NYU med school students, staff walk out to protest potential hiring of David Sabatini
Hundreds of community members at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine protested the potential hiring of David Sabatini, who resigned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this month after sexual misconduct allegations.
April 28, 2022
More than 200 students and employees staged a walkout to protest the NYU Grossman School of Medicine’s potential hiring of biologist David Sabatini outside the school’s Kimmel Pavilion on Wednesday, April 27. Sabatini, a former tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned on April 1 following a student’s allegations of sexual harassment.
Grossman students, staff, faculty and postdoctoral students demanded that Grossman protect its students by ending the employment consideration at the rally, which took place across from the NYU Langone Medical Center at 30th Street and First Avenue. Kritika Srinivasan, a Ph.D. candidate at Grossman, said she attended the walkout because she believes that hiring Sabatini would contradict the ideals that the school claims to uphold.
“We want to be in an environment that supports scientific training regardless of who you are, where you come from,” Srinivasan said. “We came here because we believed in that and we want to take that with us. We want to be proud of being part of NYU, of being future alumni of NYU and not being associated with an NYU which hires a person who is associated with sexual harassment.”
Grossman had been in talks for several weeks about the potential hiring of Sabatini, as first reported by Science. A Grossman spokesperson said the school has not yet made an official decision about his employment and is working to ensure that any decisions the administration makes would be informed by evidence.
“We know there are concerns in our community about news accounts that we are evaluating the possibility of hiring Dr. David Sabatini, and we take those views seriously and are engaging with our stakeholders about that process,” the spokesperson said. “We would never make a hiring decision that would place any of our students, faculty, or staff at risk, and we are in the midst of an extensive and careful due diligence process with a broad group of stakeholders. We urge the community to not prejudge or draw unwarranted conclusions until our full evaluation has been completed.”
Former employee witnessed misconduct by Sabatini
In early April, Sabatini resigned from MIT after university officials recommended that his tenure be revoked. They found he had violated MIT’s consensual sexual relationships policy and acted unprofessionally around some lab members.
Sabatini also stepped down from his role in the university’s nonprofit biomedical research center, the Whitehead Institute, in August 2021 after an outside law firm found he had breached MIT’s sexual harassment and misconduct policies. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Maryland-based nonprofit research organization with locations in Boston and New York City, fired him on the same day.
Hiring him sends the message that you can do whatever you want to your trainees without repercussions.”
— former MIT employee who worked around Sabatini
A former Whitehead Institute employee who requested to remain anonymous said they regularly witnessed inappropriate behavior from Sabatini toward multiple students and lab members. They said NYU Grossman’s consideration of Sabatini demonstrates its administration’s lack of respect for the safety of students and community members.
“People [at MIT] are scared to speak out on their experiences because of the clearly documented retaliation,” they said. “He has yet to take ownership of what he’s done or to apologize, and hiring him sends the message that you can do whatever you want to your trainees without repercussions.”
After an assistant professor at MIT — who worked with Sabatini while she was a graduate student at the university — came forward with sexual misconduct allegations against him in 2021, he filed a defamation lawsuit against her and the Whitehead Institute. In the accuser’s counterclaim to the suit, she alleged that Sabatini groomed an undergraduate student and frequently asked women in his lab about their sexual lives.
“The Sabatini Lab created and perpetuated a training and work environment that was sexually charged, discriminatory and hostile,” the counterclaim reads. “He also created a lab environment where members feared punishment if they dared to speak out about the discrimination they experienced or witnessed.”
NYU community members lose trust in Grossman administration
At the walkout and on social media, some protesters pointed to the biologist’s father, David Sabatini — a professor emeritus of cell biology at NYU Langone — as a potential factor in the school’s consideration of Sabatini.
“It’s a sad reminder that nepotism and power and money overrides normal procedures of bringing in faculty that can actually provide a safe and useful training environment,” said a Grossman administrator, who attended the walkout and requested to remain anonymous. “It makes me feel disheartened that we’re not doing anything transparently about making sure our workplace is a safe environment — that we’re either denying it or leadership is not telling us why they’re looking the other way about this.”
An open letter condemning Sabatini’s potential recruitment has continued to gain traction, listing around 250 signatures as of April 27. Signees pledged not to give lectures or teach at the school, attend Langone events, or work with the school’s Langone labs, experiments, facilities or projects until the university is no longer considering hiring Sabatini.
Wei Ji Ma, an NYU professor of neural science and psychology who signed the letter, said he hopes that the administrators who support Sabatini’s hiring will reconsider their decision. He said the conversations have already damaged the university’s reputation and legacy.
“It is bizarre to me that the NYU medical school is even considering hiring someone who has been fired for sexual misconduct,” Ma said. “I get that, legally, there might be wiggle room, but I don’t get why NYU should act as his personal lawyer. I also don’t get why all these resources are not made available for excellent scientists who have never been accused of ethics violations.”
A Ph.D. student who requested to remain anonymous said they felt supported by the students, staff, faculty and postgraduates present at the walkout. They called on the school’s dean and chief executive officer Robert Grossman and its executive vice president Dafna Bar-Sagi to listen to the demands of the protest and concerns in the open letter.
“It’s difficult to believe that someone in the future would feel comfortable coming forward with concerns about how they’re being treated in the workplace if NYU went out to recruit this man who was found by three separate institutions to have violated those policies,” they said. “They’re saying that they’re going to do their own due diligence and investigate the matter, but what do they think they’re going to uncover that three separate institutions were unable to uncover?”
Contact Abby Wilson at [email protected]