe the moral high ground stance, we have to consider everyone fairly,” the postdoc who listened in to the meeting told Motherboard. “But that doesn't mean you act as a PR team for him towards your own community.” 

The town hall followed a flurry of communications from senior leadership defending the propriety of the hiring process. An email co-signed by Bar-Sagi and Grossman said  that the school was reviewing the circumstances surrounding Sabatini’s departure from MIT.  “[W]e have undertaken a careful and thorough due diligence process that includes a full examination of all available facts and evidence in this case,” Grossman and Bar-Sagi wrote. In the near future, they added, “we will have more to say on our review and our findings, and we regret that some of you had to learn about this through the press. 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. We urge you to disregard rumor and insinuation and wait for a full and fair accounting of the facts.” 

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Another April 21 email titled “Civility Rules” came from Grossman alone. It didn’t mention Sabatini by name, but contained a lengthy attack on news media, anonymous online discourse and what Grossman termed “vulgarity and tawdriness.” 

“The electronic age has provided a platform where frankly anything goes,” Grossman wrote. “You can mock, troll, and bully to beat the band. And you can do so anonymously. Cable channels enable mean-spirited, aggressive comments 24/7. Newspapers can get away with anything that fits a slanted narrative, regardless of the facts. And anger has become the currency of those with perceived grievances. So why were we surprised when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock? C’est normal.” 

Grossman added, “In an age where everyone is looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment, where manners, decency, and courtesy seem drowned in an ocean of vulgarity and tawdriness, are we just inured to such ugliness? In a flash, 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.” 

In addition to these voluminous communications, NYU also created a Twitter account in January that has been used of late to defend Sabatini’s hiring process. The postdoctoral fellow said that the overwhelming impression from many NYU medical school community members is that the hiring is all but confirmed. 

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“Amongst ourselves we've been wondering why the institution would subject themselves to such a PR nightmare and potentially damage their reputation for years to come,” the postdoc told Motherboard. “They've already lost in the court of public opinion, and they're going to face strong headwinds in recruiting new trainees in the coming years, especially graduate students.” Some community members have come to the conclusion that Sabatini’s hiring is a financial decision, and that Sabatini’s prestige will attract large grants and other attractive outside funding to the institution. 

“The only plausible answer,” the postdoc said, “it seems is that they've made the cynical calculation that the prospective financial boon of bringing on Sabatini outweighs the fallout in the long run." (In the Zoom meeting, Bar-Sagi told the audience, “There is no private donation coming with Sabatini.”)

NYU didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard. In response to a request for comment, a PR person representing Sabatini himself sent the following statement from him, which we’ve reprinted in full:

"I have mentored dozens of women who succeeded professionally and personally. 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. 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. Female students and scientists deserve support and a lab environment free from inappropriate conduct, which I firmly believe I provided. I only want a fair assessment of the facts of the situation and to get back to work. "

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Update, 11:58 a.m.:

After publication, an NYU Grossman School of Medicine spokesperson responded with a link to their statement, published yesterday on the “NYU Langone Health Responds” Twitter account.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Update, 4:15 p.m.:

The attorneys for the alleged victim who is countersuing Sabatini issued a lengthy statement, calling the statements made during the NYU town hall “as irresponsible as they are inaccurate.” Attorneys Ellen Zucker and Nancy Gertner, a former U.S. federal judge, wrote, in part, that the institutions who ousted Sabatini took “extraordinary – and important– institutional steps, taken only after considered and responsible review.”

They add:

It is one thing to hire Prof. Sabatini; we take no position as to whether NYU should do that. But it is quite another to disparage the complainant, Whitehead, its woman head, HHMI, and MIT. It is certainly our hope that NYU will do what it feels it should do without further irresponsible commentary. It does not serve that institution – or the young women and men who come to it to train – to continue down this path.

Tagged:

MIT, sexual misconduct, cancel culture, nyu medical school, nyu langone, whitehead institute

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