A 32-year-old woman living in France has provided Inside Higher Ed with records of sexually explicit messages from former professor Walter Lewin — the same materials that she had sent to MIT and which had served as the basis for a sexual harassment investigation that led to the revocation of Lewin’s emeritus title and the removal of his popular online physics lecture videos.
The woman, identified as Faiza Harbi, “was pushed to participate in online sexual role-playing and send naked pictures and videos of herself” by Lewin, who contacted her through a Facebook group she had created while enrolled in an online edX course based on his lectures. Lewin was an instructor of the class at the time.
Inside Higher Ed reported last Friday that Harbi, who takes medication for depression and anxiety, had a “breakdown” in September and relapsed into self-harm. She then used Facebook to find other women, ten in all, who had also been contacted by Lewin. She compiled logs of chats between Lewin and the other women and sent them along with her complaint to MIT in October.
She described being contacted in November 2013 by a Facebook account appearing to belong to Lewin.
Harbi said that though she was initially skeptical that the account was Lewin’s, he convinced her of his identity by showing her screenshots of her edX performance records, available only to the class’s instructors. She said harassment was part of even her early interactions with Lewin.
Still struggling with feelings of abandonment and a past sexual assault, Harbi felt “trapped,” she said, and compelled to continue to respond to Lewin, who contacted her through multiple channels even as she tried to avoid him. She added that many of the other women who provided records of their communication with Lewin came from countries that traditionally silence those who speak out against sexual misconduct.
Inside Higher Ed, which did not publish the materials Harbi provided, said the messages and media contained “nudity and sexually explicit language,” as well as Lewin’s confessions of love to several women.
Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 told Inside Higher Ed that MIT’s response to the investigation’s finding depended on “MIT policies with respect to teacher-learner interactions” rather than “legal conclusions.” Inside Higher Ed, citing a spokeswoman, said MIT “handled the case as though Harbi were enrolled at the institution.”
Schmidt declined to tell Inside Higher Ed how many women Lewin was determined to have harassed or whether there were on-campus complaints against Lewin, citing privacy concerns. MIT had not identified Harbi in any of its statements before the Inside Higher Ed report.
Professor Peter Fisher, who coordinated MIT’s investigation, previously told The Tech that MIT had removed the videos because “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.”
The Tech reported last week that a Twitter account apparently belonging to Lewin publicly posted sexually suggestive and explicit messages to fans, many of them young women.
“If I as a victim stay anonymous, I will send a negative message to the other victims,” Harbi told Inside Higher Ed, explaining why she spoke out. “If I hide, how can I ask other victims to come forward?”