Walter Lewin, the former MIT professor with whom the Institute severed ties last month over a sexual harassment probe, appears to have publicly tweeted sexually suggestive and explicit comments to fans of his popular online physics lecture videos.
The Twitter account @walter_lewin, mentioned in a 2013 MIT physics department tweet as belonging to the former professor, responded publicly to fans’ tweets in 2013 and 2014 but was deactivated in December.
The Tech has communicated with Lewin via one of several email addresses he mentioned on his Twitter account. In his emails he defended some of the tweets but disavowed others.
Most of the tweets on the account were responses to fans of his online video lectures who had mentioned his @walter_lewin account in their tweets. Fans were frequently invited to contact him at email@example.com, but that address was later suspended as a result of MIT’s investigation. A tweet from December 2014 asked a fan to contact him through a non-MIT personal email address.
But some of Lewin’s replies, especially those to young women, included sexual comments.
On June 11, 2013, a female user had mentioned his name in a joking tweet, to which he responded. But days later on June 16, in response to her unrelated tweet to another user saying simply “FUCK,” Lewin commented “That can be included if you want to.”
Lewin defended the tweet via email: “I have an eccentric/unusual sense of humor which can easily be misinterpreted (it’s not appreciated by all). If someone writes ‘fuck’ which is very common, I often turn that into a joke.”
Later on June 16 he tweeted her again using crude sexual slang to apparently proposition her for sex. Minutes later, with no apparent response from the recipient, he tweeted again to ask if she was “chickening out.”
Lewin told The Tech he couldn’t have written the tweet as he did not know the slang term in question, adding, “How on earth it ended up in one of my tweets, it beats me.” He speculated that his account could have been hacked but did not elaborate on the assertion.
Lewin sometimes responded to fans’ tweets unrelated to their original mention of him. One of his July 2013 tweets read: “My publisher sent me a website with all twitters who mention me.”
In some cases, it appears the recipients of Lewin’s comments attempted to ignore or block his future tweets. A day after the June 16, 2013 exchange, he responded to another user’s apparent confusion at the situation, complaining, “You and your friend made your msgs ‘invisible’.”
And in April 2013, he tweeted one woman “I hope you too lost your virginity,” and then replied five more times in three days, though no responses from the recipient were visible. One of his replies: “Hi I also wrote on your facebook wall. Great picture!”
In fact, he speculated about the “virginity” of several users, most of whom had tweeted in amusement about a segment in his online lectures where he refers to learning electromagnetic equations by telling students, “As far as 8.02 is concerned … you have lost your virginity.”
Lewin wrote via email that his responses were in reference to that lecture.
To another user he said, “[W]atch my lectures from bed — very sexy!”
MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 said he did not know whether the @walter_lewin account belonged to Lewin. When asked whether the tweets were involved in MIT’s investigation, Schmidt wrote: “The investigation focussed on materials provided by the complainant.”
MIT elaborated last week on its decision to remove Lewin’s online lectures, saying it wanted to prevent “danger” to fans who would contact Lewin “expecting a student-teacher relationship and getting something that was inappropriate,” according to MIT Physics Department Head Peter H. Fisher, who helped lead the investigation. Lewin said that MIT also told him that the videos were taken down to prevent viewers from communicating with him.
Lewin called the removal of the videos a “bad decision.”
“MIT has removed every website they control which mentions the huge impact that my lectures had (and still have) on the world as a whole,” he wrote. “MIT wants to rewrite/change history. To un-person me and to deny my large impact on undergraduate teaching is a political move.”
He said of the videos, “It’s only a matter of time (maybe a few months) and all will be back. Trust me,” but did not elaborate as to how he expected that to happen.
Lewin said he would consider an in-person interview with The Tech when “the dust has settled.”