The Spotlight Team recently published a two-part series about the fate of a star scientist whose career imploded amid allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment. The case against David Sabatini is full of complications and nuance. It has polarized the scientific community like few others — some say his punishment was excessive; others say it was entirely deserved.
We welcome your feedback. Please fill out the following form. A sample of responses can be seen below.
SOME READER RESPONSES SO FAR TO THE ABOVE QUESTIONS
Philippe Bloch from NYC, but lived in Boston for 40 years: I find the conclusion of the report: In conclusion, the investigators placed Sabatini at the center of the blame, writing: “These findings, in the aggregate, portray a high-achieving but troubled laboratory led by a brilliant but personally flawed and immature scientist whose management of a diverse, talented and vulnerable workforce is inconsistent, arbitrary and, at times, lacking in professionalism and social awareness” EXACTLY SPOT-ON, with the word IMMATURE double underscored. This is a BOY-MAN. I am a very midlevel academic administrator at a neighboring University. On the door to my office at work, I have a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” D Sabatini assumed business as usual will always business as usual. A relationship he ground underfoot came back to bite him...Watch their character, cunning, fear of getting caught and and realization of inevitability as the net closes in on them. How do they justify? Where do they hide their shame? Why are they unable to change?
“Concerned Academic” from Worcester: It is clear that Whitehead over reacted - it seems like there was little due diligence. The result might have been the same either way but it is clear that there was a rushed process...Clearly sleeping with a women who is beginning her career and almost entirely dependent on you is an abuse of ones position/power. While this article implies many times that in a science lab boys will be boys since they are working so hard on such important things, this is clearly not OK for all members of the lab. Creating an inclusive workspace means having less ‘fun’ but creating a safe working environment. The fun will come from working hard and with people who you trust.
Anonymous: It’s difficult to know what fully transpired from these articles, but here’s what I can tell you. In academia and scientific research, the principal investigator or advisor has a lot of power over grad students, staff and trainees. Those especially who are recognized as leaders in their field and pull in a lot of grant money for the institution are like rock stars. Right now, most of them are men and some of them are immature and insecure in their ego. If you cross them by not being happy about their behavior (and being vocal or not going along with it) you risk your career. When it comes to women (and age doesn’t actually matter) this can mean accepting advances, rude jokes etc. They hold the power by being able to hire/fire, make connections for you or break them. Academia is a small world and it can be difficult for someone to further their career once someone in power who has been crossed decides their ego is too fragile to accept it.
Jude Stevens of Cape Cod: If a man in a position of power demonstrates such blatant disregard for both organizational policy and the emotional well-being of others over whom he wields power, why should he not expect his deserved consequences?... Respect boundaries and keep it in your pants if you can’t. Consent is not unspoken. Believe survivors.
Anonymous: This reads like something out of The Crucible. This rush to judgement where careers can be ruined overnight will be looked back upon one day in horror, as happened with McCarthy’s zealous persecutions. But, as was the case then, careers will have been ruined for no good reason....Companies and institutions need to realize that you cannot throw human beings together for a dozen hours a day, every day, without things happening, and without grey areas. Policies need to be more humane. Accused individuals need to be accorded due process. We damage ourselves as a society in the absence of this.
Deb of Boston: An alpha male and a woman scorned, that’s it. Much ado about nothing.
Anonymous: The Whitehead Institute had a strict policy against relationships to prevent exactly what transpired between Sabatini and Knouse. There’s little way to know whether or to what extent a relationship is exploitative or consensual when there’s a power dynamic and two people’s futures on the line. The whining about lack of due process is childish and ignores the fact that Sabatini willingly and repeatedly violated the policy. (Whether Knouse also should or would have been fired is a moot point since she resigned from the lab.) He knowingly broke corporate policy and assumed he’d get a slap on the wrist. As the kids say, he ----ed around and found out.
New York City resident but formerly from Boston: There is a public dimension to this story that the article and commenters so far have not mentioned. Sabatini is a world class research scientist whose future contributions could have led to cures for devastating diseases and other significant benefits to humanity. By destroying his career, Whitehead and MIT have deprived all of us of the fruits of his work. The administrators who decided his fate - likely out of fear (justified) of litigation and of having a mob turn their fury on them (also not an unreasonable concern) - do not appear to have considered this loss to the public welfare. Perhaps a wiser way could have been found to do justice in this case. As it stands, everyone is a loser.
Anonymous: Warn male workers to never get involved with female co-workers and tell women workers to “just say no”. Don’t label every relationship between individuals who work together as sexual harassment and when complaints about behavior arise let’s have a full investigation! ...The punishment was draconian. Relationships develop in the workplace and it’s always the men who suffer the consequences when the go sour. I am a woman who entered a traditional men’s profession in the 60′s and I appreciate that there have always been male predators in the workplace, there have also been women who have used their sexuality to gain advantage in ascending to the highest levels of their professions.
Steve Jones of NYC: One key aspect that is continuously ignored, in this, and other reporting about the case, is the common knowledge that victims of abuse have a massive tendency to “normalize” what has happened. This is very much obvious in the case of Knouse, who was coerced into sex with someone who she was initially expected to trust (member of her dissertation committee, formal MIT mentor), and for whom she clearly developed feelings of friendship and trust over the years, as a colleague with common interests and social life. Their first sexual encounter involved numerous circumstances for which it is obvious she doubted, second-guessed herself, with the involvement of drinks and good times and acceptance of invitation to lay in bed, as if that was not an invitation to sex. All subsequent interactions are a product of attempting to undo what she perceives she has a partial responsibility for, even when she doesn’t. So, for all the attempts to minimize what has happened, with the generalizations of “women scorned”, try putting yourself in her shoes, facing the continued negative mental health impact of the inappropriate relationship she was led into, while he moves on to another woman. Feeling of being violated only increases and undoubtedly leads to ideas of destruction, revenge and justice. There is only one victim in this, and it is not Sabatini. He got to do his thing for 25+ years, in science and life it seems. For Knouse, the promising career will always come against the tide of superficial public opinion, wrongly painting her a villain.
Geoff from Jamaica Plain: Even if it was consensual, the policy is extremely clear cut. And placing the onus on the more senior staff member to avoid violations is a smart approach. There’s not really enough evidence in this piece to conclude one way or another about whether it was consensual, and without more info on the report it’s hard to say my opinion on his lab culture. I am absolutely unsurprised that many former lab members could have found an environment that is hostile to women and non-white members to be a welcoming and vibrant research environment for themselves...Fire abusive managers.
Jay from Chelsea: I think the labs policy on relationships is incomplete. We all know people in similar professions working in shared environments will sometimes experience attraction and even fall in love. There needs to be a way to work through it - a policy that allows couples to develop a plan and execute that does require deceit and secrecy.
Moll Pitcher from Marblehead: I applaud legitimate actions arising out of Me, Too and detest those actions being employed as retaliation through a misuse of power. Quit demonizing men through contempt prior to investigation...I am a boomer female and I despair that today’s younger females characterize themselves as too fragile and helpless to accept life on life’s terms, and instead prefer to tantrum, regardless of outcomes. She was an adult who chose to keep sleeping with someone who had made it clear he wanted friendship only.
Anonymous: The Whitehead did exactly what it had to do - fire a man that abused his power to force a mentee into having sex with him, a concept commonly known as rape. He also clearly enjoyed sexual banter with lab members all of which rely on his power for their careers. This man is entirely unfit for any leadership position and is not deserving of a second chance until he apologizes to all those he caused irreparable harm to.
Henry Feldman of Needham: Don’t make the policies absolute, accommodate some flexibility into the rules, and consider on the merits of each case in a real-world viewpoint; I get that the whitehead was responding to external pressure to be seen cutting down on “bro culture” by a certain segment but now we’ve flipped to far the other way (I want honest feedback, but you can’t use blunt language or make me feel bad!). It’s similar to mandatory sentencing guidelines to force judges to not be able to use their discretion; this implies that every situation is identical, and they aren’t. People end up under these rules having weird stilted conversations that seem like they’re reading off a teleprompter to make sure not to run afoul of these rules, which of course gets later cited as not providing support to female researchers compared to male researchers or whatever. They should rely heavily on former mentees’ testimony which at least in this article seem to imply the overwhelming majority felt Dr sabatini was a pretty good mentor. Disclosure: I am a mid-career male academic physician-researcher.
Anonymous: Two ruthlessly self-absorbed careerists walk into a bar, knock back a dozen single-malts, and end up in bed. Later things go south. As much as this article wants to suggest that KK was seeking revenge as a woman jilted, it is Sabatini who bears responsibility for the mess. Human relationships are a morass, especially when sex enters the picture. That’s why we need rules.
Anonymous: I’ve worked in labs, a couple of them toxic, and there is nothing here in the Sabatini lab at that level. I’m surprised that Whitehead and MIT did not give more weight to the opinions of people who worked in the space. As scientists, we’re taught to not fall in love with a hypothesis because then the only evidence you see is that which would tend to confirm your biases. As the story says, we live in a time of hair-trigger retribution. This article should give us pause.
Anonymous: The outcome was predetermined with the goal of protecting the “leadership” from litigation. Sabatini never had a chance to be heard, nor was a plan ever considered to remediate the problems while preserving the strength of his scientific contributions.
Anonymous: The Whitehead handled this situation appropriately by firing David and protecting those that came forward against his inappropriate, abusive, and hostile actions.
Anonymous: It’s complicated but the policies need to take into account human nature and behavior. You can’t expect people to work 70-80 hours a week, and not date on the workplace. If they don’t get to spend anytime outside of the lab, how and where are they going to make personal relationships? But regardless, it will still happen - we have a lot in common with our colleagues. Once the relationship between Dr. Sabatini and Dr. Knouse crossed into the intimate realm, they should have requested and received some distance in the workplace. And this needs to be normalized not stigmatized. Hiding such relations doesn’t work and never works well, He should not have been allowed to be part of any committees regarding her career - promotion, etc. Of course, the problem with science is that the connections are complicated - how will be excluded as peer-reviewer in her publications? Sometimes these are anonymous, but only on one side - the reviewer usually knows the identity of the authors’ of a paper, but the authors do not know the identity of the reviewers....There should have been repercussions but I am not convinced this was handled well. The boys will be boys culture needs to go. This message needs to be received loud and clear by the boys. And if firing them is the only way to make this happen then so be it. I think the policies in place were set up to fail. You can’t just tell people - don’t date on the workplace, and expect that everything will be fine.
John Bozeman of South Carolina: Employers are allowed to make employment decisions. The two individuals broke a clear published rule and after an external investigation made an employment decision.
Reader from Lowell: Don’t date or have sexual relationships with colleagues regardless of the institution’s rules. There’s always a risk it will turn ugly and one party will want to punish the other... there was extreme bias against the accused and he was not given opportunity to tell his side. To me, this seems like a classic case of “friends with benefits” where one friend wants more and the other is fine with the original agreement. She felt betrayed and went for blood.
Anonymous: Very difficult situation, consensual until he broke up with her. It’s all on DS —the endless attacks on his character, the 248 page report, the vendetta-like action by KK and Ms Lehman. why did he not have opportunity to defend himself. Incredibly one-sided, it’s over the top. It’s hard to believe actually and though he was somewhat of a superior, she was entirely willing and takes responsibility as well.
Jean Gibran: Tho I enjoy a glass of scotch, wine with dinner, I blame these scotch bashes within a scientific community as completely out of line. Encouraging alcohol consumption within a workplace sector - even in separate quarters from the office, lab, classroom - should be taboo. Hard to control workers’ personal relationships, especially if they migrate to intimacy, but perhaps controlling behavior before it gets out of hand - like forbidding workplace profanity or even fun flirting may influence avoid horrible situations that led to Sabatini’s & Knouse’s problems.
Carol, from Massachusetts:
MIT did not do well here. They piled on David Sabatini unfairly. MeToo is great but this was a romantic consensual relationship gone awry.
Barbara, from Massachusetts:
Sabatini may not have had bad intentions and might not understand how harmful his actions were, but it’s imperative that teachers, mentors, bosses, etc. must refrain from intimate relationships with students, younger colleagues, etc. It’s a huge power imbalance.
I have conducted well over one hundred sexual misconduct investigations for institutions, and I can attest that they are almost always incredibly complex and full of nuance because that is the nature of human behavior. If Sabatini’s termination was based entirely on his violation of the policy against workplace relationships, and/or the termination was based on credible complaints of employees aside from Knouse, the termination may have been justified (assuming that result is consistent with others found responsible for similar violations). If sexual harassment was one of the “charges,” though, the investigation should have included an analysis of whether the relationship was consensual, as sexual harassment typically requires a finding that the attention was “unwelcome” and “severe and pervasive.” As for the process, investigations like this typically permit the respondent to provide evidence in their favor and to review a draft report before a conclusion is drawn. If Sabatini did not have that opportunity, that is a problem. If Sabatini simply chose not to respond, that was a poor decision. Finally, the parties and witnesses should never leave an interview feeling as though “the fix is in,” because perception is reality, and the community must have confidence in the integrity of the investigation.
There is something really off about this “report” and the whole process , and I consider myself a feminist. This is two adults, both highly accomplished and capable, who had a relationship that ended badly. Welcome to the human race. The complaints about the lab felt like they were pretzeled into a foregone conclusion, and certainly do not rise to his professional destruction, or what happened to the lab. We have to stop lumping all these kinds of complaints into one bucket. It does a disservice to men and women.
So far this appears to be much ado about nothing. Consenting adults, etc.
Margo Howard of Florida:
Work is a perfectly legitimate place to meet people, and a mutual attraction shouldn’t be verboten. What is a sticky wicket is when partner is subordinate to the other. Perhaps a part of HR could be tasked with determining whether or not the relationship allows for favoritism and/or advancement. ...MIT, or Whitehead, should reconsider its policy. Kudos to the New York institution (NYU) for evaluating the situation in a more realistic light.
I always get a kick of these articles where a bunch of 20 years olds in their first job are surprised to learn that sometimes some people swear at work, or like to be around the boss and somehow that is a “hostile work environment.” Name one workplace where that doesn’t happen?
He was never her advisor or in a direct position to enact any type of revenge against her. She chose to have a relationship with him (as adults do) and relationships don’t always work out. He never threatened her academic career which is usually the type of situation where intervention by the institution is a necessity. He’s an example of the high-flying “hot” academic male who behaves a bit like a frat bro, a bit flirtatious, hanging out and drinking with the younger set. Not a great look but nothing worth torpedoing his career for.
I think Whiteheads policy of no relationships between colleagues is unrealistic. These high achieving scientists are working among the small minority of people who think in similar ways and have a passion for science; of course there is going to be attraction and relationships.
Natalie of Massachusetts:
There were two examples given in the story of two couple who became romantically involved. They reported this to the upward command in the hierarchy and were allowed to continue. The Whitehead Institute did not have this path of communication and thus things became very complicated with the principals not being able to openly discuss their situation with people who control their fate.
Kate in Pennsylvania:
MIT seemed intimidated into “canceling” him because of what was going on at that moment in time (and still is). I feel like I have unique perspective as someone who, seventeen years ago at the age of 22, had a two-year long relationship with someone twice my age - someone in a position of power in my workplace. Were we both aware of the power dynamic? Yes. But it was completely consensual, and I reflect on it with fondness and love. I eventually moved on when I realized it would not progress as I had hoped. ... I kept our very private relationship private and moved on with my life. He and I still speak occasionally to this day (I am now happily married with several children). Disparate power in the workplace does not always equal coercion, and this girl - woman, I should say - was 30 years old when this began. I cannot even believe the nightmare that this Dr. Sabatini has endured.
It seems to me like the severity of the punishment here is not fitting the severity of the crime. It is easier for some people to treat all of these type of situation is like the Harvey Weinstein scenario, but that would be lazy, reductive, and not accurate. The current zero-tolerance policies in place for workplace relationships seem very much to me like Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just say no to drugs” approach. Most people now understand that the problem of drug abuse and addiction is more complex and that incarceration is not the only (or often most optimal) way to deal with it. I don’t think we are at a point yet as a society where sexual harassment is seen in the same way. We still mostly have only firing / career termination options, and we don’t seem capable of nuanced thought or evaluation of cases individually based on facts. Maybe the pendulum will swing back to the middle in that regard in more time.
Geoffrey Walter, of California:
It is weak-minded for Whitehead Institute to change a policy toward very restrictive without a period for people to “come clean” about their current relationships. For the gate to come down in an instant is indefensible. Imagine if two people came forward at the announcement of the new policy: would they both be terminated based on their actions before the policy change? ... The new policy, however well-intended, was poorly thought-out and even more poorly executed. In particular, Whitehead had scientists passing judgment administratively and lawyers passing judgment on the working of a scientific lab. Stunningly weak-minded.
Anonymous: Keep work and personal separate. Enjoy time with your co-workers but maintain boundaries. If you’re having struggles that are starting to play out in your work life, find a good therapist.
William Garvey of Westerly, R.I.: I work in pharmaceuticals and bioscience...over forty-two years. Modern and progressive companies train the their workforce to avoid some of these issues. Did Whitehead do the same? Perhaps case study-type teaching using real life examples would help. These examples will explain, “What can go wrong? And what are the possible outcomes?” Begin this teaching within weeks of hire. And what are the possible outcomes? Workplace distractions Gossip and inuendo Public embarrassment Retaliation Based on what I have read here about David Sabatini, I’m surprised he didn’t try to take Kk down with him.
Barbara: (There is) the regret and anger I carry nearly 4 decades after I had a consensual relationship with a 34 year old staff member at my high school when I was a senior. We were open about it once I graduated. I had some fun adventures but actually didn’t want the relationship and didn’t know how to get help or get out of it. I felt like it was my fault to get involved with him and didn’t understand that I didn’t have to stay. I wish the adults I knew had stepped in & helped me rather than accepting the relationship. As I read the readers’ comments I feel a need to speak out. These older man...boss, teacher, mentor, coach, etc /younger student,.employee, etc relationships are always unequal and have long lasting impacts regardless of the consensual appearance.
Rachelle Browne of Boston: Rather than termination, both scientists should have been disciplined by suspensions, in his case for a longer period of time. Termination, without any finding that the relationship was not consensual, just makes no sense. Both showed poor judgment, mixing alcohol (including during the work day in the lab) and planning outings around alcohol with professional colleagues is just a set up for further bad choices.
Lee Roscoe: Women have power over their own choices no matter how much power men may have over them. Isn’t that what feminism should be, self assertion? That the institutions were so ready to condemn him without a fair and total hearing, and without holding her accountable also for her own actions, seems backwards. Men can be pricks and hell hath no fury....I get the rage, been there, done that, but take it up with the man, do no institutionalize it.
Beverly resident: Their main funder, NIH, had explicitly made diversity, equity and inclusion a priority and there was a clear emphasis on bringing more women into the field. The institutions appear to have handled the situation rather stringently but in clear deference to their largest funders. Appears to be a case of follow the money.
Faye: Follow the RULES!! They are there for exactly this type of situation. It’s very similar to the Boston Celtics situation with the coach...He should be given another opportunity though but advised that any violation of any rules and he’s out
Lance Manion: Follow the rules: No relationships at Whitehead is a rule. Objectively, they both broke that rule. I wonder if Knouse would have been terminated under the same policy or if she gets a “pass” because she later alleged she was harassed...Hard to tell if Dr. Sabatini was given a chance to defend himself against the Report’s conclusions. The investigators had to use their own judgment in weighing the parties’ respective credibility. However, in this report, it doesn’t seem that the reporters gave fair weight to his defenses (or the witnesses who supported Sabatini and his lab culture), while presuming Knouse was telling the truth on everything.
Bill Palmer of Boston: Reading between the lines: Sabatini lied to the investigators and also obstructed the investigation. He also violated a clear policy that came into being forbidding the sexual relationship. He lacks character. How can such an individual be a trusted lab leader ….. He can’t, is the simple answer. (Also, if he’s so brilliant & inventive as a molecular biologist, why is his only option academia? He should start a biotech company (or work for a biotech start up). (Also) Don’t have sex with a colleague and conceal it!
Anonymous: Why not provide him oversight and training in behavior rather than lose all the positives he offers? Much time and money was invested in a report that came to conclusions about Sabatini that had more positives he gave to the company than negatives. Sabatini should receive something in the way of public acknowledgement of what he did wrong, and a way to make a recompense but I think in our society there are still many immature men who dont get it.... I worked with many years ago when I had my babies and was told I should not be working many times by many men. Expectations have changed some still meed more education, a second chance before tossing.
Adam of Boston: You can never get real consent when you hold that much power over someone. At least wait until they start their own lab! For that reason alone, the decision to fire him was correct. Getting rid of someone who may also be predatory is just a bonus.
Tara Lew of Boston: Dr. Sabatini’s arrogance and overestimation of the power his brilliance gave him is underanalyzed here. Also unmentioned is that young women get power from sex. As long as the culture rewards men who render invisible women unattractive to them, women are going to need to use sex when they can to even the playing field. This is a systemic flaw not an individual one. Don’t blame the player, fix the game. Dr. Sabatini and men like him need to learn that our institutions are not their pimps.
Culty McNulty of Boston: It is hard to say whether this was appropriate because it felt from the beginning that this was an effort to course correct the larger societal issue of “cancel culture” rather than accurately assess whether Dr. Sabatini’s behavior merited the punishment received. Rather than seemingly lay his disgrace at Dr. Knouse’s doorstep, perhaps more examination of the other complaints and more specifics. There are a lot of brilliant minds that get exiled by micro and macroaggressions inspired the culture Sabatini created. Hooray if you are hot enough to get his attention or are a male willing to engage in the same antics, but the burnout and lack of acknowledgement that comes from not playing the game by the rules dictated by someone willing to abuse power was not fully explored. This was about more than Dr. Knouse’s experience. He reinforced a generation of scientists Tom Jew the workplace as a hunting ground, that brilliant minds are secondary to sex appeal if you are a woman, and that using the workplace as a dating pool is acceptable if you have enough power. This is about abuse of power not sex. Dr. Knouse’s was powerful but he was far more powerful. That was glossed over.
Former Bostonian: It is absurd to think that humans won’t develop feelings and relationships working besides each other. Just look at the romantic history of the leaders of this institute. Very hypocritical. This could have been handled so differently.
Former lab worker: Sabatini should have kept his pants zipped, not just his lips, regarding his relationship with Knouse. He was the senior scientist and they had an unequal power relationship, even if she was not in his lab directly. He not only violated in-place rules, but did nothing to discourage Knouse from doing the same. He encouraged her infatuation with him. He deceived Lehman with regarding to non-interference in the investigation. And he fostered a culture of disrespect among those in his lab. I have worked in a lab, in which we also had lab parties, but they were nothing like these hard drinking parties. What does alcohol do? It removes inhibitions one might normally have...Knouse was clearly infatuated with him and her expectations rose even though he clearly thought that their encounters were merely sexual and not romantic. And this is the result: a distraught woman who woke up to the reality of being used by someone in a role who could destroy her career. Regarding the lab’s atmosphere, I do not believe for one minute that Sabatini “never” was malicious in his snarky remarks to people. Clearly, he was, because that is how he controlled the culture of the lab, fostering a junior high level of civility, if one can call it civility. Buyer beware to any institute that hires him with this massive “fatal flaw”.
(There should be) semi-annual surveying of all staff regarding workplace factors of atmosphere, conduct and opportunities, and perceptions of how gender and race influence those factors. Direct instruction to all investigators on what constitutes workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation so that they can’t say that they did not know. Set up an anonymous tip-line to an independent agency so that people can make complaints that are forwarded to someone responsible in administration for inclusionary practices and violations thereof.. Set up a panel to review reported infractions. After a couple years you will see an improvement as people make adjustments in their behavior. Behavior first must change, then the lab’s culture will follow. But there must be consistent and proportional punishment for rule breakers, otherwise it will not work.
Former lab tech: Far too harsh on Dr. Sabatini. The institution was caught up in the moment — pendulum swung way too far in the over-correction of sexual harassment. I can understand if he were barred from becoming Chairman of the Division. At most, a quiet and civilized urging of a transition to a new institution. As strange as it sounds, this grown man (Dr. Sabatini) has never left school, and entered the ‘real’ world. His mistakes and personal flaws did not warrant the savage demolition of his career. His mistakes certainly did not warrant the devastation inflicted upon his lab members.
Anonymous: Sabatini might be a great scientist but it was quite clear that he did not know how to manage a large lab where most of his work would be personnel management. Adding so many personnel management duties to a man who is supposed to also do the leading in the science is also too much to ask.
Jennifer Goldsmith: Develop HR approaches that recognize human nature, interaction, attraction. Avoid investigation industry-- to that law firm-- as to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The proliferation of shock at the existence of normal human relationships-- whether at Whitehead or at CNN-- demonstrates a bizarre puritanicalism crashing with the reality of humans. Maybe develop policies that are not so extremely puritanical, that recognize how relationships might and do exist, would be more functional and less destructive. HR policies are fundamentally not laws of nature or science, yet we write them at untested extremes and rarely assess consequences at scale (as an experimental design might require).
Jay Paris of Chelsea: Whitehead’s rules regarding consensual workplace relationships did not and I gather still do not provide potential violators with a way to disclose a relationship and still keep their jobs. I think a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment is critical but when these accusations occur, due process is important. Workplace interactions between employees will encapsulate the range of emotions that are embedded in sentient human beings. They include affection, distaste, fear, exploration and yes, love. Along the way, some will have connections that challenge workplace policies. Organizations must be realistic in their approach about human emotions and frailties that HELP their employees through without blanket condemnation or firing. It’s not easy or simple but necessary. Clearly Whitehead didn’t in it’s justified eagerness to create a better workplace. I hope other organizations take note.
Mary Kennedy of California : This behavior by a PI shouldn’t be tolerated. I do think a complete ban on romantic relationships within the Whitehead is unwise. Disclosure of such should be required; but, a complete ban forces everything underground and can cause problems. (There should be) Management training and oversight for PI’s. Making clear that bullying is not tolerated.
Anonymous: ...You are SPOTLIGHT. I’m not asking for you to be perfect but damn I am asking you to attempt to capture that nuance that you claim is paramount to this case. The thing about academia, and especially academia in Boston (which is merely alluded to in this article) is that you can not continue in your career, or your job, or maintain a whisper of a grasp on your livelihood, if you do not follow along with what your superiors want. In most cases, your superior is your PI (principal investigator by the way). If you rock the boat while in a lab, you do not get recommendations for the next lab or you get tanked for a job or you permanently burn bridges that you might not know even existed because your PI is friend of a friend of the next lab you’re interested in. You talk a lot about how Sabatini is “blacklisted” and pay no mind at all to how people who have reported (expletive) like Sabatini in the past have been blacklisted and shut out of the ‘academy’. Academia isn’t unique, but it is toxic, and advancement within it is heavily dependent on what institution you were at, who you knew, and where you published.
A Maine reader: No romantic entanglements with those you work with. But that seems impossible, given human nature. So the second piece of advice is to be upfront with supervisors about relationships as soon as there is a hint of an entanglement with a colleague. And academic institutions need to clean up their act when it comes to due process. Much less in the way of anonymous complaints, much less guilty until proven incident, much less knee-jerk firings of long-term highly qualified personnel with spotless records.
Stacy Greenspan of N.J. - There was no way for this guy to get a fair judgement during a time of so much social upheaval around sex in the workplace. The institution handled it badly, quickly condemning and ridding themselves of Sabatini rather than working with the two parties to find an equitable resolution. That said, Sabatini should have known better than to get involved with a young subordinate in his lab, particularly someone who stood to gain professionally from having a relationship with him. He may be brilliant scientists, but he was not very grown up....Behave. Be aware of how power imbalance coupled with close working conditions in the workplace, can lead to inappropriate behavior. Sex in the workplace has never been a good idea and never will be.
Anonymous - Sabatini violated the terms of his employment. He was justifiably terminated. Persons involved knew the rules. He will likely continue his “behavior” at his next place of employment. Men like this don’t change. They change what they let you see.
Wayne Perry of Lynnfield: Appearences are important. When there is a no fratenization policy in the institute it means just that. Not an easy thing to comply with, not impossible to comply with either. Consider the market, or business model if you prefer. Grants, grant money and benefactors get the spotlight. Big names, prestige, but recruting is not just poaching from another institution. It is recruiting from college campuses, the bright young students in the field you need. Was that given weight? Obviously not, hence the reaction in NYC.
John O’Brien of Stow: Male/female relationship chemistry in the workplace is evolving however it still is not at a level of respect, opportunity or equality. This is especially true in industry sectors where successful female participation is new. Successful married executives have earned their professional respect however being sure that professional respect is just business requires an establishment of boundaries. In every workplace employment early on these boundaries must be firmly established by both sides. Unfortunately is does place more burden on the junior employee especially if she is a smart, young attractive female....Dating within large corporate environments is always going to be a challenge. Doing one on one work with a company star employe places the younger start-up person at high risk especially if their work brings them together each day. Adding that the senior company star is a married man adds to the challenge of how the younger woman addresses the risks of getting involved. Give Whitehead credit for not taking the easy way out and just firing Kristin. However it would rewarded David and even further empowered him in the future.
Anonymous: Suspend both parties for 6 months and have them (with no outside influence) arrive at an amenable agreement with which they can move forward.
Anonymous: He chose his own punishment by resigning without finding out what the Whitehead planned to do. Furthermore, he clearly and knowingly violated their policy and they had every right to dismiss him as a result. Honestly, as a woman in academic science, I found the fact that this was even the subject of a Spotlight investigation ridiculous. The scientific patriarchy is thriving, and doesn’t need the Boston Globe to come rescue the only two (2) high profile Boston area scientists who have faced any sort of consequences for their actions in the same week (see the article on Eric Lander being “uncancelled”). Furthermore, it’s impossible to imagine what a “less harsh” punishment could look like for someone who is fully unrepentant. The Whitehead clearly wants to create a culture where everyone is comfortable in the workplace, which they should be allowed to do, and in this article Sabatini continues to state that he did nothing wrong. That leaves the Institute no recourse to allow him to stay without knowingly jeopardizing their trainees (and their NIH funding). This situation is of his own making, and had he chosen to acknowledge wrong-doing the opportunity at NYU may have gone very differently. The assumption on Bar-Sagi’s part that she knew all the facts and the students protesting did not is mind-blowing... the reality is that a younger generation of scientists are asking academia to change, and the older generation still thinks this behavior is fine. Lastly, I will point out that many brilliant scientists manage to be brilliant without treating their female co-workers as their own personal hook-up app, and without cultivating an overtly sexualized lab environment. The absurd idea that we have to choose between brilliance and acceptable workplace behavior is the reason that academia remains so hostile to women and minorities.
Aaron Townsley of Hopkinton: Clearly Sabatini didn’t recognize his behaviours as harmful. Whoever wrote this line " Many powerful figures in Sabatini’s situation might have responded to such a potentially career-destroying crisis with contrition and humility.” is way off base as that kind of reaction seems very much the exception, not the norm in the current global culture. Successful people do not get there by deeply questioning their actions at every step. The success is proof their actions are justified. So the fact that a more robust training program has not been instituted is clear evidence the Institution has no plans to curb these potentially dangerous and self-destructive behaviours....Clearly men (and women) in places of authority need better training to avoid these pitfalls. It’s human nature to want to be respected, and ultimately desired. The temptation to think you’re the exception, that you’ll handle it well, that the power imbalance does not play a role in your situation is easy to ignore. No one, or at least very few people, thinks of themselves as a power abuser. Clear training, and clearly outlined consequences (such as immediate employment termination) are the only ways to curb this sad part of human nature.
S. Colbert: All Institutions handled the situation perfectly fine. Unfortunately, the piece fails to discuss how and what would have been an alternative solution. As if the reporters wanted to say that the bar for firing a faculty should be “raping a student” and lesser offense can be dealt with by passing on the trash to another university, in this case to NYU. Is this what scientific institutions in Boston are like? It is sad to read this and realize how many scientists are stuck in the past. Woman academics and trainees are taking note of this.
Abby from Malden: It’s clear that Sabatini did not fully appreciate the extent of his wrong-doings— he was taken aback by the extent of accusations, and even when faced with the reports findings, treated the invitation to defend himself as a “formality.” He didn’t even attend the last meeting with board members. It’s clear, as so many men in his position do, that he couldn’t really fathom the possibility of the outcome that befell him. Treating this as a rush to judgment misses that he provided an inadequate defense of himself— not even taking the opportunities given to him to refute the reports findings. And that lack of urgency and complete disbelief that men in these situations feel just underscores the pervasive culture of entitlement. I was a young scientist- sexually harassed for a year before I really appreciated it for what it was. This is a pervasive and well-documented culture issue in science. Sabitini’s behavior and treatment of women exists within that culture— is he a bad person who would act this way having come up in a different environment? Maybe not. But it doesn’t absolve him.
Anonymous: Whitehead and MIT seemed to methodically work through the issues and come to the correct solution. NYU Langone doesn’t come across as well, by comparison.
Former scientist: Sabatini still believes that he did nothing wrong and he will continue to behave this way, if given the chance. The Spotlight team purposely wrote the first part to portray a consensual relationship. That did not jibe with the actions of MIT and HHMI. For Erin O’Shea to refuse his resignation and fire him for cause, speaks volumes. I have the utmost respect for the even handedness of Susan Hockfield and Phil Sharp. Anyone who has met them, knows they are not the type to panic and CYA. The second part reveals his dissembling (non disclosure of multiple emails pressuring Knouse to have sex in NH) It also reveals that the consensual agreement on his part meant friends with benefits, while she thought they were in love... Yes, it is a shame that someone so brilliant is no longer in science. I hope it signals to the generations of powerful Bro scientists that this crap has to stop. This will lead to a surge of prominent women scientists, unscarred by this treatment. Excellent science does not require abuse. I hope Knouse recovers to do great science. You castigate MIT for not providing updated training on what not to do, so this doesn’t happen again. THERE IS AN ETHICS RULE IN PLACE! How much more do PhDs need to understand??? IT IS NOT ALLOWED.
Marissa: Part 3: How the Sabatini’s firing and removal of grant funding affected the 40 lab members? Did the Whitehead support them to finish projects? The reason why complaints are so rarely filed is because changing labs/PIs in the midst of grad school (average 6 years) or post doc (average 4 years) is practically unthinkable. You make an impossible choice between tolerating the behavior a few years or throwing away key years of earning potential, family planning decisions, and the career impact.
Boston reader: The workplace rules were clearly broken and Sabatini thought he was above the rules. We let powerful men get away with this kind of thing all the time. That’s why he was so surprised there was a consequence. Great to see institutions paying attention to the fact that women and minorities are negatively impacted in their careers by these PIs with too much power and too little accountability. I would love to see more of this until people understand this kind of behavior is not OK....Do not date your underlings. Don’t tolerate racism and sexism. Don’t assume colleagues are making an exception for your rule-breaking because they know you’re “cool”. You might have a massive blindside that prevents you from seeing how you are actually part of the problem as a person who thinks anti-discrimination rules are just silly formalities that are going too far. Toxic lab cultures are a HUGE problem for early-career scientists. People in power just don’t seem to understand or want to acknowledge how they contribute to discrimination.
Rhode Island reader: I don’t think the new leader at Whitehead took the time to hear both sides of the story. There was a rush to judgment on Sabatini, who was certainly no angel. Fired within a day of the report? Unheard of in academia.
Anonymous: I work in an adjacent field. The investigation looks really flawed, like a gross over-reaction, and a pre-planned outcome, to avoid litigation and public blowback in a time of hair-trigger judgments. I dated an older, high-ranking coworker and heard all the cliches - he had power over me, I was using him. None of it was true. We were two consenting adults, just as these two were. Stop acting as if women are fragile flowers. Let’s use common sense! I combed through the report and it’s thin gruel substance-wise. It can’t get to the bottom of their relationships so it takes a handful of minor complaints and makes that representative of “culture.” It piles on Sabatini to an almost comically tilted level, while it assumes the best from Kristen. I kept reading to find the actual facts that matched the language and they aren’t there. Good for NYU for digging into it. I hope others do as well, and that Whitehead will examine this whole ordeal. I am especially concerned that people who were interviewed felt that the interviewers had already made up their mind.
Michael Mendelsohn of Boston: The protocol was no sexual relationship in the program. If that was the case then he should have been fired. How early on did the program know of the relationship, If they dragged their feet then they did not react appropriately. At least initially there was a power imbalance. Having been involved with a major academic/medical institution for 32 years this is nothing new. Just rearrange the deck chairs.
Michael Healy from Colorado: This was not a legitimate “workplace problem”. Kristin Knouse’s problem was self-inflicted. There are many obvious cases of male dominant sexual harassment. This is not one of them. I do not know how to change human nature. Both men and women too often act on emotional urges rather than an intellectual perspective. Scientists are no different.
Tapani of Medford: There’s no mention what really happened to the lab members. If you’re an international scholar on a work visa this can be devastating financially and career-wise. I hope that Whitehead took proper care of them as they certainly were innocent here.
Researcher: Through many years working in research, I can say with confidence that just because someone is a great scientist doesn’t make them qualified to manage people or money. People are people and they will do things that are not necessarily always smart. We should structure research organizations better to allow people to do what they do best and not be required to do things they don’t have the skills or temperament to do. Let the scientist lead the science, but have administrative help to do the rest.
M. Garwood of Brimfield: Much more preemptive training and professional development was needed. Women need to feel valued and safe, especially with careers and reputations are on the line. What women haven’t been harassed, even been hit on , felt uncomfortable. Even the drinking parties were not appropriate.
Anne Rachupka of Cambridge: I am an almost 50 year old woman who has spent her whole life in a STEM field in academia. I graduated from an Ivy, worked at MIT for 10 years, and now work at Harvard. This story is all too common, I could cite numerous examples of well respected men in powerful positions conducting inappropriate relationships with younger women in their lab and/or department. I have witnessed it myself more times that I can count. The pressure on these women to consent or else they risk their career is immense. And if a woman dares to speak up? She is hushed up, her next review is not so great, and she is subtly encouraged to leave. Ask me how I know. So did the Whitehead handle this correctly? For the first time in the history of academia, yes. Sabatini knew exactly what he was doing and he knew it was wrong. He held far more power than she did and he abused it.
Suzanne Simmons of Boulder, CO - What happened to all of the Post Docs, graduate and undergraduate students in that lab…and their important research? Re: the spurned woman’s decision to take this researcher down….shameful. As a 68 y old female MD I weathered those years of training, of lab fellows sleeping w each other, etc. etc.. one must accept responsibility for one’s actions ( both sexual partners)...The destruction of high functioning labs, academic excellence and integrity, careers of dedicated and brilliant Scientists because of sexual relationships between professionals seems very excessive. Apparently that is the current culture today ( dare I say fad?). As a female Physician and Scientist, I’ll take the good old days of lab camaraderie, excellence, academic excitement ( and yes, sexual liaisons amongst various people!) any day over this frightening witch hunt culture now. What about having a process of required mediation in cases like this? Sort of like Obama’s famous beer summit? Each party gets to express feelings, be heard….presumably each learns from this....
Trudy Harney of Marshfield: As a lifelong churchgoer, I can see the value of this habit. Every week I am reminded of the importance of treating others with dignity and respect. I know these are very simple thoughts and maybe considered too simple by brilliant scientists. My heart goes out to David for what has happened to him. I hope both he and Kristin have learned to have better moral boundaries for the rest of their lives. They were BOTH guilty.
Anonymous: Few relationships have perfectly equal power dynamics. If every imbalance is seen as invalidating consent, very many relationships will be branded abusive. Here, the woman headed her own lab at a top institution. If someone with that much independence isn’t capable of true consent, who is? Doesn’t such a view infantilize women, deprive them of agency?... Rigid policies like “never date colleagues” work no better than abstinence-only sex education. Policies should be designed with life’s realities in mind.
Fall River reader: The situation was clearly a lot more complex and nuanced than what was presented. While the relationship was clearly problematic, the penalty was too harsh. Sabatini should definitely have known better and not started the relationship, but it doesn’t sound like she was coerced. I get that she feels wronged, and was deeply hurt by his rejection, but she does come across at least somewhat like a spurned lover taking revenge. Unless I am missing something, if they had just moved on with their lives after the breakup I don’t see that her career would have been harmed at all. That said, he was in a position of power and he clearly exhibited poor judgement. Action did need to be taken, but I don’t think ruining someone’s career was warranted. I also think that Whitehead bears some blame for turning a blind eye to the climate of the lab until they were forced to address it. I’m not excusing Sabatini, but I think there was a lot more to it.
Anonymous: I am a female Ph.D. graduate of M.I.T. in a life science field and have worked in a number of laboratories. Yes, some mentors may try to have an intimate relationship with a fellow scientist or graduate student, post-doc etc. That individual has a CHOICE whether to pursue a relationship. Given the recent developments that person simply can cite the prohibition of such relationships by Whitehead. Further she/he can tell the mentor or whoever that she/he will report the potential offender to higher authority if the potential offender persists. I had a similar experience . In this case I told the person I would go to his boss (a Dean) if he didn’t stop calling me. That ended that. I think the so-called victim in this case is a classic case of a woman scorned. In addition I think she had...a lack of a sense of self-worth. They had a consensual relationship. Only when the relationship soured she became vindictive. Sure, Sabatini should be let go. He broke the rules. But also calling in his funding source like Hughes Foundation was not appropriate.
Anonymous: Do an impact analysis of David Sabatini’s peer reviewed papers. Quantify that so that we know what has been lost by destroying his career.....The Whitehead Institute disproportionately penalized David Sabatini. Seems like a case of one woman’s scorn enabling the dismantling of a hugely successful career in science. Some type of reprimand/censor should have been offered before termination. Who will be next?
Pondue Ramahan of Newburyport: The ingrained sexism in our society insists, no matter how willing or what role the younger woman plays in a relationship, she is being abused by an older man she works for or with. Yet those of us who have spent their careers in the business world can easily generate a list of younger woman who used their relationship with an older man in a higher position to further their careers. And when it came to light, as it always does, the man is forced out and the woman advances.
Anonymous from Cambridge: There seems to have been no due process for Sabatini. Lehmann refused to meet with him prior to the law firm’s investigation to hear his side of the story. It seems she already decided he was guilty and didn’t want to be hear him out. Of course it’s not a court of law so they have leeway to do as they please but because they didn’t give him a chance to properly defend himself, he seems to have justification to take them to court.
Boston resident: Now a talented bio researcher is sitting around Cambridge plucking birds out of fountains — how is that a good outcome? I expect nothing from MIT. The woke culture in the People’s Republic of Cambridge is too far gone to be fixed. As for NYU, and for that matter pretty much any major American university, the so-called leaders who run these academic institutions continually kow-tow to rabble raising students — maybe it’s time for these deans and university presidents to tell the students, in far more polite words than I can muster, take your brittle little, offended-by-everything egos, and shove them up your a**. I do get it — Sabbatini is woefully immature and, apparently, horny as hell. And probably manipulative as hell, too. But he’s also brilliant. Flawed, maybe very flawed, but brilliant. And now he’s rescuing birds from fountains — good for the birds, but a really terrible outcome for everyone else.....And don’t shit where you eat — Don’t f---- where you work.
Lorna Miles of Westport: Respect the mission of the dignity of workplace and ALL of the people who work in it. 2. Follow the rules of the workplace. If you have a workplace problem, ask HR for help. 3. If you choose to break the rules of the workplace, own your own part of flaunting the rules. 4. Work with HR for a transfer. 5. Look for another position -- before it is too late. 6. Know that when your love life takes over your work life, it’s time for you (not everyone else)to change.
Laurel: Punish the offender as in this case. Fast. Hard. Been there done that with similar abuses as a grad. student. Familiar with this institution and others in Boston. Power-structure enabled sexual abuse and harassment is inherent to the system of higher education. I’d like to read a broader view of the problem. Nothing has changed in 30-years. It’s just gone a little more underground...Getting the offender out fast sets a new and important precedent for higher education in general.
Kris Schulenburg of Ann Arbor, MI - Bottom line, he was the boss and he introduced a whole host of complicated dynamics by going where he did with his subordinate. There might be varied opinions on how the personal dynamic developed between the 2 parties, but he was the boss. Even if she did all the flirting and “leading on” (which I doubt), the responsibility is on him to stop it before it gets started. His defamation lawsuit is laughable from the standpoint of his position of power. Advice? --better HR training for bosses!
Michael McDaniel of CA and FL: Change is an ongoing process but great consideration should be given to individuals who are harmed by changing standards and attitudes. I am old and near the end of my residency in our culture. While I think I understand the need for majority culture we should not allow that change to wash willy nilly over individuals caught up the the tide of change!
Ricard Donahue of Weymouth: It was a false charge and he never go a chance to really defend himself. You can’t ever avoid attraction between the sexes, Just know and fear that you will lose your job and reputation if you even acknowledge a sexual or otherwise attraction. BE A ROBOT in today’s world.
Lynnfield attorney: As a lawyer, it is disheartening to read about someone accused of misconduct who is not given the opportunity to defend himself. This is especially egregious given the lack of consensus among the lab staff regarding the lab’s culture. So no, I do not think Whitehead handled this situation appropriately at all, though this is not surprising given their likely (reasonable) fear of potential litigation. As a woman, it is disheartening to read that the primary accuser in this case is a high-achieving adult capable of autonomous decision-making and self-advocacy. Of note, she suffered no professional hardship as a result of this affair, which by my read was consensual until he ended it. Real workplace sexual harrassment occurs every day. How are women supposed to credibly fight actual sexual harrassment when arguably frivolous claims like this one are being filed?
Los Angeles reader: (1) Better training. Not online videos but a week-long, detailed training about what it takes to be a good manager. (2) Tell ALL new employees that - if they experience harassment - they are to immediately report it. (3) For people who break the rules (like sleeping together) the consequences should be clear. (4) Understand that people make specious claims all of the time - stop allowing people to make claims because they suddenly realize their feelings are hurt. Real harm happens - THAT’s what should be eradicated. This generation has a pattern - they are very happy to play along as long as they benefit from the deal. As soon as their feelings get hurt, they come to cancel you....(Also) Are we basically saying that women - even brilliant women - are mentally weak and need special protection? This woman was over 30, took several opportunities to say yes but was too weak to say no. It’s a shameful outcome of the real harms done to women who have actually suffered real harassment.
Concerned academic in Newton: Not only did Dr. Sabatini and Dr. Knouse violate their employer’s terms of employment but also ethics when they transgressed from a professional to an intimate relationship in the same workplace and didn’t disclose it, creating a conflict of interest right there. On top of that DS chose to interfere with the investigation. He merits the action taken by his institution while KK should have been held responsible for her unethical decisions as well.
Anonymous: An independent panel of lawyers were selected. And many cases of harassment were found, with this one being one example. Besides, clearly a hard driven independent panel was needed. It is truly revealing that Sabatini shopped selected texts of his relationship with Knouse around the lab to “convince” (i.e. manipulate) other researchers and staff that reported to him. This act alone, regardless of the texts, totally justifies firing for cause, and Mr. Sabatini never being hired again to manage people, or in a position where he can manage others. From the Whitehead all the way to the nearest McDonald’s.
Anonymous: As a woman scientist, I do appreciate that this drastic action will have a more immediate effect on the free-wheeling nature of many labs, but I am not convinced that Sabbatini behaved a lot worse than many successful scientists. Big egos (e.g. King David) are not unusual in academic research labs. Some better resolution could have come out of this, allowing Sabbatini to continue his research (perhaps somewhere else) and not demonizing him so completely, when the sexual relationship between him and the young woman scientist was quite muddy and the accusations by others didn’t seem very egregious. I find the argument that this was necessary to keep NIH funding at MIT to be unconvincing.
Duncan Cox of Salem: I don’t see how we can avoid these problems. When the problems arise, I think it is appropriate for the two PI’s to be able to be able to disclose the problem without self-immolation. The Globe is careful to point out that this was not a direct supervisor-subordinate relationship. I do think it is appropriate to prohibit romance in most direct supervisor - subordinate situations. That seems to be a cultural norm now, and that is worth promoting. I write this as a 50+ year old male who had a relationship with a female professor when I was a college student. It was probably not allowed. I am grateful for the experience and am a better person as a result. I don’t want our culture promoting the ideal of a worker as an asexual unit who has no room to be human.
M. Moran of Dorchester: Originally I sided with Dr. Sabatini. Then I read her countersuit which provided more information on how she perceived the first night they slept together., and the ensuing relationship. Lesson of the story: Don’t try to be the “cool boss” by creating social situations where its more likely than not that junior colleagues will get drunk and make poor decisions.
Anonymous: Bizarre outcome. While higher ranking than her, he wasn’t her boss. The policy is very unrealistic. Also, what stuck out to me is the part of the report that said Dr. Knouse only turned over only a “selection of her texts - those that support her version of events.” I do have sympathy for her - he chose another woman and ended things in a candid way over texts. Yikes. But most of us have been there. It’s called a bad breakup. She was a super accomplished person, and even mentioned that other men were intimidated by her. She wasn’t getting her way, and as she put it herself, was “out for blood.”
Boston reader: If David had been a little more caring in ending the relationship, and not so eager to start a new relationship, perhaps he would still have his career. He treated her as an afterthought. She came to view their relationship as so much less than she had initially thought of it. He is the one that sent that rock rolling. They are both brilliant people. They both now have this in their career history. Perhaps for work place policy the best policy could be taken from another time. “Just say no” but that doesn’t appear to have worked either.
Needham reader: Hooray to mit/whitehead! Most women in academic science know someone who’s career was ruined or nearly ruined by this kind of sneaky sexual harassment. Sneaky only bc the culture of these labs is set up to support it. It’s a crazy world that few people could understand unless you’ve witnessed/experienced...Completely overhaul the amount of power that PIs have by regulating their behavior and the lab culture. Institute reviews and HR policies like normal business.
Cambridge reader: Institutions should not have the right to control consenting adults’ sexual relationships unless a student is involved....Publicize cases like this so adults can be aware of the consequences of entering sexual relationships in the workplace.
J Sullivan of Boston: MIT / Whitehead did as they should have done by firing Dr. Sabatini. Too bad they didn’t have the opportunity to do the same with Dr. Knause. When rigorously enforced, these policies protect not only these institutions but also all its employees. Firing both is an example that will limit future problems. To those who say, “He deserved to be fired but she didn’t,” I disagree. I respect her professional standing, intelligence and maturity enough to believe that she had agency. Enter into a romantic or consensual sexual relationship with a co-worker and you’re fired. Period.
Joyce Benenson of Cambridge: Institutions should not have the right to control consenting adults’ sexual relationships unless a student is involved....Publicize cases like this so adults can be aware of the consequences of entering sexual relationships in the workplace.
Nancy Kelleher of Boston: Sabatini should have been given more opportunities tell his side before it became clear that he would be dismissed. It also sounds like the lawyers had predetermined what they wanted to find. Both parties broke the rules, but one suffered far worse consequences....There should be an understanding that people who immerse themselves in related work may enter relationships. Therefore make it easy for them to report the relationship without fearing the consequences. It seems unrealistic to ban workplace relationships. It might actually be easier to spot abuse if everyone were encouraged to be open. Then a concern about being exploited might be more likely to come up in conversation with peers and addressed more quickly, and any nepotism would be obvious.
Anonymous: If both parties were held accountable, these situations would happen less often. She clearly disregarded the rules by having this relationship, but maybe she assumed she would never be held accountable just because he partner was older.
Joanna: As a Cambridge scientist, I can confidently say that 95% of my colleagues has had a toxic and abusive (not necessarily sexually) PI. The old-boys-club (which includes some women) mentality of academic science is slowly dying out and is opening up a space for millennial PIs to make a culture shift.
Margaret Coughlin of Boston: Accept that the renegade star exists in the world of science/medicine/education and resolve to root it out. Too often a blind eye is turned because those stars yield fame and fortune for the institution and its leadership. Be honest about how money clouds leadership judgment...As female executive, I know well the vagaries of harassment and innuendo. Often women are uncomfortably dealing with grey areas and trying to decipher the signals of sexual overtures, inappropriate comments, profanity and the dominance of ‘bro culture’. In this case a truly full investigation clearly did not happen. Having been part of similar investigations your reporting demonstrates that the lawyer/ investigators had an agenda. Further the policy of no relationships between colleagues is unrealistic. Look at the stats Re how many professionals marry partners in the same field.
Anonymous: The culture of the Whitehead Institute has long needed reforms, and I’m grateful for Ruth Lehmann to finally start implementing them. When I worked there between 2014 and 2019, there were numerous, incredibly public cases of sexism and harassment. This included a certain professor (not Sabatini) who would, in whole-institution events on a public stage, compare a newer technique to “your hot new girlfriend” as opposed to the previous technique (which he likened to “your old, ugly wife”), and asked junior professors how they “lured such attractive trainees to [their] lab” (again, publicly). Female professors were frequently talked over, and female trainees were witness to all of this. Fortunately, with the changes that Ruth Lehmann has wrought, the future of the Whitehead looks much brighter and more productive.
Former MIT Postdoc: A sexual relationship between a PI and a postdoc is inherently unbalanced, and in this case broke Whitehead rules, so it is right that Sabatini suffered some consequences. However, they were excessive. The article reads like a hit piece. Positive comments about the atmosphere in the Lab are briefly mentioned, and then ignored. On the other hand, chatty texts that are in no way solid evidence of misconduct are given a prime focus. Yes, Sabatini had the ability to damage KK’s career, but there is no evidence presented that he did. She got a position at Whitehead. It seems to me that two highly driven people were strongly and mutually attracted, and the relationship ended badly. Yes, that is why PI and postdoc should not have such a relationship. That said, many happy, long term marriages in science result from such relationships. My first postdoc was happily married to her thesis supervisor. Sexual harassment has been rampant in academia for a long time. I think this is a case of the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction as MIT scrambled to atone for past abuses. Sabatini should have had a less drastic punishment.
Anonymous: Leadership oversight. It’s always determined by culture and the leadership, training, and oversight that form the culture of any organization.
Danskat of Winchester: Primary Investigators (those who run labs and train/rule graduate students) have too much power, and not enough review/evaluation of their behavior from the outside. This is just one more example of it....If someone in HR or administration had spoken to Sabatini about his inappropriate lab ethos and dating patterns far earlier, multiple reputations could have been saved.
Ary of Winchester: Having a better oversight for lab and personnel management would address workplace problems like this. They should have realistic procedures in place and have better communications/training on what’s allowed and not in institutes like this.
Gerry: I met my wife when we worked together, she was an administrative assistant in the personnel department when I was hired. We started dating about 15 months later, and I left the company 7 months after we started dating. Nobody knew we were dating for the first 5 months of our relationship. We’ve been married for over 36 years. Sadly today I think people are afraid of approaching a coworker to ask for a date. But with all the “lawyers involved” perhaps it’s best for employers to make prospective hires acknowledge in writing what the policy is regarding relationships along with the consequences for violating said policies.
Metrowest reader: Employers should implement reasonable workplace standards and provide clearly defined and communicated ways, short of termination, for employees to report any of their failures. Employers have to acknowledge that employees are human beings who are fallible and who deserve second chances and support in the employment setting.
Thomas Devita: Anyone in a position of power over another employee should not engage in a relationship with an underling. No matter what...Follow what Whitehead did.
Gwendolyn Wong: The Whitehead Institute policy to keep amorous relationships out of the hierarchical structure of scientific mentorship is ABSOLUTELY essential. If this policy did not exist, abuse is just too easy, and the history of men scientists looking at their women colleagues as sex objects will keep happening, as it has happened throughout the history of women in science.
Anonymous: I am a survivor of a beyond toxic PhD “mentor” who routinely threatened to ruin my career (which at the time felt like a threat to ruin my life) if I did not do as they said. Public humiliation was commonplace and they prided themselves on the fact that I was reduced to sobs in their office multiple times. I made it through by working my tail off, keeping my mouth shut, and doing as I was told so I could get through my program as quickly as possible. I have since moved into private industry and the behavior that runs rampant throughout academia (and is often encouraged by lauding the worst offenders with awards/grants/promotions!) would not fly with the presence of a real HR department or code of conduct. Colleagues who have not been through the Harvard/MIT system legitimately do not believe some of the details of what myself and my peers went through. My story is not unique, and these PIs need to be held accountable and the message needs to be sent that it is not even remotely acceptable to treat ANYONE, let alone people who work for/with you in this manner.
C. Kirby of Arlington: This consensual relationship did not need to end the admittedly poor behavior of the senior PI. The secrecy was appalling and he should have had training and oversight to change the lab culture, but not dismantle the lab.
Pamela Webster-Walsh: Rules are made for a reason. Had the rules been followed here, we would not be weighing in with our own opinions. Based on my experiences in both undergrad and graduate school, followed by corporate and institutional workplaces prior to the me-too movement, I can say that the workplace cultures were all weighted to male dominance and power, and sexual harassment was quite prevalent. By today’s standards, I had many actionable encounters back then but, needing to keep my job, had to handle things without HR or administrative support. My two daughters, both mid-level corporate executives, do not experience the same treatment as did I, but they still face uncomfortable issues in the workplace. While I m sorry to see Mr Sabatini’s career go down the tubes, and also regret the loss of his research, I think his fate was of his own making. Rules are not made to be broken; in this case the rules were conditions of his employment.
Jeffrey from Lexington: Having been a student at and having taught at Harvard (and elsewhere), one thing that I do know is there is an absolute rule: you keep your hands off students and never treat them as sexual beings or allow yourself to think of them as such, even if they come onto you - as one undergraduate very clearly did - I refused to allow her to take my seminar and refused to take her calls.
Cambridge reader: Have been in many workplaces. All imperfect as was Sabatini’s lab. Have never worked anywhere where there was not an affair between older, more senior employees and younger colleagues. Accept human behavior, but not abuse of power or racism or misogyny. Sabatini appears innocent of both....Lehman acted totally unprofessionally from the get-go.
AB from Paris, France: First of all, let’s be clear: No one, and I mean no one, knows what really went on between these two people and in their heads except than the two people themselves. So any opinions on who did what to whom are just that - opinions - which probably reveal more about the opiner than about anything else. That said, - The Whitehead’s no-fraternization rule was clear, and both parties admit they broke it. To that extent, dismissal was warranted. - But the boards of both the Whitehead and NYU Langone fell down on the job and put their institutions at risk: the former by not providing a clear, transparent, reality-based fraternization policy; the latter by moving forward with a high-level recruitment and then undermining it with ill-judged public comments. - MIT seems to be applying selective punishment: It suspended Sabatini but is keeping Knouse on as an assistant professor. Doesn’t she also deserve a suspension for breaking the Whitehead’s rules? - HHMI’s policies aren’t explained in detail here, so it’s hard to judge. If it has a clear policy of cutting funding to a researcher who violates institutional rules, then that’s that. If it has no policy, or a purely situational one (which means no policy), then its board has failed, too....And 1/ Clear, transparent rules and standards for how colleagues are expected to work with and for each other. 2/ Training for managers, who are held to higher standards because they are role models and responsible for the advancement of others. 3/ Monitoring and assessment against the standards. 4/ Accountability. No rock stars. Ever. No one’s achievements or potential achievements place them above the law - literally and figuratively. Humans are human, but there are lots of workplaces - yes, even those that are high-achieving and high-pressure - that don’t devolve into deleted scenes from “Animal House.”
Robert from Bourne: She should be fired too. Surely there was a process for her to complain about advances from a superior. She is not a victim...Fire people who break the rules about sexual relationships. Keeping it secret meant they both compromised the institution. Think twice about the rules. Absolute prohibition of sexual relationships at Whitehead seems absurd.
S. Kimball of Norfolk: I believe the Whitehead Institute acted appropriately in terminating David Sabatini, and MIT in revoking his tenure. People in positions of power should never engage in close personal relationships with people in subordinate positions. Such behavior displays a lack of maturity and emotional intelligence, characteristics that are just as important as technical expertise and competency. Those who choose to do so are not deserving of remaining in those positions.
Chicago reader: I think there should have been a way for both to report what seems to have been a consensual relationship and have the issue resolved without destroying careers. Obviously there was mutual attraction, and both were adults. People often fall in love at work. People make mistakes! Once lawyers and the media get involved it seems to increase the pain for everyone, including coworkers.
Henry M. of Boston: Unfortunately, great minds behave very much the same way as no so great minds, which is why we have management protocols to address problems. DEI classes are nearly useless and certainly no substitute for management oversight of professional conduct. Set standards, monitor those standards, and have appropriate consequences that deter career minded staff from developing bad habits....It has been my experience working around scientists and academics, that almost to a one, they have an almost childlike emotional maturity which is often forgiven or overlooked out or respect for their “towering intellect” and contributions to their field. One does not need a PhD to understand the equation of a libidinous, older man, plus ambitious younger women, plus whiskey on a road trip, is not a formula for professional outcomes. Seen through this lens, the described behavior of both parties amounts to fairly ordinary, high school level drama. As such, an internal review and letters of reprimand for both, rather than the professional death sentences and a Sword of Damocles for all who follow.
New Jersey reader: Don’t have intimate, highly emotional interactions with co-workers.
Boston reader: I lost all sympathy for Sabatini when I read his civil defamation lawsuit. The fact that he started a relationship with Krouse within a year of her PhD - when he was on her dissertation advisory committee - and then claimed that there was no power imbalance tells you everything you need to know....Overall the culture in his lab sounds appalling...Change the fundamental funding model for science so that the careers of young people don’t depend so heavily on older mentors (King David). There is no other way.
Trudy H. from Marshfield: I am bothered because thus brilliant mind is no longer working on solving some of our greatest medical problems. I am a newly diagnosed cancer patient and have begun chemotherapy. I think I have someone like David to thank for the progress that has been made in treatment in the past few years. I understand he made some serious mistakes in his personal life and broke The Institutions rules regarding romantic behavior. But the whole thing seems politically motivated in 2023, especially the withdrawal of the offer from NY.
Cambridge reader: Support new PIs to ensure that understanding of the culture of their new workplace is clear. Provide management training and monitor its success. Also, not mentioned by the Spotlight team, if a PI has medical issues or personal problems (such as multiple divorces) that they might need to deal with, work with them, within the bounds of privacy law. Over a 30-50 career as a PI, problems can come up.
Ramya K. from Denver: Alcohol in professional settings is a bad idea. There is no such thing as a consensual relationship with such a severe power imbalance. I feel terrible for Knouse, who was losing her mentor to cancer and felt pressured to sleep with Sabatini to save her career.
Jenna Reyes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jennaelaney and Instagram @jennaelaney.