The Moral Panic at MIT

If you’re looking for proof that America’s panic-stricken institutions of higher education are still in the throes of punitive overreach from the MeToo movement, look no further than the announcement last week that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is parting ways with its most preeminent medical researcher, Dr. David Sabatini.

In the healthcare community, Sabatini is a superstar. His name has been mentioned for the Nobel Prize, among many other accolades, for his cutting-edge work on genetics and cellular growth, which many scientists believe could be a breakthrough for curing cancer. He also ran a lab at MIT’s prestigious Whitehead Institute for more than 20 years with a seemingly spotless record, including mentoring a cohort of young scientists who have gone on to productive careers of their own.

But MIT seems to have concluded that Sabatini’s successes count for less than the recriminations leveled at him by a colleague with whom he had a lengthy romantic relationship. In its announcement of his exit, MIT stated that Sabatini violated its policies by not disclosing this relationship, and he and his ex are currently in the middle of a lawsuit over competing versions of their dating history.

As someone who has long worked at the intersection of healthcare and politics, I took note of the coverage when the accusations against Sabatini were revealed and read both filings in the suit.

In his response, Sabatini claims that this former girlfriend, a doctor with her own lab at Whitehead, was angry after he declined her proposal of marriage, thus ending the relationship. While he presents extensive documentary evidence, including text messages, of their intimacy and affection, her counterclaim is that the relationship constituted sexual harassment and that Sabatini was “grooming” her coercively.

But the evidence presented in the filings suggests that this was more likely a bad breakup recast after the fact as misconduct. This kind of pattern has been one of the most alarming excesses of the MeToo moment, and in the hyper-charged atmosphere of higher education, it’s often lethal.

Tellingly, MIT’s announcement last week said that the university could not conclude any harassment had occurred. Instead, it alluded vaguely to “concerns” about Sabatini’s behavior and focused on his failure to disclose the relationship. But that, of course, could be said about his ex as well. And she still has her job.

[Related: “Comply, Evade, Violate: Three Responses to the New Title IX”]

When the story first broke, news outlets in the Boston area splashed headlines that Sabatini was an accused sexual harasser facing punishment from his employers, and the coverage of his exit is leaning into that same slanted framing. That’s irresponsible, not just because of the weak substance of the legal claims made against him, but because of another dog that didn’t bark: There are no other accusers. Not one.

We as a culture have seen enough of these cases to know that there is almost always more than one victim, especially when the accused is a powerful man with a long career at the top of his field (we can all think of a dozen such examples off the top of our heads). An unbiased reporter should find that curious and telling.

The one-sided press, and the fear of the backlash it could drive against the university, no doubt played a role in MIT’s decision to push Sabatini out on the thinnest of bases. We know all too well how moral panics and fear of cancel mobs have driven decision-making at elite institutions in recent years. That’s why it’s so striking that even the co-founder of the Whitehead Institute stuck up for Sabatini in the press, rebuking the prevailing narrative by telling Science magazine last week about Sabatini’s “excellent mentorship” of the scientists under him. Given what we know about the potential for cancellations to bring collateral damage to anybody who shows sympathy for the accused, this is another red flag indicating there’s more to the story than has been reported.

We have here a failure of both journalism and academia. They have abandoned their vaunted skepticism—the role for which society depends on them the most—in favor of blinkered tunnel vision with both hands over their ears. The Boston Globe’s hyperventilated reporting erroneously describes Sabatini’s ex as a “graduate student,” so vulnerable that they won’t even print her name or age. But in reality, she is a woman in her thirties, a fully credentialed PhD, who filed a public lawsuit, represented by a former US District Court judge.  The Globe thus infantilizes its subject while taking its readers for fools.

But for the accused, the process is the punishment, and it doesn’t take compelling proof of guilt to lose everything. For months, Dr. Sabatini has been cut off from his lab and his life’s work. Worse, he has been irreversibly stigmatized by mere accusations. In the current fever swamp that is our discourse, will any other institution have the integrity to look at the facts with a level head and give Sabatini a chance to continue his life-saving research?

Sexual harassment is a serious problem, and powerful men who prey on women should of course face serious consequences. But American universities are some of the worst places to adjudicate such cases, having shown no interest in either due process or common sense.


Image: Mys 721tx, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Ellen Carmichael

Ellen Carmichael is the president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political communications firm, and a former adviser to Dr. Tom Price.

12 thoughts on “The Moral Panic at MIT

  1. I am very happy to see this article see the light.

    I saw in one of the Telegram channels that Sabbatini’s accuser’s lawyer’s partner works for the Boston Globe so the Boston Globe story is a breach of journalistic integrity.

  2. There’s one aspect of this affair that is not mentioned, but I recognize, coming from an earlier generation. It’s an outgrowth of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Other manifestations are sexual assault of women in the armed forces, date rape in universities, children born out of wedlock and single mothers, porn addiction, priest and scoutmaster abusers, and executive harassers. Some price to pay for this “freedom”.

  3. Some more details about Sabatini and the case they constructed

    https://www.fiercebiotech.com/biotech/biotech-founder-mit-researcher-david-sabatini-alleges-false-sexual-harrassment-claims

    The investigation into Sabatini was spurred by results from a diversity, equity and inclusion survey that highlighted “issues of particular concern in the Sabatini Lab,” which included nearly 40 members.

    The investigation began in March of this year to look into the culture within Sabatini’s lab. The survey that led to the investigation was completed by “less than a half-dozen” people in the lab, the court record claims. Sabatini claims Whitehead’s attorneys attempted to “elicit unflattering information about Dr. Sabatini” from lab members and that “several interviewees” complained to the institute’s director about bias from the lawyers and “their intransigent refusal to listen to the truth.”

    Sabatini claimed Whitehead did not allow his lawyers to be present when the investigators interviewed him. The investigation led to a 229-page report, which Whitehead received Aug. 13. Seven days later, Sabatini was ousted.

  4. And she still has her job…

    There are two issues here.

    First, while private, MIT is a land grant college. (MA split the grant.) Hence how “private” is MIT?

    Second, MA not only has a state ERA, but the SJC based the gay marriage decision on it. Hence this is like MIT firing the Black guy but not the White guy for the same offense.

    How does he not have grounds for a suit against MIT?

    And the thing about mandating employees report relationships is that applies to same-sex ones as well. While I can’t speak to MIT, there a lot of those in the Student Affairs profession. How many of those are reported?

    1. And I see that the Boston Globe has tracked down & interviewed these women.

      Oh, wait, it hasn’t. And what might that mean?

      And how does a nonconsenual relationship become consentual? Women who are raped tend not to think very highly of the man who attacked them.

      1. And as to any alleged scientific frauds, that is an issue which must be segregated from any alleged actions of the individuals involved because the knowledge does not become corrupt merely because of the moral turpitude of those who discovered the knowledge. Truth does not become falsehood merely because of who discovered it.

        Conversely, what I will politely call shoddy research is pandemic today and even if Dr. Sabatini actually did everything opposing counsel alleges, he shouldn’t be singled out for particular scrutiny. Get him for what he actually did, if he actually did it — anything else is clearly a witch hunt.

        A similar issue arose with Ward Churchill and I would have liked to seen him fired for what he said (particularly when he said it) instead for the shortcomings of his research.

        Academia has a very serious problem with shoddy research, something that was demonstrated nearly 30 years ago by the Sokal Hoax, and then more accurately demonstrated in 2015 — https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aac4716

        That’s a very different issue from how men with power are treating female colleagues — or how women with power are treating their male colleagues.

      2. A note of erstwhile Professor Churchill:
        First, Churchill referred to the 9/11 victims as ‘little Hitlers’. While reprehensible, his speech is clearly protected under the principle of academic freedom– no faculty member should be punished for any position he holds in his discipline. The subsequent uproar lead to an examination of his scholarly work, in which (among other things) he plagiarized a paper and invented an atrocity. Academic freedom protects speech, but it does not indemnify anyone against academic misconduct.

    2. No, the lawsuit doesn’t “allegate” that other women were abused. His ex-girlfriend cites two other women who had questionable conversations but the response filings say that “does not square with reality. The female undergraduate in question refuted that anything untoward ever occurred between her and Dr. Sabatini, and even the post-doc whom she reported the comment labeled it ‘absurd’.”

      What’s more, the filings show that that his ex had already received her PhD, was in her thirties, and weeks later would have her M.D.

      In order to accept your interpretation of how the relationship started, you have to believe that she was initially coerced and then proceeded to have an almost two year relationship and proposed — which seems hard to figure, putting it mildly.

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