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.