Discover more from Words For the Wise
Recorded live in New York: An all-female defense team at NYU's medical school goes to bat for confirmed sexual harasser David Sabatini. So does the right-wing press.
In an 85 minute online "town hall" on April 28, three NYU med school officials defended Sabatini. Meanwhile, he launches a publicity campaign in right-wing media.
Last month, I wrote about cancer researcher David Sabatini, who last year was forced to leave both MIT and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after investigations by both institutions found that he had violated their sexual harassment policies. Those events received some limited news coverage at the time, but the issues surrounding Sabatini were resurrected last month when Science magazine’s Meredith Wadman broke the story that New York University’s medical school was considering hiring him on its staff.
The news caused an uproar at the med school, marked by protests by faculty and students, which finally led to Sabatini having to withdraw his request to be taken on there. In followup coverage in Science, and reporting by Vice, journalists on the story revealed that they had obtained an 85 minute audio recording of a “town hall” chaired by the med school’s dean of science, Dafna Bar-Sagi, herself a noted cancer researcher. Although those reports provided just a few details about what was said, they made clear that Bar-Sagi, along with three other female officials at the med school, basically went to bat for Sabatini, criticizing the MIT and Whitehead investigations and stating clearly their opinions that he had been unfairly treated.
I have now obtained the audio recording myself. It is quite revealing of the way, as I indicated in my previous report, that some academics, including senior women, have become enablers and apologists for abuses—at the same time that they profess to be opposed to sexual harassment and champions of women in science (Bar-Sagi earlier received an award from the American Association for Cancer Research for her support of women in science.)
So I propose to describe the 85 minute Zoom meeting in detail, to give readers a fuller understanding of just how this enabling process works, followed by some additional commentary about the larger context for the Sabatini affair.
As an introduction to this account, I’d like to make a few comments. I think the session was remarkable for two related features: First, the full-throated defense of Sabatini by the three women who led the meeting, without one word of questioning or criticism of his behavior; and second, the lack of any sympathy or empathy for his chief accuser, who is portrayed in a negative light, largely through Sabatini’s eyes, throughout the 85 minutes.
Perhaps this explains why, according to reliable sources, Bar-Sagi is now herself the subject of two sets of complaints to the National Institutes of Health, her chief funder: First, for her behavior during this meeting; and second, for an alleged hostile environment in her own laboratory.
“We are doing due diligence”
According to sources, at least 500 people watched or listened to the meeting. It was led by Dafna Bar-Sagi, and the other participants were:
Nancy Sanchez, an executive vice-president
Joan Cangiarelli, an associate dean
Annette Johnson, the med school’s chief legal officer.
Bar-Sagi began by telling the meeting that “Dr. Sabatini approached me personally and asked to be considered for a position in our organization.” She added that the med school had not yet made an offer of employment, but that if it were, it would initially be for a three-year probation period. Bar-Sagi added that “14 world leaders in Sabatini’s field” had signed a letter supporting him.
Bar-Sagi said that she and the hiring team had looked at allegations that some of Sabatini’s papers included image duplications and other possible evidence of scientific misconduct. (These allegations were examined by German journalist Leonid Schneider, who specializes in such reporting along with Elisabeth Bik and PubPeer. Sabatini and the other authors of at least one paper in Nature were obliged to make a correction.) But Bar-Sagi told the meeting that they had looked at the evidence and “won’t categorize it as scientific misconduct,” adding that MIT and the Whitehead Institute had “looked into it and consider the matter closed.”
Annette Johnson then took the floor to discuss her legal analysis of the charges against Sabatini and the prior investigations, especially by the Whitehead Institute. I think it is fair to say that Johnson’s exegesis amounted to a brief for the defense. In her description of the investigations, Johnson basically repeated Sabatini’s side of the story without more than the briefest mention of the claims of his chief accuser, Kristin Knouse.
Johnson reminded the meeting that Sabatini had been dismissed from the Whitehead Institute after almost 25 years in his lab there. “Why are we not just doing what MIT and Whitehead did?” she asked. Johnson argued forcefully that she and her team did not agree with the validity of the conclusions, including claims of a “sexualized culture.” Johnson said that they based their own analysis on a review of the Whitehead’s findings, on court filings (presumably Sabatini’s defamation suit against Knouse, the Whitehead, and its president, Ruth Lehmenn, although she did not cite any of Knouse’s claims in her countersuit against Sabatini.) The NYU analysis also included the “many texts” between Sabatini and Knouse and interviews with their friends, Johnson said.
“Our understanding was that this was a relationship of mutual interest, and not one of coercion,” Johnson said, after describing the alleged beginnings of the relationship between Sabatini and Knouse. Johnson put a lot of emphasis on their mutual appreciation of whiskey, one of a number of descriptions of Knouse that seemed designed to bolster Sabatini’s portrayal of her as a willing participant in the relationship (the opposite of what Knouse herself has claimed.)
Johnson, again apparently basing her account entirely on Sabatini’s story, said that Sabatini was told that there would be a investigation of the culture of his lab, but that the allegations did not include sexual harassment. Some 40 lab members were interviewed, Johnson said, adding that some of them found the investigation “intimidating and harassing.” When the investigation was completed, Sabatini was notified by the Whitehead that he was being terminated, and shortly afterwards by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, with which he was also affiliated.
“This makes us wonder about the validity of the conclusions that were reached,” Johnson concluded. As for why the medical school should not wait for the outcome of Sabatini’s defamation suit and Knouse’s counterclaim, Johnson said, “to me that indicates more confidence in the judicial system than I have reason to believe in.” Johnson concluded by declaring that the allegations against Sabatini “are largely coming from the media,” and that “We are dealing here with a narrative we believe is not accurate.”
At this point, Dafna Bar-Sagi took the floor again. She told the meeting that NYU med school had no choice but to consider Sabatini’s request to come work there. “I feel morally obligated to treat Dr. Sabatini the same way we treat anyone else.” At this point and continually throughout the meeting, Bar-Sagi said that the med school was doing “due diligence” in making its decision about Sabatini and had not yet decided, but then, repeatedly, went on to defend Sabatini from the allegations. Bar-Sagi read a number of testimonials for Sabatini at some length, including from a Whitehead professor “close to David” and others who spoke up to defend him.
At this point Nancy Sanchez spoke briefly but somewhat confusingly (at least to me) about NYU med school’s policies concerning relationships between faculty and students (Sabatini and Knouse, in their ligitation and public statements, disagree about whether it was a “consensual” relationship.) “We do not condone relationships between faculty and grad students,” Sanchez said, “but we don’t police the relationships.”
At this point, Bar-Sagi and the others began responding to questions that had been posted in the chat function of the meeting platform. Here I provide a few examples.
Q: “Why hire someone who has this type of controversy instead of hiring an equally talented scientist who doesn’t have this kind of accusation?”
Bar-Sagi: “We have hired many controversial persons. The only thing that has changed is social media.” Sabatini, she added, has “a tremendous record as a researcher.”
Q: To paraphrase, this question concerned the position of NYU president Andrew Hamilton, who opposed Sabatini’s hiring at the medical school, and rumors of a financial contribution from Sabatini’s father, David D. Sabatini, who had been chair of the med school’s Department of Cell Biology from 1972-2011.
Bar-Sagi denied that there was any “private donation” coming with Sabatin, Jr., and criticized a lack of “fact-checking” both those who made the claim. “I have not exchanged one word with David Sabatini senior, nor has he ever talked to me.”
Annette Johnson then responded to the part of the question about the NYU president’s opposition to the proposed appointment, simply repeating what her own team’s inquiry had found, “a lack of due process” in the Whitehead and MIT, including an alleged failure to notify Sabatini of the charges ahead of time and to give him an opportunity to respond to them. “We found the investigative reports wanting on each of those points,” Johnson said.
Q: This question concerned the transparency of the NYU med school’s investigation, and whether it would be released to the community.
Bar-Sagi responded that she and the others involved in the hiring were not expecting an article in Science, “that created appearances that we are about to recruit him tomorrow. We are not 95% there, and we will have to do a lot of digging to make sure we are confident in what we are doing.” Bar-Sagi added that “we are taking the higher moral ground,” contrary to what the media expects. “It’s more than Dr. Sabatini, it’s a break point, if I don’t apply it to Dr. Sabatini I cannot do recruitment in good conscience.”
Q: “What will this investigation uncover that the Whitehead did not? Why do we agree with their assessment of his [alleged] scientific misconduct but not his sexual misconduct?”
Bar -Sagi: “There is not a single scientist that I have spoken to… [who] says that David Sabatini’s major findings have been contested and have not been the foundation for great followup discoveries, which is really everything that we stand for.”
Annette Johnson added that, in her team’s opinion, Sabatini had been the victim of an inappropriately harsh penalty. She argued that the Whitehead had also “found that Knouse had violated the consensual relationship policy… each of them violated it. There was no action taken with respect to her.” Johnson concluded, Sabatini’s “violation of the policy does not have to be a death knell for his career.” (Nancy Sanchez also spoke up at this point to repeat that the med school does not “police relationships.”)
[Just a reminder here that the investigations found much more than just a violation of the faculty-student relationship policies, as I pointed out in the previous post.]
At this point in the meeting, Bar-Sagi launched into what I think was one of the most revealing of her soliloquies, about the supposed lack of any complaints about Sabatini in the past. Bar-Sagi mentioned a long Twitter thread, widely read and ReTweeted, by Anne Carpenter, a former member of Sabatini’s lab who is now at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA.
In her Twitter thread, Carpenter refers to those former lab members who signed an anonymous letter in his support, as well as to the findings of the institutions that decided to severe their relationships with a cancer researcher whom all agree has made major contributions to science.
I do not believe that some lab members attesting to a wonderful experience in a lab means anyone can in good conscience ignore the outcomes of official proceedings, or of those who had a bad experience.
Bar-Sagi went on to, in effect, try to impeach Carpenter’s statements, using a now deleted Tweet and emails between Carpenter and Sabatini—which appear to have been supplied by the latter colleague, Bar-Sagi does not say where she got them—in which Carpenter writes to Sabatini about her positive experiences in his lab and offers to take him to lunch or coffee.
In a style that was typical of her statements during the meeting, Bar-Sagi issued a disclaimer—”I don’t want to use this as an example to discredit an individual, just want to caution us,” and then goes on to say: “When we see something like this it really begs the question of who is right and who is wrong” and how one “makes sure we don’t put in prison someone and then take them out after 50 years, we didn’t do our due diligence, sorry you spent all your life there.”
These comments by Bar-Sagi, taken together with those of her colleagues leading the meeting, are remarkable because they suggest that no one in the hiring process—which involved a scientist who had been ejected for misconduct by three major scientific institutions—appeared to have a single clue about research showing that survivors of abuse often stay in touch with their abusers, and why.
The meeting ended after Bar-Sagi and the others dealt with two last questions, including whether the purpose of the Webinar had been to convince colleagues about the decision NYU was making, and whether it would be made public. In response, Annette Johnson said that as one result of all the investigations, she could guarantee the safety of people who would work with Sabatini if he were hired. “I’m 100% certain that he will not have a relationship with someone in his lab again,” she said. “The message will be very clear.”
Bar-Sagi ended the meeting, saying that a recording of it would not be shared publicly, for fear that people could not be trusted not to “misuse” it in some way. The fact that the recording was leaked to at least three reporters anyway—with Science, Vice, and Words for the Wise—suggests that trust is a two-way street when it comes to an institution like the NYU medical school protecting its own faculty, students, and staff.
Sabatini’s public relations campaign.
When David Sabatini announced that he was withdrawing his request to work at NYU medical school, he used a public relations firm to do it. The firm apparently has been working overtime to try to restore Sabatini’s reputation, as evidenced by a rash of articles last month, almost all in the conservative or right-wing press, arguing that a major cancer researcher—who, in some accounts, might even have cured cancer—was the unjust victim of a #MeToo movement run amok.
Here are the leading examples, not so much to encourage anyone to read them as to demonstrate that they are all cut from the same cloth:
He Was a World-Renowned Cancer Researcher. Now He’s Collecting Unemployment (the guest piece on Bari Weiss’s newsletter that got the publicity ball rolling.)
We are All Katz and Sabatini (The American Conservative)
The #MeToo movement has claimed a brilliant scientist (American Thinker)
If it’s true that there is a liberal bias in academia, I’m not sure how much good these pieces in right-wing media will do Sabatini in the long run. But as an example of the “backlash” against the #MeToo movement we are currently seeing, it is hard to top.
Fortunately, the Sabatini case, so far, has had a happy ending. He will not be working at NYU medical school, thanks to a movement of students and faculty that made the administration and one of its leading female scientists beat a hasty retreat. (The involvement of some women, including those who claim to be feminists, in the backlash is a topic that needs much more exploring, and I will be writing more about that soon. We’ve already seen some disheartening signs, including the disgraceful saga of Times Up officials going to bat for Andrew Cuomo.)
But the coming period will be a real test for the #MeToo movement. As one who has covered it for nearly seven years now as a journalist and an advocate, I can make no predictions as to how it will turn out. But I do think those who are against abuses of all kinds can be counted on to put up a fierce fight, once they know who their true allies are, and are not.