The dangerous values behind the Lewin lecture takedown
MIT’s anti-academic gesture sets a precedent, but not the one it talks about
With luck, the world will frown on the example set by MIT in taking down Walter Lewin’s physics lectures from OpenCourseWare.
Contrary to the investigators’ claims, the takedown will do nothing even to inhibit contact — let alone harassment — between Lewin and future students. No one will find him in MIT’s directory, and any Internet search for him will return reams of references to the present scandal. At the same time, Lewin no longer has access to records of anyone viewing his lectures — on OCW, in fact, such records do not even exist. With these channels closed, even to talk to future students, he would have to somehow find them and convince them of his bona fides without them ever looking him up.
Consider the story of the allegations actually brought against him by Faïza Harbi, as reported the Friday before last in Inside Higher Ed. First, she created a Facebook group for students in Walter Lewin’s online course. Then, to join the group, Lewin proved his identity (as she sensibly requested) by accessing her private data on edX as the course instructor. Later, after Lewin pursued her to the point of discomfort, she “felt trapped” by the authority figure and the situation further escalated. Every step in this ultimately sordid affair hinges on Lewin’s role as online course instructor: remove him from edX alone, and it would not have happened.
By removing his official contact information, responsibilities, and titles, MIT has already exhausted its practical influence in limiting his communications. In contrast, by removing Lewin’s lectures from OCW, MIT only bolsters the minute chance that someone might reach Lewin unawares. If his millions of viewers are diverted to other sites, he might conceivably lure more fans by planting a point of contact somewhere else.
Even in the event that future students correspond with Lewin, his loss of official status has removed any basis for sexual harassment — at least, any basis connected with MIT. If Lewin ever again manages to forge inappropriate relationships, MIT will play no part in it, regardless of the availability of his lecture videos.
Investigator Krishna Rajagopal has proposed that Lewin’s lecture videos on OCW are like “performances … on MIT’s stage,” rather than like tapes on MIT’s shelf. Let’s dispel this dangerous analogy: MIT is not merely declining to produce new works, like Bill Cosby’s former sponsors. Instead, it’s erasing works that it’s already sponsored and published, solely because of their association to a disgraced individual. Even though Lewin’s alleged wrongdoings pale in comparison to Cosby’s, no serious person asks that Cosby’s publishers stop printing his best-known books. Similarly, The Tech hosts its own digital archives on MIT’s domain, yet no one complains that this grants a media “stage” to the former managers and staff who embezzled its funds. OpenCourseWare is an archive, not a theater. Removing materials from OCW is not cancelling a performance: it’s setting a fire in the library.
The charges of book burning are not hyperbole. MIT is doing it for the same contemptible reasons that other self-righteous perpetrators always have: to limit certain works’ exposure to the populace, and demonstrate its own power to enforce its moral judgments. Already, MIT’s values are being frighteningly construed by the outside world: Inside Higher Ed reports matter-of-factly that “MIT has not been able to remove all trace of Lewin from the internet” — implying that if it could, it would. While The Tech’s recent editorial may deny it, the slope is slippery indeed.
Such intellectual destruction erupts inevitably when works of art and science enjoy no regard independent of personal verdicts about their authors. Indeed, investigator Peter Fisher believes that “the separation of the artist from the art takes some time” — and apparently, that it is his prerogative, and not that of individual viewers, to set the pace.
By all public accounts thus far, Lewin violated the standards of MIT’s community, and may well deserve to be expelled from it. But erasing his historical contributions to the world violates standards of much longer standing, and in the long run, this violation is far more troubling.
Thomas Coffee is a Ph.D. candidate and an alumnus of the Class of 2005.