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MIT decides not to discipline professor

Probe finds he, others to blame in recruit dispute

A Nobel laureate behaved inappropriately when he discouraged a young woman from accepting an MIT job offer, but other professors provoked the neuroscientist's actions to some extent by excluding him from parts of the hiring process, according to an MIT investigation.

Susumu Tonegawa , whose actions sparked an outcry from several colleagues, will not be disciplined, L. Rafael Reif, Massachusetts Institute of Technology provost, said yesterday. Reif said several individuals acted inappropriately in the failed effort to recruit neuroscientist Alla Karpova , and there is no need to punish anyone because the real blame lies with the competitive relationship between different neuroscience centers at MIT.

"We cannot allow internal competitiveness to undercut the integrity, values , and mission of the Institute as a whole," MIT President Susan Hockfield wrote in a letter to professors that accompanied an MIT committee's report on the episode.

The controversy has revealed that the leaders of one of the world's top universities are struggling to prevent infighting from hindering efforts to hire the best minds in science. It is unclear whether the probe, by a committee of four professors, will ease tensions. Several of Tonegawa's critics said yesterday that the committee based its conclusions on an inaccurate picture of the incident, and some said they are disappointed that MIT is taking no action against the professor.

In a statement he released last night, Tonegawa said he was heartened because the committee concluded that some of the concerns he expressed to Karpova were reasonable and because they found no evidence that he had been motivated by gender bias.

The report "accurately distributes the blame to several individuals, including myself, as well as to the flawed culture that has developed in the neuroscience program," he said. "I look forward to doing all I can to help" improve collaboration.

The 67-year-old scientist, head of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, sent Karpova two e-mails in May in which he praised her, but vehemently opposed her coming to MIT as a junior professor for the school's other neuroscience institute, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

In the e-mails, previously obtained by the Globe, he contended that she would be in direct competition with him, and wrote, "I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here."

Karpova, a postdoctoral fellow in her late 20s, subsequently turned down MIT's offer and took a job at a prestigious, new Howard Hughes Medical Institute lab in Virginia. She did not respond to a request seeking comment.

In statement to the Globe in July, Tonegawa has said that he did nothing to interfere with the job offer, but that he could not agree to collaborate with or mentor Karpova. But critics said Tonegawa intimidated the younger scientist and didn't want the McGovern Institute to benefit from the rising young star.

The committee's report concluded that it was OK for Tonegawa to tell Karpova that his lab would not collaborate with hers, but that it was inappropriate for him to express concerns about competition as the biology department chairman was deciding whether to make a job offer. It was "even more inappropriate for him to send discouraging e - mails after an offer was made," the report said.

"Tonegawa's communication with Karpova may be a manifestation of inappropriate competitiveness," the authors wrote. "However, we also believe that to some extent Tonegawa was provoked."

Tonegawa, they wrote, was not included in the interview process early enough, and his concerns about the overlap between his research interests and Karpova's were dismissed "when normally the issue of overlap is taken very seriously."

The report criticized other individuals, especially Robert Desimone , head of the McGovern Institute. Desimone, the report said, wrongly tried to influence the biology department's decision, and along with Tonegawa, failed at times to consider Karpova's or MIT's well - being.

Desimone said yesterday that he endorsed Hockfield's call for greater cooperation, but said he was planning to inform the administration of "numerous factual errors, misstatements, and omissions " in the report.

Some professors who had criticized Tonegawa's behavior months ago said they were unsatisfied by the report.

"By failing to take decisive action, the administration is condoning a 67-year-old Nobel Prize winner, a high - level administrator at MIT, sending threatening e - mails to a postdoc," said biologist Nancy Hopkins , one of a group of female professors who raised concerns in June about Tonegawa.

MIT's response "perpetuates destructive behavior by powerful senior faculty and administrators against young scientists, particularly women, and damages MIT's efforts in neuroscience," she said.

Elly Nedivi , a professor at the Picower who had defended Tonegawa, said she was pleased that the MIT committee concluded that no discrimination occurred. With hope, she said, the report will encourage professors to overcome the acrimony.

In addition to Desimone, three other McGovern professors, Nancy Kanwisher, Robert Horvitz , and Tomaso Poggio , said yesterday that the report contained significant inaccuracies.

Horvitz said it was not true that Tonegawa had been excluded early in the search, which Horvitz led.

Reif said he is establishing a new advisory council on neuroscience, which will report to him. The group will oversee hiring to make the process more transparent and to resolve disputes.

Bombardieri can be reached at

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