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The #MeToo movement is locked in struggle with the enablers of abuse, and with enemies within. Reinforcements needed. [Updated May 23, 2022]
The successful fight by students and faculty at NYU's medical school to prevent confirmed sexual harasser David Sabatini from being hired there is encouraging. But the enemy included alleged feminists
One thing the #MeToo movement has taught us is that survivors of sexual assault, harassment, bullying, and other abuses have lots of allies. Unfortunately, the abusers have allies too, sometimes very powerful ones. And they are not always men. That was shown clearly in the recent fight at New York University’s School of Medicine, where senior officials were so keen on hiring disgraced biologist David Sabatini that they formed a de facto defense team to try to rebut misconduct findings against him by three other prestigious institutions: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Whitehead Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI.)
I will get into the weeds of this sad and disgusting saga—which had a happy ending when Sabatini withdrew his job application after protests by students and faculty—in just a moment.
The Sabatini episode is just one example of fierce battles being fought by abusers and their allies against allegations by those who have experienced their misconduct first hand. Some call it a “backlash” against the #MeToo movement, but I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. A backlash usually implies that advocates for a particular position or movement are perceived to have gone too far, provoking a “correction” towards a more fair and balanced approach. But that’s not exactly what is happening with the #MeToo movement. Rather—and I am speaking as a reporter who has for a number of years covered the movement and investigated dozens of cases of abuse—something much more insidious is going on.
Abusers against whom the evidence is very clear are using powerful networks and connections to try to retain their positions of power, and enlisting important allies from those networks to help them do it. The allies are usually not dupes, nor can it said that they base their support for the abusers on a genuine conviction that miscarriages of justice have occurred, and the alleged abusers were unfairly convicted in the court of public opinion or social media. Rather, in most of the cases we are seeing, the allies of abusers are prioritizing institutional and personal considerations over the rights of victims and survivors. In that sense, they are enabling the abuses, directly, much as they might try to deny it.
In some cases, a #MeToo case turns into a proxy fight between those who essentially oppose abusers being punished and those who side with the victims. Without making any judgments about the current trial in the defamation suit by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard, the remarkable social media attacks against Heard are an example of the way the mob can rage out of control. Even before Heard took the stand to tell her side of the story, she was under fierce attack by Depp fans and stans, who decided based on little evidence that she was out to stick the famous actor for a bundle of money. I hope I never get any of these folks on a jury in a case against me…
Back to New York. The news that NYU’s medical school was thinking about hiring Sabatini was broken last April 25 by Meredith Wadman in Science magazine. Wadman, who has been covering #MeToo stories for Science for the past several years, is also one of the few reporters still covering misconduct in the sciences on a regular basis (I am another.) She has broken numerous important stories, and deserves credit for staying on this contentious beat, as do her editors for their proven commitment to the issues.
Wadman had earlier covered Sabatini’s fall from grace, as the Whitehead Institute, HHMI, and MIT either fired him or forced him to resign in the wake of misconduct investigations. The misconduct not only involved an inappropriate sexual relationship with a colleague, but also various kinds of conduct normally considered to be sexual harassment or creating a hostile environment for colleagues.
But last October, Sabatini launched a counter-attack on his accusers. He sued the Whitehead, its director, and the woman who accused him, claiming that the relationship had been consensual and that he was the victim of a “sham” investigation. That was followed in December with a counter-suit from his alleged victim, who provided details of a wide-range of misconduct by Sabatini in his lab.
The Boston Globe provided some details from the counter-suit, which I am quoting at length to give the full tenor of the accusations:
…in her lawsuit, the woman said that Sabatini “groomed” her “while she was a graduate student under his mentorship, inviting her to social events at his lab where alcohol flowed freely” and where conversations were “85% sexual [and] 15% science.” Before supporting her advancement, Sabatini asked whether she was “fun” and sexually available, according to the lawsuit.
Sabatini created “a highly sexualized lab environment” where colleagues discussed sexual exploits and where he tried to engage women in discussions about their sex lives and rewarded those willing to flirt with him, according to the lawsuit.
He allegedly pursued an undergraduate student working in his lab, offering to pay for a flight and hotel so he could spend time with her while traveling abroad, according to the lawsuit. In a meeting with another young woman, Sabatini allegedly said he wanted to work on “a project trying to figure out why pubic hair is the length that it is.”
The woman who filed the lawsuit says Sabatini coerced her into sex in 2018 after inviting her to Washington, D.C., to meet his colleagues. In his hotel room, he proposed they begin having casual sex and attempted to brush away her concerns about his influence over her career, according to court documents.
“In the end, although she never consented, he had his way,” the lawsuit stated.
Sabatini’s demands for sex continued, occurring more than 10 times in 2018 and 2019, often expressed though obscene text messages, the lawsuit alleged. When the woman tried to cut ties with him, he allegedly told her she was “crazy.”
The woman eventually left the Whitehead Fellows Program two years early to get away from Sabatini, according to court documents.
In other words, and despite the impression that Sabatini and later NYU med school officials tried to create, the allegations were extensive and aggravated. Moreover, the investigations by Sabatini’s former institutions, including MIT, found a pattern of behavior that included other lab members than just this one accuser, according to a letter MIT president L. Rafael Reif sent to the MIT community.
I have cited all this in detail because it makes the eagerness of NYU med school to hire Sabatini all the more callous and amazing. And as might be expected, the response from NYU students and faculty was swift, and very quickly effective in scotching what even NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, called an ill-advised hire.
The good news, of course, is that a groundswell of opinion at NYU, no doubt informed and inspired by the #MeToo movement and its insistence on zero tolerance for abuse, won the day once again (there have been many such victories, and they should not be discounted despite the continuing fight.) Less good news, in my view, is that the news media has concluded its coverage of the case, despite some very important leads that could still be pursued.
These appear in two stories at the end of April, one from Meredith Wadman in Science, and the second by Anna Merlan in Vice.com. These stories demonstrated just how fervently NYU officials defended Sabatini and argued not only for his hiring, but insisted—based on what evidence other than Sabatini’s protests of innocence—is not clear. Both Science and Vice obtained a recording of an 85 minute Zoom meeting, and these accounts have to be read to be believed. Remarkably, Sabatini’s NYU defense team consisted mainly of four women, led by Dafna Bar-Sagi, the med school’s vice-dean for science, and including Nancy Sanchez, an executive vice-president, Joan Cangiarelli, an associate dean, and Annette Johnson, the med school’s chief legal officer.
I can easily guess that some, if not all, of these women consider themselves “feminists,” or would claim to be they were if asked. (I am reminded of how leaders of Time’s Up secretly helped former New York governor Andrew Cuomo defend himself against sexual harassment allegations, which led to the resignations of several of its officials.)
Dafna Bar-Sagi, for example, is a well-known cancer researcher and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Sure enough, she has been honored for her work on behalf of women in science, receiving an award in 2018 from the American Association for Cancer Research for that work. During the protests against Sabatini’s hiring, a number of #MeToo and women’s advocates rightly asked what kind of example these officials were setting for the school, and what kind of message they were sending to incoming female students and faculty, about whether they were entering into an environment that would be protective if they were harassed, bullied, or worse.
Would it be too much to ask that Bar-Sagi and the others resigned at least their administrative positions, if not their academic ones, for their blatant failures in the Sabatini affair? I don’t think so, personally, but I am not holding my breath; obviously that is up to the community they have so blatantly betrayed. But if there are no consequences for outright allying oneself with abusers, there will be little more progress for the #MeToo movement.
Update May 23:
In what appears to be a coordinated campaign, at least six stories have appeared defending David Sabatini, all saying pretty much the same thing (sometimes exactly the same thing.) See my Twitter thread on this, updated regularly.