News

MIT says it removed Lewin videos for fear of continued harassment

Provost, physics head elaborate on justification for sudden takedown of course materials from OpenCourseWare, edX

When MIT removed Walter Lewin’s physics lectures from OpenCourseWare and edX last month, it was seeking to prevent future sexual harassment, MIT officials said in an interview on Monday.

“We removed the courses because we felt they presented a [real] danger to people who would see them and contact [former] Professor Lewin, expecting a student-teacher relationship and getting something that was inappropriate,” said Professor Peter H. Fisher, the physics department head and coordinator of the MIT investigation that led to Lewin’s fall from grace.

It came as a surprise to most last month when MIT cut ties with Lewin after finding that at least one student had been sexually harassed online by the retired professor whose teaching style and Internet fanbase once landed him on the front page of The New York Times.

But it was perhaps the removal of course materials that attracted more controversy.

“Probably the predominant question of the people that approached me,” Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 said, was whether it was necessary for MIT to take down Lewin’s introductory physics courses — on mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and vibrations and waves — from its own OpenCourseWare site.

According to Schmidt, senior administrators and “about a dozen” senior faculty members reviewed the details of the case and discussed what MIT should do.

“The conclusion of all that was that this collective group, I think, with near unanimity agreed that the actions we took were the appropriate actions.” said Schmidt, who called the decision “painful.”

The complainant who triggered the investigation last year had also provided information about Lewin’s interactions with other women, according to MIT.

“To us it just sort of indicated that, you know, there’s multiple examples of this kind of behavior, and I think looking at all that information led us to be concerned with the content up there,” Schmidt said. “There was the potential for continued harassment.”

“There’s been some comments — ‘Well, this is just a situation of someone making an inappropriate comment, and is MIT overreacting?’” Schmidt added. “I think our actions are reflective of the seriousness.”

Fisher said Lewin’s behavior spanned “a long period of time” and that it couldn’t have been an accident.

In the interview with The Tech, MIT officials continued to avoid discussing details of the case, citing privacy concerns. Schmidt also declined to say whether law enforcement was involved, though he did say MIT had brought in an “external expert” during the investigation.

Professor Krishna Rajagopal, who interviewed Lewin during the investigation, said: “What’s so difficult about this is that [Lewin’s online] courses were sort of the MIT physics department’s first step into this new mode of learning. And their content is something that we’re proud of.”

But, Rajagopal continued, “the decision was that to reduce the risk [that others would be harassed], MIT had no choice.”

“MIT provides a theater, provides a stage … and Walter Lewin’s courses were performances on that stage. And the fact that students were contacting him … it was our judgment that a part of that was [because the] performance was on MIT’s stage.”

Professor Scott Aaronson was among those who questioned the removal of courses from OpenCourseWare. He wrote on his blog:

“By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but — as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere — don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work. (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.) Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.”

Nate Nickerson, an MIT spokesman, pointed out that Lewin’s lectures continue to be available from other sources. “Taking it off MIT’s properties makes it no less accessible,” he said.

Fisher, the physics department head, said that he didn’t buy the argument that Lewin’s work, like that of flawed figures of centuries past, deserves to stay up on its own merits.

“Certainly there are famous painters and sculptors and writers who produce great works and then in various ways have been found to be repellent human beings in other aspects of their lives, but their work is still appreciated.”

“The separation of the artist from the art,” however, “takes some time,” he said. “For this situation, you know, this is still very raw … providing the means of contact is still an immediate concern.”

As for putting Lewin’s courses back up in the future? “From my point of view, it’s not excluded,” Fisher said.

MIT’s Title IX Student Working Group said it supported MIT’s actions. “By taking down the videos and material that MIT has control over, MIT is saying to the world that sexual harassment is unacceptable in our community,” the group wrote in a blog post.

Yet Fisher and Rajagopal bristled at the suggestion that MIT wanted to make a statement about sexual harassment or was worried about what the public would think.

“I think if you look at how it has been received and you add up how it’s been received in all quarters from all who’ve commented,” Rajagopal said, “I don’t think you could conclude that it was done because of how it would look.”

Fisher said: “When you’re in the middle of one of these things … how it’s going to look down the road outside is really far from what you’re thinking about. What you’re thinking about is, my god, what’s going on here? Who is being hurt by this?”

“You know, [Lewin is] now not part of the community, and that’s a loss too. There just aren’t a lot of winners in this whole thing. It’s really very sad.”

18 Comments
1
Anonymous over 3 years ago

It is no longer possible to reach Walter Lewin through his MIT email because it was removed as part of his punishment for sexual harassment. Given that fact, how can Peter Fisher claim that keeping the courses on line presents a danger? No one has claimed that the lectures themselves are in the least inappropriate. To the contrary, there has been an outcry about the loss of this rich educational resource. Most upsetting is that Fisher and Rajagopal deny that in removing the lectures MIT wanted to make a statement about sexual harassment or was worried about what the public would think." Since any contact between students and Lewin was already eliminated by removing his MIT email address, how could removal of the lectures possibly be motivated by the desire to prevent contact? That is utterly illogical. And if the reason for removing the lectures is NOT in order to prevent contact between Lewin and students, the only possible remaining reason for their removal is precisely to reduce public perception of any association between MIT and sexual harassment, as denied by Fisher and Rajagopal. Why the hypocrisy?

2
Anonymous over 3 years ago

"[A]n MIT spokesman ... pointed out that Lewins lectures continue to be available from other sources. Taking it off MITs properties makes it no less accessible,"

Of course they are now less accessible--even if they are available elsewhere. People come to MIT/OCW for good physics lectures. Fewer people will see the WL video lectures now that they are off OCW. In the same way fewer people will read a given book if it is not available on Amazon.

3
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Taking for granted the wisdom of the MIT decision-makers, the key problem here is the lack of transparency in their judgment process.

A blanket appeal to concerns of privacy will not alleviate concerns for fairness and due process. Especially when the decision-makers trickle out self-serving bits to justify their decision in the face of controversy.

In addition to concerns of fairness and due process, the lack of transparency here means the public learns from this case little about our community's standard of conduct. We know that something very bad happened, but on the other hand there does not seem to be a criminal case.

Further assuming something very bad happened as a social matter, but not rising to the level of criminal act, we don't know whether there were extenuating circumstances that in a criminal case would absolve liability. And in this case, circumstance that might at the very least moderate our judgment of Professor Lewin as a human being. Maybe, for example, he is not quite as repellent a human being as we might assume. Maybe illness or frailty affected his mental state and he did something really bad but out of character. Maybe this is not the case, but without more transparency the public cannot know.

4
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Are the OCW Scholar materials available anywhere else?

5
Anonymous over 3 years ago

With this article the provost and physics administration

prove how political the decision was "to rid" MIT

of Prof. Lewin. Clearly they have there own ambitions.

Would the same punishment have been given to a professor with a Nobel Prize? No way!

There "are winners" here and "the community" knows who they really are.

6
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Why didn't the Tech interview Lewin? It's not that hard to contact him.

7
Mark over 3 years ago

News flash to MIT: "Security through obscurity" is a failed doctrine, especially in the information age. What grown-ups do is post warnings of potentially dangerous things: "Caution: coffee may be hot; Smoking cigarettes may give you cancer; This Google search result is to a web site containing malware. A simple warning to students to not seek contact with Lewin, as a woman has reported sexual harassment, would be responsible enough for MIT. In fact, it is more informative and educational than removing the courseware. Taking possibly harmful things away is the strategy towards children, indicative of MIT's attitude.

8
Rehbock over 3 years ago

Doesn't pass the smell test. MIT needs to tell what exactly happened and what process was used to ascertain it.

9
Anonymous over 3 years ago

at 7, 8: hear, hear.

Having communicated with Lewin (which The Tech did not do), I judge that it was not unwanted and not sexual harassment. They were just looking for an excuse to cut him off.

10
Anonymous over 3 years ago

How is this different from the Soviet Union? The instinct to purge everything due to a little vice (a retired prof doing some consensual flirting online with an adult MOOC student) is downright Orwellian. It really shows us the enlightenment is over, and that bureaucrats have taken over.

While they're at it, they should purge all materials written by homosexuals. For most of history, homosexuality has been viewed far, far worse than a teacher flirting with a student, and for good reason, I might add. Yet it has always been OK for homosexuals to do what they do behind close doors.

11
Anonymous over 3 years ago

#9

I believe the attacker's assessment of whether the advances were wanted or unwanted is completely irrelevant. The receiving party determines whether attention is unwanted. Moreso, Lewin used his power and his name (facilitated by his affiliation with MIT) to target his victims--despicable and a terrible power-balance any way you look at it.

Would you expect him to say anything different? He's a classic narcissist who probably believes any attention he deigns to lavish on women should be wanted.

And as a side note to people complaining the secrecy about what was found in the investigation: You know, the details about the investigation have been kept under wraps to also protect Lewin's privacy--he's probably free to reveal the content of the investigation, maybe ask him.

12
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Can the receiving party change her mind about whether it was unwanted?

13
Anonymous over 3 years ago

12

What does that even matter? When someone expresses discomfort with how another person is interacting with them, they have a right to do it, even if they were ok with other instances of communication.

Given most academic institutions' track records for dealing with harassment, I doubt this was an isolated, minor issue. Assuming it is immediately is really one of the main problems with eradicating harassment in any meaningful way.

14
Anonymous over 3 years ago

13

I personally think harassment is a serious problem. The federal government defines harassment a sexual behavior which was unwanted (at the time it happened).

Defining "harassment" as behavior that becomes unwanted opens up a Pandora's box of possible manipulative behavior. If you give people ways to shamelessly hurt each other, people start shamelessly hurting each other. This is one worrisome, anti-social aspect of the "social justice" movement, and I'm worried it has already ruined a lot of lives.

15
Anonymous over 3 years ago

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/23/complainant-unprecedented-walter-lewin-sexual-harassment-case-comes-forward

But even before this article came out, it would've been nice to see a little trust in the MIT administration. They wouldn't cut off their star professor unless it had been REALLY bad. And it was.

16
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Sorry, I don't trust the MIT administration. Two words: Aaron Swartz.

That said, it looks like they made the right call here, as difficult as that may be to believe. If he's using the MOOC as a vehicle for genuine harassment then you have to take the materials down.

I was a student in his classes back when he was still teaching. No doubt he is one of the greatest ever. But MIT had no choice here.

I would say that once he dies (nothing macabre about this suggestion -- he is pretty old), then there should be no further reason to keep his lectures offline.

17
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Ok, so it seems it was at least a year-long case, and with more than two people involed in the elecronically transmitted "abuse".

er, still - Lewin is nearly 80 - has he beahved badly before? Is this immediate intenet access not a little difficult for someone born before world war 2?

The 32 year-old lady was "convinced" to send nude photos and similar, WTF???!! - I THINK SHE WAS SURELY DRIVING THE POOR OLD MAN A LITTLE CRAZY???!!!!

Why did this poor, free, intellignet 32-year female engage in such an exchange - maybe to entertain herself AT THE TIME no doubt, and then got upset because whe found out she wasn't in such a sexually exciting one-to-one relationship with an intelligent old man???

Disgusting - she should face charges for sending nude photos of herself to a possibly senile man, she's not a child.

18
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Ok, so it seems it was at least a year-long case, and with more than two people involved in the electronically transmitted "abuse".

er, still - Lewin is nearly 80 - has he behaved badly before? Is this immediate internet access not a little difficult for someone born before world war 2?

The 32 year-old lady was "convinced" to send nude photos and similar, WTF???!! - I THINK SHE WAS SURELY DRIVING THE POOR OLD MAN A LITTLE CRAZY???!!!!

Why did this poor, free, intelligent 32-year female engage in such an exchange - maybe to entertain herself AT THE TIME no doubt, and then got upset because whe found out she wasn't in such a sexually exciting one-to-one relationship with an intelligent old man???

Disgusting - she should face charges for sending nude photos of herself to a possibly senile man, she's not a child.