The final paragraphs of the Globe Spotlight Team story on David Sabatini — the renowned scientist at the Whitehead Institute who was forced from his job after sexual harassment allegations and other alleged lapses of professional judgment — relate an anecdote about his effort to save a bird from drowning in a fountain.
If only Sabatini could display such concern toward someone besides that bird — and himself. But while he told the Spotlight Team he has developed more empathy since his stunning fall from grace, it’s hard to see it. He said he feels no need for apologies and any regrets relate mostly to his own fate. That makes it hard to advocate for the second chance he’s trying to engineer.
During the initial furor of the #MeToo movement, men who had abused their power in sexual and other ways were ousted from top positions in workplaces across the country. Now comes the next phase: their quest for redemption. In the case of Sabatini, the question becomes: Should someone so brilliant and gifted be forever shunned by the scientific community? No, he should not. But that doesn’t mean he should be reinstated into a top lab management position like the one he had without some acknowledgment of wrongdoing and commitment to change. Yet there’s no real sign of that.
Sabatini would like to reduce the story of his professional demise to the sexual relationship he had with another Whitehead scientist, Kristin Knouse. It’s true, that relationship led to the unraveling of a career that until then was filled with glory and accolades. But that’s because it revealed deeper workplace issues at the lab he ran with a lot of snark, sexual innuendo, and bowing to “King David,” as a former lab member described it to the Globe.
Sabatini and Knouse were both breaking the Whitehead Institute rule when they became sexually involved when she was still a graduate student, and he had the clear power advantage in the relationship. At the time he was 50, separated from his wife, and the principal investigator of a high-powered research lab, with oversight over postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, who in turn hired master’s students and undergrads, for a total lab population of 39. Knouse, who was 30 and single, was a Whitehead fellow who was evaluated by Sabatini, the director of the fellowship program.
Sabatini says their relationship was consensual and that Knouse turned against him when he became interested in another female scientist. From the texts he shared with the Globe, it does sound like she developed feelings for him, which he told her he did not share, and that triggered a desire to rethink the nature of their relationship. But now she says she also felt pressured from the start by Sabatini, who served on her dissertation committee and later began asking her to attend social events like whiskey drinking nights at the lab. Today, she describes his role in the relationship as predatory, exploitive, and part of a pattern of pursuing young female scientists who needed his professional approval to advance.
Indeed, complaints from two other women besides Knouse led to an independent investigation which concluded that “The 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.” Not everyone at the lab agreed with those findings, which led to Sabatini’s departure from the lab. But if even a subset felt that way, shouldn’t Sabatini acknowledge that and commit to a more inclusive leadership style?
He told the Globe that he now knows he offended people but never did anything out of malice. Yet during the course of the investigation, he made others in the lab feel that negative findings could put their careers in jeopardy. He also went on the attack against Knouse, filing a civil defamation suit against her. She filed a countersuit, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.
Sabatini’s bitterness is understandable. He had achieved success and stature in the rarified world of scientific research, and he believed he could never lose it. He was just too valuable. He still doesn’t get the impact on anyone’s life beyond his own. “My life was 100 percent destroyed,” he told the Globe.
At some point maybe he deserves a second chance running a lab. But first, he has to come to grips with what a brilliant scientist but flawed leader can do to hurt others.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.