Who’s afraid of Walter Lewin?
Those who fear relentless pursuit by powerful men with troubling secrets can now rest easier: Peter Fisher wants to protect you. Last week, he explained that MIT removed Walter Lewin’s famous physics lectures from OpenCourseWare and edX, not to teach a lesson, but to protect potential future victims from coming into contact with the former professor. Clearly, removing his MIT office, phone, and email address would not suffice: after all, some determined but unsuspecting student might yet find a way to stalk him down. No, to shield the populace from Lewin’s possible predations, MIT must do everything in its power to purge all trace of his existence from the Earth (at least for as long as he lives).
We can only assume that the investigators’ task has just begun. Up next, MIT must erase any research materials (such as journal articles) in its possession referencing Lewin’s academic work: to paraphrase Fisher, other researchers might contact Lewin expecting a scholar-to-scholar relationship and getting something that is inappropriate. But this is only a start. Even greater risks attend copies hosted in other libraries and online archives around the world — especially of the insidious video lectures — where MIT can offer no warning to innocent viewers. By destroying only the copies it can zap with the touch of a button, MIT would fail its apparent commitment to preventing sexual harassment always and everywhere.
If MIT’s courage in the name of hypothetical victims truly knows no bounds, it could even take the most radical step of all: to publish the essential findings of its investigation, and thus better inform people of the risks they take talking to a stranger online. But perhaps this would go too far.
Thomas Coffee is a Ph.D. candidate and an alumnus of the Class of 2005.