Opinion editorial

MIT was right to remove Lewin’s videos

Taking down the lectures addressed real harassment concerns

The outcry at MIT’s removal of Walter Lewin’s popular online physics lectures has been widespread, from online commenters to MIT professor Scott Aaronson.

MIT said it took down the videos to avoid further advertising the former professor to new fans and online students, who it said could contact him on their own and potentially experience harassment. But critics of the decision have questioned whether these fears were realistic and have even compared MIT’s actions to efforts by totalitarian states to limit access to information.

But in light of MIT’s own explanations and The Tech’s reporting of inappropriate interactions between Lewin and his fans on a public Twitter account, it is clear that MIT’s actions were not only defensible but also necessary, and the sustained hand-wringing defense of Lewin by some members of the MIT community is disappointing.

Fans of the online lectures who simply mentioned Lewin on Twitter were sometimes met with unsolicited sexual messages — and this was just what happened on a public account. The MIT community should not need to know the details of the private harassment investigation to believe Provost Martin A. Schmidt’s assessment that the “multiple examples” of harassment constituted a serious offense and that MIT wasn’t overreacting.

In short, MIT didn’t justify taking down the videos with far-fetched worries — it seems that it addressed a real channel of harassment.

While MIT rightly said it did not remove the videos to make an example out of Lewin or make a political statement, its actions still have significance beyond the pragmatic goal of making it harder for fans to contact Lewin.

The online lectures were the result of MIT promoting Lewin on its own dime, lending him a level of fame rarely afforded to professors and allowing him to personally profit from sales of his book, For the Love of Physics. Continuing to elevate someone who betrayed the trust of students and the Institute as one of the beloved public faces of MIT would simply be nonsensical.

Some have contended that Lewin’s lectures are so unique and valuable that the cost of removing them is an unacceptable blow to the world’s access to knowledge, suggesting that MIT’s efforts are equivalent to “book burning.” Aaronson even blogged, “I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.”

But the importance of Lewin’s videos cannot be glibly distinguished from the man or his transgressions. The popularity of his lectures came not from any unique information or insight — any physics professor at the Institute is qualified to teach 8.01 and 8.02 — but from a very personal enthusiasm for physics that made his explanations engrossing and accessible.

But being a great teacher requires not only respect for the material, but also for the students. While it comes as a disappointment to many at MIT that Lewin’s private interactions and public persona are at odds, MIT should not be blamed for no longer actively presenting someone who violated the trust of his students as its representative on a global stage. There are certainly many other professors at the Institute with the knowledge and charisma to inspire the world with physics while conducting themselves appropriately.

MIT understands the difference between popular videos of common material and Lewin’s unique contributions to science, so the assertions that MIT is on a slippery slope to erasing Lewin’s discoveries are an absurd conflation of the two.

Revoking an emeritus title is a serious and rare action — it would have been easy to resolve the matter quietly, but MIT should be commended for not allowing its substantial investment in Lewin as its public representative to derail its decision.

Nevertheless, the incident raises troubling questions that have yet to be answered: Did Lewin harass students or others before his retirement or rise to online fame? If so, how did he come to be promoted as a public face of MIT without anyone speaking up or raising concerns?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but Lewin’s fall from grace should serve as a reminder of the importance of taking sexual misconduct seriously and ensuring professional power structures don’t protect those who mistreat others.

21 Comments
1
Anonymous about 3 years ago

This editorial is nonsense, and I'm being kind here. Walter's publicized behavior is rudeness, and nothing more. It is not harassment. He's not hurting anyone. Let go of your envy, you gays and undersexed men/women. Let the player play.

"Fans of the online lectures who simply mentioned Lewin on Twitter were sometimes met with unsolicited sexual messages "

We used to call that flirting. Fans tweeted at Lewin (using walter_lewin), sometimes using the F-- word. He responded humorously in kind.

What have we learned here?

Make fun of Allah and childish Islamic fundamentalists will sob and call for your head.

Flirt with someone and goofy liberals will act deeply offended and try to end your career.

Reminds me of the Puritanism in the Scarlet Letter.

2
Anonymous about 3 years ago

Reminder to all men: Don't flirt with crazy women who will accuse you of sexual harassment.

Reminder to all women: Don't falsely accuse men of sexual harassment.

Reminder to all people: Don't trust journalists. Gossip networks and old books are far more reliable.

3
Anonymous about 3 years ago

Finally-- What's next? Stoning for adultery? (Reality: Adultery is a petty vice and often excusable.) The Tech is clueless and has no moral foundation beyond the Marxist argument "Lewin had power so punish him!" Bring back Christianity. We need it, badly.

4
Anonymous about 3 years ago

Looks like 1,2 and 3 did not read the article or this editorial. I'm not entirely convinced that removing all of Walter Lewin's material hosted online by MIT is justified, though this editorial presented a good argument for it.

But the commenters here are so out of touch with the reality of sexual harassment. It seems like something out of Mad Men. I guess it's an eye-opener for me that America is still stuck (as is true with a lot of other things) in the 1950s when it comes to rights and justice for the unprivileged. This notion that women are out to entrap men with false sexual harassment claims is rooted in some complex of emasculation; an aching for a time when men could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.

5
Anonymous about 3 years ago

It is not a coincidence these people (in control of academia and press) want to criminalize a professor flirting, especially with someone younger and less educated. A boss flirting with a secretary-- illegal, he should be taking me out to a fancy restaurant, so we can be Mr. and Mrs. MIT Grad! We used to call it "envy," now we call it "feminism." Be honest, 4, are you the girl men are flirting with, or are you the girl with envy? If the latter, nope, and, no, I don't want your financial derivative or quantitative easing or whatever else you are up to now lol.

This is why I call on secretaries everywhere: don't report for sexual harassment, or you'll get less attention. I'm simply looking out for you, unlike 4.

And, for men (here is a secret 4 would not want you to know), never talk more than her, because that's grounds for sexual harassment. Lewin's "have you chickened out" tweet was a grave error-- it does not look good. One strike, you're out applies; you have to act like you have all the time in the world. I don't care if the student was happily talking to you and you made a Lewinesque joke about how watching lectures in bed is sexy, "have you chickened out" is lame.

But the greater lesson may be avoiding academia entirely. It seems to be a toxic environment. Even if you are retired, they come after you after a single mistake, seeking total and complete destruction. In a stagnant environment, a petty vice can set off a nuclear bomb of cutthroat politics.

I do think Lewin did something wrong by the way. Although not publicized in The Tech, I suspect he used course materials to flirt with a student in one of his classes, and that is pretty messed up. He should have waited a month or two till the class was over, as detailed in this guide by Sarah Wright:

http://education-portal.com/articles/Romantic_Relationships_with_Professors_What_Should_You_Do.html

-1,2,3

6
Anonymous about 3 years ago

No, we should not just take it on faith that Professor Lewin is a monster.

And without access to the judgment process and evidence, it is impossible to say whether the punishment serves any legitimate purpose.

7
Anonymous about 3 years ago

"MIT said it took down the videos to avoid further advertising the former professor to new fans and online students, who it said could contact him on their own and potentially experience harassment...In short, MIT didnt justify taking down the videos with far-fetched worries it seems that it addressed a real channel of harassment."

Read that again ladies and gentlemen. "Real channel of harassment." LOL. Exactly the sort of imbecilic drivel I would expect from the Tech.

8
Aaron Hammond about 3 years ago

Now that we've banished Lewin, can we finally get that asterisk next to every reference to DNA in 7.012 that the Institute officially disagrees with James Watson?

9
Anonymous about 3 years ago

No no 8, don't mention that hateful name! You might make me search google images for "black vs white IQ" and expose me to tons of damaging misinformation. He discovered DNA, but I, a proud progressive, know more about genetics than he does!

10
Anonymous about 3 years ago

The key statement here is that taking down the videos prevents a "real channel" of harassment. Students who found Lewin on twitter would expect a student-teacher relationship.

But if Lewin is fired and has no association with MIT, should they expect a student-teacher relationship? The typical definition of workplace or classroom sexual harassment is defined by a power relationship of some kind. With Lewin having no association with EdX or MIT, there is no power relationship. And I don't understand why it is so hard for people to figure out that Lewin no longer is associated with MIT.

The article also says that Lewin's classes covering "common material" were "engrossing" because of his "enthusiasm", not because of any insight. This is really not the reason that Lewin got teaching awards. Professors don't break new ground when they lecture, but creative insights are required in order to make the new topic accessible to students based on the background which the students' currently have. Analogies and insights help in this purpose. So characterizing intro to physics as merely "common material" undersells what it takes to create a class which is well-taught, and consequently, underestimates the damage of taking his videos and class material down.

11
Anonymous about 3 years ago

10

First, let me state that I do not currently oppose Lewin's punishment. I understand that this is a complicated, sensitive issue, so I'd just like to shed some light on my perspective as to how Lewin's punishment was decided, and why The Tech supports it.

For The Tech, oversimplifying a bit, the key question is "what will authority want me to say?" And the answer is "take down Lewin's videos" because they view certain groups of people (feminists, bureaucrats, etc.) as the authority. They know that if they take the opposite stance they'll be attacked by social justice warriors and bureaucrats, so this mentality is how they come to their decision. The mindset comes from the way they were brought up, through many years of liberal schooling and weak or nonexistent ties to a stable community (read "Brave New World" for an example of this mentality taken to the extreme). Read the paper "Liberals Think More Analytically (More 'Weird') than Conservatives" and you'll see that this mindset is unique to about 15 percent of the world, particularly liberals in Western countries such as the US. You can see the mindset when you see people looking at a limited set of "causes and effects" (approved by 'the teacher') rather than holistically looking at a given issue. You can go to a Harvard class (not a Larry Summers one, he's actually a smart dude who hides his true opinions between the lines) and see this kind of mentality in action when the professor starts spouting insanity such as "nothing is objective."

For instance, a chain of reasoning I saw on Twitter goes as follows:

(cont'd)

12
Anonymous about 3 years ago

(cont'd)

"Statistically significant different rates in car crash fatalities between sexes indicative of innate sexual dimorphism. If female fatality rates had been higher, you know this would've been proof of the existence of Patriarchy. The "nature" explanation of "maybe women just don't drive as well" couldn't even be considered. But since rates seem otherwise, "nature" explanation of "women just drive safer" is totally okay, ignoring overwhelming male representation among elites of driving competition."

This is a good satire of the liberal thought process. In this case, the thought process for supporting Lewin's decision is:

"Sexual harassment is a large issue on college campuses, because a set of women have felt offended by male behavior and complain. A woman complained about Lewin's behavior, so it is sexual harassment. Thus, Lewin misbehaved. Also, Lewin's videos are tied to sexual harassment, since they make him more well-known. So in order to reduce sexual harassment, which we all know is a big problem, we have to take down Lewin's videos."

To an uneducated, traditionally religious farmer, this is surprising. For instance, the uneducated but socially savvy man might ask, what if a woman is a flirt but then changes her mind? In this case, (the farmer reasons that) the woman may feel regretful that she flirted with someone who turned out to be a loser. Now the woman might reason that she feels offended, and therefore complain. In the end, the man is convicted of sexual harassment, simply for flirting with a flirt. (Indeed, in this particular case, after talking to Lewin, it appears the accuser was good friends with him for many months after the sexual harassment occurred, validating the hypothesis.)

Or, here's another complaint the uneducated man might have: what if a woman gets an unwanted advance outside of a work/educational context (such as on Twitter, or in a fraternity, or in a dorm)? If we are to ban that, we basically are banning asking people out to dates, the uneducated farmer might reason.

(cont'd)

13
Anonymous about 3 years ago

(cont'd)

Now if you study law for a while, make close friends with many different types of people, or simply try to be extremely open minded (not brainwashed), you start to have a more holistic way of thinking, which goes a little more like this:

"The reason we have sexual harassment laws is so that an educational or workplace environment does not become openly hostile. Offhand jokes or teasing are simply ways of mutually having fun, and generally they don't contribute to a hostile environment unless they are repeated and severe, so they don't count as sexual harassment. Also, making sexual comments ("flirting") outside of an education/workplace environment is not sexual harassment, since this is just a way of mutually finding partners in a free world, which can either be justified from a hedonistic mindset or from a traditional mindset, as a way of finding partners and girlfriends."

Through this holistic thinking, you determine Lewin's tweets aren't really sexual harassment. He's not the student's teacher, after all, and it's not an educational environment. They're just chatting, and he just happens to be the author of some physics lectures.

On the other hand, you might think that Lewin should have been a bit more chivalrous and proper. Going straight to "sexual jokes" is not a great way to chat in this puritan day and age, especially if you are an old man who probably isn't in the dating game. But is this not a "mistake," a question of "competence," not a case of "harassment"? Lewin's intentions are clear he's not propositioning anyone to sex, he's just having fun.

It is interesting though, that this kind of holistic thinking is basically thoughtcrime on college campuses. You may be called a harasser if you start thinking this way which is why students don't do it, and instead reason the close-minded way The Tech did.

Really, it's a sorry tale on both sides. I feel a little sorry for Lewin and I despise the unhealthy, superstitious culture on college campuses. Truly, we are in the dark ages combined with Idiocracy.

14
Anonymous about 3 years ago

Conclusion: Here's the toxic brew:

(a) Social ineptitude by Lewin self explanatory;

(b) Social ineptitude by bureaucrats (i) inability to decipher Lewin's intentions in his alleged tweets (when he allegedly wrote out of the blue 'that can be included if you want to' when a random person on the internet wrote 'FUCK,' this was a joke, not a proposition for sex). (ii) the fact that the accuser seems to have remained friends with Lewin for months after the harassment occurred shows that (1) the bureaucrats don't understand that "harassment" is severe hostility, (2) the accuser is unable to tell whether someone is being hostile or is unable to stop being friends with someone who is severely hostile, (3) the accuser probably over-analyzed everything before making the complaint;

(d) Bloated bureaucracy Colleges are now dominated by bureaucrats, mirroring what's happening elsewhere in the economy as the bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the growing bureaucracy. Bureaucrats tend to be unintelligent, incapable, status-anxious and easily replaceable. Thus they will grab on to causes like 'rape culture hysteria' in order to try to give themselves more work and appear more important. Consider when a Homeowner's Association bans a guy from parking his truck in his driveway. Hence rape culture;

(e) Over-use of analytical thinking explained above;

(f) Brainwashed analytical thinking For example, one cannot reason that an accuser may be confused, since this would be "victim blaming." When your primary mode is weird analysis, and that itself is restricted, you start numerous epistemological fires;

(f) Puritanism This is driven by envy. Nobody wants to see a goofy old man chatting up younger women, even if it's with a good humor. "Old ugly men, stop going to parties!";

(g) Tendency of single women to test boundaries this is called a "shit test" (urban dictionary) and explains much of feminism;

(h) Tendency of single "nice guys" to not have boundaries vs young women they will usually fail the "shit test" and give women excessive sympathy and everything they claim to want;

(i) Militant nature of social justice vs. submissive nature of its opposition;

There might be few more. This debacle is the result of a virulent meme (same as "witch burning" in the past) in our feminist, bureaucratic, analytical culture. It is quite fascinating and really shows how people are horny violent impulsive superstitious chimps. It's too bad Lewin was a victim.

15
Anonymous about 3 years ago

Oh there are a few more:

(j) Emergence of a certain sexuality and relative dominance of a certain faith with a certain history- I sound like a bigoted crackpot here, so I take it back. It was a joke! Right people? I don't want to go the way of Rick Sanchez.

(k) De-emphasis on family, religion to keep people in check (replaced by bureaucrats and mass media)- This is very, very dangerous. By encouraging defection from the prisoner's dilemma game of general "decency," we let promiscuous single women (and scumbag single men) run wild and cause these problems. Religion's fade only opens the door to wild superstition and a lack of cooperation.

(l) Systematic elimination of testosterone-- This is exacerbating (h).

It is also not hard to operationalize, generalize (a) - (l) in a way that they have great predictive power.

The world is burning, and one feels that the Lewin debacle is lost in the fire. Previous reigns of terror had popular support, and this one is no exception, as the submissive media, the powerful, unintelligent bureaucracy, manipulative feral women, and so on manufacture consent from the relatively few decent guys left.

I suppose Lewin's best option is using careful, level-headed rhetoric (e.g. pointing out contradictions) and taking advantage of the show trial to expose corruption. By talking to the enemy (The Tech's feminist editor in chief) he did himself no favors. It was no surprise they painted him as a narcissistic pedophile.

16
Jerry Vandesic about 3 years ago

Come one, it's not very complex. MIT doesn't want to be associated with this scumbag. There are videos out there containing this scumbag and the MIT logo. So MIT takes down the scumbag's videos. Simple.

17
Anonymous about 3 years ago

You would know Vandesic. It takes a scumbag to know another scumbag and MIT is filled with them

18
Anonymous about 3 years ago

16

Correct. Good man. I'm a young guy, but you seem older and wiser.

It's worrying that being a "scumbag" (as defined by the Communist left) is "harassment," but I guess that's the society we live in. Very limited freedom. It's a good lesson to learn. Just as you should never talk to the police, you should never talk to leftist bureaucracies.

-15

19
Anonymous about 3 years ago

Lewin was abused you idiots, by young women with sexual fantasies engaging with the almost 80-year-old professor.

Imagine the other way round, 20 and 30-year old males sending pictures of their dicks to a 80-year old formally respected woman professor because she'd engaged in titillating tweets etc (probably not fully understanding modern tech and media)

MIT is a disgrace, and cowardly so to not address the real issue here.

20
Anonymous about 3 years ago

#19

You mean that Lewin was forced by young women with sexual fantiasies about almost octigenarians professors to tweet them, friend them on facebook and send graphic content (basically nude pictures of himself) to those women?

Is this your vision of Lewin being abused?

If so, #19, you definitely made my day worth start earlier than usual!

I talk about him sending material as, if you followed the story, and if you can add 2 and 2 , the woman you call an abuser didn't just go with the material she sent since , well.. It's no proof of anything!

p.s: 22 = 4

21
Anonymous almost 3 years ago

Back to the topic and Lewin in:

https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/02/10/essay-need-colleges-take-more-seriously-issue-harassment-faculty-members-students