Bill Ackman announces foundation funding for David Sabatini, a controversial ousted MIT and Whitehead Institute scientist

Bill Ackman announces foundation funding for David Sabatini, a controversial ousted MIT and Whitehead Institute scientist


A decorated but controversial biologist ousted for alleged sexual misconduct from the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute is getting new funding with help from billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman.

Dr. David Sabatini, best known for scientific discoveries in cell biology related to mTOR, a protein that helps regulate cell functions, resigned from the Whitehead Institute in August 2021 after an independent investigation found that he violated Whitehead’s anti-harassment policies. Sabatini ran a lab at the Whitehead Institute for more than two decades, and the report faulted him in part for the lab culture he created, and for engaging in a sexual relationship with a Whitehead fellow he mentored.

When he was pushed out of Whitehead, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute rejected his resignation opting to terminate his employment as a principal investigator, and MIT, where he’d been a tenured professor, put him on an unpaid leave of absence.

Sabatini, who has denied claims against him and maintained the sexual relationship with his mentee was consensual and is suing her for defamation, will again have the opportunity to run a research lab through a $25 million grant funded by Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation and an anonymous donor.

“I’d never had an issue from HR, right , HR never came and said ‘there’s a complaint against you,’” Sabatini told CNN about the time prior to the Whitehead investigation. “One thing that I wanted to be was always better and I mean, the irony of the situation is I actually think I was not only doing my best science, but I also think I was being the best mentor I had been when all this happened.”

The funding announcement unfolded publicly on the heels of a Boston Globe Spotlight two-part report detailing a monthslong investigation into the allegations against Sabatini published in late January.

Ackman said in a tweet that his foundation was looking to secure funding partners to support a new Sabatini lab, linking to the Spotlight team’s story that Ackman called an accurate and balanced portrayal of the facts.

Two days later, the activist investor publicly announced he’d secured funding from a donor but declined to say who.

A representative for Ackman declined to comment further on how the funding came about or reveal the anonymous donor.

Ackman has publicly maintained his support for Sabatini through the scandal and political backlash since the scientist’s ouster in 2021.

Sabatini has been a member of the scientific advisory council for Ackman’s Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance since 2019, a board that reviews research proposals for grant awards.

It’s the only board he wasn’t removed from amid the controversy, according to Sabatini who was stripped of millions of dollars in research grants and esteemed positions when the Whitehead allegations became public. 

The funding decision for the new lab was primarily made by Ackman and his wife, Neri Oxman, with the Pershing Square Foundation trustees separate from the scientific advisory board, Ackman also said on Twitter.

The logistics for the future lab and research plans aren’t ironed out, Sabatini told CNN, but the scientist hopes to continue his work in basic science exploratory research and would do so in Boston if he has his druthers.

Whether a university will be willing to host a Sabatini lab remains to be seen. Several researchers in the field said it poses a challenge but not an impossibility to start a lab without the built-in resources of an established research institution.

Sabatini resigned from MIT thinking he’d lined up another faculty position at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine only for that to fall through in the spring of 2022, he said.

A New York University flag is pictured on campus.

MIT President Rafael Reif released a statement at the time of his resignation saying that an MIT review concluded that Sabatini violated MIT’s Consensual Sexual or Romantic Relationships in the Workplace or Academic Environment policy and his tenure should be revoked.

“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. The Committee also had significant concerns regarding his unprofessional behavior toward some lab members,” Reif said in the statement.

Sabatini opted not to request an appeal process that would initiate a faculty committee review of the recommendation to revoke tenure and report their findings and recommendation, Reif wrote.

NYU Grossman School of Medicine administrators discretely vetted Sabatini for a position in the spring of 2022 but ultimately didn’t hire him amid loud pushback.

Soon after the faculty position leaked in an industry publication, NYU students and faculty staged a walkout protest and hundreds signed an open letter imploring the administration not to bring Sabatini to campus. The medical school then released a statement that it had been determined that “it will not be possible” for Sabatini to join the faculty.

The debate over the allegations and the institutions’ handling of the situation has played out publicly among the niche science community on Twitter.

A group of Sabatini’s former lab members wrote an anonymous letter in support of their mentor hoping it might help persuade NYU to take him on.

The group of 45 alumni whose time in Sabatini’s lab spanned the lab’s 24 years expressed their dismay and surprise at the allegations against Sabatini.

“We cherished our time in this unique environment, and this is evidenced by the fact that our colleagues from our times in David’s lab have become our professional and personal family in many ways. With this letter, we wish to affirm that we never experienced or observed an abusive lab culture or a sexualized lab environment, and we did not witness sexual harassment,” the anonymous letter said.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Whitehead Institute.

Soon after her arrival at Whitehead in 2020, the newly appointed Director Dr. Ruth Lehmann commissioned an institute-wide Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Assessment.

The anonymous survey yielded responses from male and female scientists alleging workplace misconduct by Sabatini and some of his lab members. The findings were presented in March 2021 and Sabatini was confronted with the pointed allegations and the reality that the next step would be an independent investigation into him and his lab. 

A focus on improving workplace environments and weeding out sexual harassment was happening at institutions around the country at this point after a mandate from a major government grant source, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to “develop and implement policies and practices that foster a harassment-free environment” or risk losing funding. 

Lehmann contracted an independent law firm that ultimately produced a 248-page report after a five-month investigation in which investigators said they substantiated claims made against Sabatini in the anonymous DEI survey. The confidential report was never officially released in full, but pieces have surfaced since Sabatini exited. Whitehead continues to fight to keep it sealed in active litigation with Sabatini, though an annotated version was leaked by an anonymous supporter of his on Twitter.

“Sabatini created a lab culture in which fear of retaliation by Sabatini was pervasive and reinforced by Sabatini’s explicit threats to withdraw support of lab members whom he suspected had reported or discussed him or his lab outside the lab,” the report’s executive summary stated according to a court filing.

“Sabatini violated Whitehead’s Anti-Harassment Policies by, notwithstanding his denials, engaging in inappropriate, sexist and sexualized discussions with lab members, which had the effect of creating a lab environment where sexual banter was rewarded.”

A former male lab member that helped organize the supportive alumni letter said the assertion that Sabatini’s lab had a sexually charged culture was a mischaracterization.

“A mischaracterization of an informal workplace that is populated by people with MDs and PhDs who are in their 20s and 30s who are, you know, underpaid and together long hours and it’s just not a viper pit of sexual harassment the way that the Whitehead statement made it sound,” he said.

The lab member did acknowledge that the dynamic of spending free time socializing with colleagues often involving alcohol common in rigorous research environments can create an environment where the lines of professionalism blur.

“I think it does create a gray area that academia is understandably grappling with right now,” he said. “Because you’re working on something you’re very dedicated to and a lot of your social time ends up being your work time.”

The report also concluded, “Sabatini’s commendation of and affinity for outspoken scientists and his pressure to put science above all else creates two unique structural barriers in his lab that disproportionately disadvantages female lab members.”

In interviews with CNN, several former female lab members expressed that their personal experiences in Sabatini’s lab were positive and career-boosting. They never felt uncomfortable in the lab, they said.

Nada Kalaany, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School who worked in the Sabatini lab from 2005 to 2010, said she personally enjoyed her time there and never witnessed a sexualized lab dynamic.

Kalaany, who was one of the only female postdoctoral fellows in the lab at the time, said she was especially struck by Sabatini’s support during her pregnancies of her two children while working there.

She also spoke of the friendships and career experiences she attributes to Sabatini’s lab. “He is laser-focused on the science like he breathes and he eats science. That’s all he can think about. And it’s so inspiring. I think I owe him a lot of what I have achieved so far. I learned a lot in his lab. So the excitement of discoveries and the fact that you can do it while having a nice atmosphere around you and being friendly and collegial.”

The report determined that Sabatini and a Whitehead fellow, Dr. Kristin Knouse who reported complaints during the law firm’s investigation, violated the Whitehead policy prohibiting consensual sexual relationships, though it did not make a finding as to whether the relationship was consensual – a point still being litigated in pending lawsuits between the two.

“Sabatini improperly leveraged his status as a preeminent senior scientist and senior member of Whitehead to garner favor, and to facilitate a secret sexual relationship with, [Dr. Knouse], his Fellow mentee. Sabatini’s behavior toward [Dr. Knouse] and the relationship that followed, while unknown to lab members or to Whitehead prior to this investigation, violated Whitehead’s Anti-Harassment Policy, its Consensual Sexual and Romantic Relationships Policy, and the spirit of its Employment of Family/Household Members Policy, as then in place,” the report executive summary stated according to a court filing.

The investigators said they also substantiated an anecdote first reported anonymously in the DEI survey that Sabatini asked a female lab member if she was having sex with another lab member and to rank male lab members in the order she’d have sex with them.

Sabatini told CNN he doesn’t remember his exact phrasing in the conversation but maintained that the report mischaracterized the exchange he understood to be joking banter and denied ever asking the woman to rank anyone.

Kathleen Ottina, Sabatini’s former lab manager of over a decade said he would admonish lab members for crude language around her because she expressed her distaste for it, but Ottina also said she felt sexual banter “wasn’t discouraged” generally in the lab.

Ottina spoke highly of Sabatini’s intellectual prowess and proven record of helping lab trainees build their careers, but still said she wouldn’t want her own grandchildren to work in his lab.

“I’d want them to be in an environment that pushed them that had high expectations that demanded really hard work from them. But I wouldn’t want them to be exposed on a regular basis to a culture that was crude and vulgar,” Ottina said.

Sabatini pushed back on characterizations that sexism or a sexualized culture was perpetuated in his lab.

“Was my lab kind of freewheeling and fun? Yes, you know, was the word retarded used sometimes, yes. That there was sort of outright sexism to people, no, and I certainly wouldn’t have tolerated that if that was the case so I do resist certainly a locker room atmosphere – I resist that characterization. Was it light and banter-full and people joked around and made fun of each other sometimes, yes, but in a very mutual kind of way,” Sabatini said of his lab.

David Sabatini, pictured on September 29, 2022, said the belongings from his office were dropped off at his home following his departure from MIT.

“The last year and a half for me have been beyond horrible, and I would not wish it on my worst enemy and just a simply beyond the horrible situation and as you can imagine I think also completely unfair and unfounded,” Sabatini told CNN.

Sabatini expressed some regret in a later email to CNN, acknowledging reports about him to an extent.

“I have learned from reading the HAS report and recent press articles, that there were a few lab trainees who were unhappy with my interactions with them. I deeply regret this and would welcome any opportunity to apologize to those impacted. I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable and would never want anyone to feel less than 100% happy in my lab,” Sabatini said in the email. “If I am able to run another lab in the future, I will be extra vigilant to make sure that all lab members feel welcome and I will institute measures to uncover potential issues even if they are not brought to my attention. I would also be extra careful about the use of language that might, even if unintentionally, make someone feel less appreciated or uncomfortable in the lab.”

Sabatini filed a defamation lawsuit in October 2021 against the Whitehead Institute, its director and Dr. Knouse.

Dr. Knouse filed a counterclaim against Sabatini for sexual harassment and retaliation months later. Knouse was a graduate student then Whitehead Fellow in 2018 and 2019 at the time of sexual relationship. Sabatini recommended her for the fellowship program and officially mentored at the Whitehead Institute,

She’s accused Sabatini of coercing her into a sexual relationship after grooming her for years as she pursued her MD/PhD in the Harvard-MIT program.

Knouse’s name was not released as part of the investigation when she filed her complaints at Whitehead and her identity was not made public in connection to the allegations before Sabatini filed the litigation against her.

Sabatini maintains that the sexual relationship was consensual and in his lawsuit has argued Knouse wanted to punish his ex-lover and so fabricated complaints she brought to Whitehead Director Lehmann, spurring a coordinated effort to remove him from his position. Knouse and her attorney declined to comment on the record to CNN for this story. The litigation is ongoing.

The independent report pointedly said it did not aim to determine whether the sexual relationship confirmed by Sabatini and Knouse was consensual. Regardless, the ban on workplace sexual relationships was a policy in place at MIT and Whitehead at the time and remains in effect.

Retired MIT professor and longtime gender equity advocate Nancy Hopkins recalled the unwelcoming environment female scientists endured in academia throughout her career since the 1960s. “And what we’re seeing, I believe, is the evolution of these rules.”

Hopkins, whose personal experiences have fueled her advocacy, said stricter policies are one way institutions have tried to tamp down systemic issues like gender inequality.

“How are you going make change if you don’t follow the rules that were written to make change,” Hopkins opined.

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