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.
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.