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MIT professor accused of sexually harassing grad student resigns

A prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology biology professor and biotech founder accused of sexually harassing a graduate student and coercing her into sex resigned Friday after the university recommended that he lose tenure, officials said.

Former MIT professor David Sabatini announced his resignation Friday after he was accused of sexual harassment.David Sabatini

Dr. David Sabatini, 54, stepped down after MIT Provost Marty Schmidt, Dean of Science Nergis Mavalvala, and Biology Department Head Alan Grossman reviewed the allegations and recommended Sabatini’s tenure be revoked, according to a letter to faculty Friday from MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

“The reviewers found that Professor Sabatini behaved in ways incompatible with the responsibilities of faculty membership and that Professor Sabatini violated MIT’s Consensual Sexual or Romantic Relationships in the Workplace or Academic Environment policy,” Reif wrote.

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“Specifically, the reviewers found 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 continued.

He added that the committee “had significant concerns” about Sabatini’s “unprofessional behavior toward some lab members.”

Sabatini, in a separate statement, expressed his gratitude to MIT, where he began working in 2002, and said he looks forward “to setting the record straight and standing up for my integrity.”

“I am enormously proud of the many scientific achievements at my lab during my time at MIT, the science we have done and the talented professionals working there,” Sabatini said. “They have my enduring gratitude and especially for their words and actions of support as I have tried to persevere in this grueling process.”

“Although I have taken full responsibility for not informing the school as required about aspects of a personal relationship with a person who was not in my lab, the outcome here is both disappointing and out of all proportion to the actual, underlying facts,” he continued.

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Sabatini was placed on administrative leave by MIT in August following an investigation into claims of sexual harassment. At the same time, he was fired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and forced to resign from the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research, the Globe reported.

The woman who accused Sabatini, whom the Globe is not identifying because she is the alleged victim of sexual harassment, said he invited “her to social events at his lab where alcohol flowed freely” and where conversations were “85% sexual [and] 15% science,” according to a civil lawsuit she filed in December.

Sabatini created “a highly sexualized lab environment” where colleagues discussed sexual exploits and he tried to engage women in discussions about their sex lives and rewarded those willing to flirt with him, according to the lawsuit.

Sabatini’s lawyers denied the allegations, saying, “David Sabatini, the actual scientist, colleague, manager and mentor, bears no resemblance to the person described in the recently filed counterclaim.”

Sabatini had previously filed a lawsuit against his accuser, the Whitehead Institute, and the institute’s director, claiming he had a consensual sexual relationship with his accuser and was the victim of false claims made to “exact revenge against a former lover,” according to court records.

In a statement Friday, the woman’s attorneys, Ellen J. Zucker and retired US District Court judge Nancy Gertner, said they were “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 Prof. Sabatini.”

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“We thank MIT for recognizing that, in an academic setting such as this, in order to prevent sexual misconduct, policies must make clear that only effective consent to sexual activity is permitted and such consent is not possible in circumstances, such as this, where “unreasonable pressure [exists] … to ‘give in’ to sexual activity, such as when the person initiating the sexual activity [holds] a position of power over the other person,” the attorneys wrote.

Zucker said Sabatini’s accuser and her co-defendants “will be moving to dismiss Prof. Sabatini’s ill-conceived and meritless lawsuit” in the coming weeks. A spokeswoman for Sabatini said he still plans to pursue the lawsuit.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.