MIT cuts ties with Walter Lewin after online harassment probe
Institute revokes emeritus title, removes online courses of popular physics professor who starred in viral videos
MIT is cutting ties with retired professor Walter Lewin after determining that the physicist, whose lectures had made him a beloved teacher and minor Internet star, had sexually harassed at least one student online.
The woman was taking one of Lewin’s classes on edX, the online learning platform started by Harvard and MIT.
MIT said Monday that it had launched an investigation immediately after she filed a complaint in October.
MIT officials reviewed “detailed materials” provided by the complainant, who also presented “information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners,” according to Monday’s announcement. The investigation also included interviews with the complainant and Lewin.
MIT has revoked his title as professor emeritus, Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 said.
MIT is also removing Lewin’s lecture videos and other course materials from edX and MIT OpenCourseWare indefinitely, “in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior.”
Schmidt said that MIT’s actions were “part of a process of a complete separation from Walter,” though he also said those actions were “probably the extent of it” given that Lewin had retired.
“Given Dr. Lewin’s long career on our campus and contributions as an educator, taking this step is painful,” Schmidt wrote to MIT’s faculty.
“However, based on my careful review of the findings of the investigation and my conversations with the Physics Department leadership, School Deans, and other faculty leaders, I believe that harassment occurred, that our response is appropriate, and that explaining this matter publicly is necessary.”
Schmidt declined to comment on whether MIT would also investigate Lewin’s past at MIT.
Lewin joined MIT in 1966 and became a full professor in 1974. In the decades that followed he collected award after award for his undergraduate teaching.
Through OpenCourseWare and YouTube, Lewin’s lectures and physics demonstrations have reached millions.
“Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube’s greatest hits,” The New York Times wrote in 2007. “With his wiry grayish-brown hair, his tortoiseshell glasses and his intensity, Professor Lewin is the iconic brilliant scientist … he is at once larger than life and totally accessible.”
Lewin went on to star in viral videos of him drawing dotted lines on blackboards and swinging on steel balls suspended from the ceiling.
And then in 2013, Lewin helped launch online versions of his classes on edX. Among those who enrolled: the woman who would lodge the sexual harassment complaint this past October.
By Monday evening, at least some of Lewin’s classes had been taken down from edX, MIT OpenCourseWare, and MIT OpenCourseWare’s Youtube channel.
MIT is keeping some of Lewin’s lecture videos available on ocw2.mit.edu until the end of the semester. “We realize that some of you may have been using some materials from the OCW versions of the course as you prepare for your exams,” physics department administrators wrote in an email to students in an introductory physics class.
“Students place tremendous trust in their teachers,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. “Deserving that trust is among our most fundamental obligations. We must take the greatest care that everyone who comes to us for knowledge and instruction, whether in classrooms or online, can count on MIT as a safe and respectful place to learn.”
An email requesting comment, sent to an MIT address that Lewin has previously used in communications with The Tech, could not be delivered Monday.