Biology

Prominent biologist David Sabatini out at MIT after breaching sexual relationship policy | Science

David Sabatini, the high-profile biologist who was forced out of the Whitehead Institute in summer 2021 after a probe found he violated its sexual harassment policies, has resigned his tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His move came after three senior MIT officials recommended revoking his tenure.

“Professor Sabatini has stepped down from his tenured faculty position at MIT … without exercising his policy right to request that a faculty committee … review the recommendation to revoke tenure,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email to faculty members this afternoon.

Reif wrote that the recommendation came from Biology Department Head Alan Grossman, Dean of Science Nergis Mavalvala, and Provost Martin Schmidt, who “found that Professor Sabatini behaved in ways incompatible with the responsibilities of faculty membership” and violated MIT’s 2018 workplace policy governing consensual sexuality relationships. “Professor Sabatini engaged in a sexual relationship with a person over whom he held a career-influencing role, 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.”

Reif added: “The Committee also had significant concerns regarding his unprofessional behavior toward some lab members.”

In an emailed statement, Sabatini called the outcome “both disappointing and out of all proportion to the actual, underlying facts. I look forward to setting the record straight and standing up for my integrity.”

Sabatini, who codiscovered a key mammalian signaling pathway, relinquished his position and lab at the nonprofit Whitehead Institute in August 2021, at the same time as his funder, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), fired him. A probe conducted for the Whitehead Institute by an outside law firm had concluded he violated the institute’s sexual harassment policies. But Sabatini continued as a faculty member at MIT, which placed him on leave while it investigated whether to revoke his tenure.

In October, Sabatini filed a defamation lawsuit against the Whitehead Institute and two of its scientists: its director, Ruth Lehman, and a junior colleague who had told investigators that he sexually harassed her. In the lawsuit, Sabatini called the Whitehead probe a “sham and alleged that the junior colleague was out “to punish an ex-lover.” The lawsuit is ongoing.

Ellen Zucker and Nancy Gertner, lawyers who are representing the junior colleague, said in a statement: “We are grateful that MIT has taken seriously the concerns expressed by multiple women and men who dared to step forward and candidly discuss their experiences with Professor Sabatini.”

Sabatini has defenders at MIT. Institute molecular biologist Harvey Lodish has been overseeing Sabatini’s research group since he was placed on leave. “They are doing spectacular work,” he says. “His people get excellent positions when they leave the lab. Which are all marks of excellent mentorship.”

But Nancy Hopkins, an emeritus professor of biology who helped lead a landmark push for gender equality on the MIT faculty in the 1990s, called the Sabatini resignation “a milestone,” noting in an email, “First, MIT had rules in place that forbid the faculty behavior in question. Second, a young woman had the courage to demand that the rules be enforced. And third, she was heard.”

She added: “It is noteworthy—and another sign of progress—that the heads of HHMI and the Whitehead Institute and MIT’s Dean of Science are all women—two of them the first women to hold these positions.”

Update 1 April, 10:20 pm: A comment from Harvey Lodish was added to this story.

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