Backlash Erupts as N.Y.U. Weighs Hiring Scientist Accused of Harassment

Graduate students, faculty and alumni from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine staged a walkout Wednesday to protest a report that the school may soon hire Dr. David Sabatini, a biologist facing allegations of sexual harassment.

More than 100 people stretched across First Avenue in front of the NYU Medical Center, chanting and holding signs with slogans like “No means no” and “No to Sabatini.” They said they felt betrayed and confused by the possibility that Dr. Sabatini might join their school, which was reported in science.org.

“I hope he doesn’t get hired,” said Grant Hussey, a graduate student at the medical school. “The track record is clear.”

Credit…Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

Dr. Sabatini, 54, is a prominent biologist, best known for his discovery of the mTOR protein, which regulates cell growth in animals, as a graduate student. In a statement, he said accusations of sexual misconduct were false and declined to comment on potential employment at NYU

“As I have maintained consistently from the start, I differ sharply with the way this matter has been characterized, and I intend to set the record straight and stand up for my integrity,” Dr. Sabatini said.

Last August, Dr. Sabatini was placed on administrative leave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he ran a research lab through the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research, after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against him — conducted by a law firm separate from the university—found he had violated the institute’s sexual misconduct policy.

On the same day, Dr. Sabatini also resigned from the Whitehead Institute and was fired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which had been funding his work at MIT

He resigned from MIT earlier this month after three faculty members recommended that his tenure be revoked, according to a letter to faculty from L. Rafael Reif, MIT president, and obtained by The Boston Globe.

In the letter, Dr. Reif wrote that the faculty members had reviewed the allegations and found that Dr. Sabatini had violated the school’s policy on consensual romantic relationships in the workplace. They also had concerns about his “unprofessional” behavior with lab members.

At the protest, Megan Kirchgessner, a postdoctoral fellow at the medical school, said she was disappointed that the school would consider hiring a person facing accusations of sexual harassment when the role could have been offered to someone from an underrepresented background in science.

“It was kind of a moment of a cynical reality check,” Ms. Kirchgessner said.

Deborah DeLair, a professor at the medical school, said hiring Dr. Sabatini would contradict the school’s policies on sexual misconduct.

“The rules should apply to everyone regardless if you’re a well-known researcher,” she said. “You can’t say one thing and then do another.”

Several faculty members wrote a letter to the dean and vice dean of the medical school urging them not to recruit Dr. Sabatini. The letter, which was obtained by The New York Times, said that such a move could have a profound impact on the reputation of the school. As of Wednesday, it had been signed by about 90 faculty members.

“While we understand there are still legal proceedings in progress and that the public does not yet have all of the facts, we are worried that this hiring would signal a shift in policy that conflicts with our commitment to provide a respectful training environment, a culture of respect for women, and zero tolerance of misconduct,” the letter stated.

In a statement, Dafna Bar-Sagi, vice dean of the medical school, said the administration was evaluating the allegations and would not make a hiring decision that would “deviate” from the school’s policies.

“We are looking closely at Dr. Sabatini’s case because it is clear that many aspects of his departure from MIT and the Whitehead Institute were never publicly scrutinized,” Dr. Bar-Sagi said. “Moreover, dozens of Dr. Sabatini’s peers and colleagues have shared with us views that are at odds with the investigation and its outcome. That said, we take the concerns we are hearing from our faculty and trainees very seriously.”

It was not immediately clear what position Dr. Sabatini was being considered for or what stage the hiring process had reached.

In October 2021, Dr. Sabatini filed a lawsuit against the Whitehead Institute and his accuser, a former colleague, claiming that he had been wrongly accused of sexual harassment by the colleague, with whom he said he had had a consensual relationship. The accuser filed a countersuit in December, claiming Dr. Sabatini had coerced her into having sex, that he had created a “toxic and sexually charged lab environment” and that he had “groomed” her while she was still a graduate student being mentored by him.

Standing outside NYU on Wednesday, several medical school students and employees said that if Dr. Sabatini were to be hired, they would not attend his seminars and would avoid any school functions he goes to.

“We’re still at the point where we’re hoping we can have our voices heard enough before this actually goes through,” Ms. Kirchgessner said.

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