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.”