The lectures of one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) most popular professors have started disappearing from the Internet after the university found that he was using the school’s online courses to engage in sexual harassment of a female student.
Professor Walter Lewin is about as close to being a celebrity as one can get in the world of teaching college-level physics. YouTube videos of him creatively demonstrating basic concepts to students at MIT have garnered hundreds of thousands or even millions of views. He even made an appearance on Martha Stewart’s television show, while his book “For the Love of Physics“ was reviewed by none other than Bill Gates.
Lewin has been retired from MIT’s faculty since 2009, but he had continued to teach courses on MITx, the school’s platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs). Now, at the very end of an illustrious career, Lewin’s legacy has been marred by MIT’s determination that he sexually harassed at least one female student who was participating in one of the MOOCs.
MIT has responded not merely by revoking Lewin’s professor emeritus status, but also by taking down all of his previous courses and lectures from MITx and MIT OpenCourseWare.
MIT’s announcement did not detail precisely what the nature of the harassment was, but said that the allegations were made in October, by a woman who “provided information about Lewin’s interactions with her, which began when she was a learner in one of his MITx courses, as well as information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners.”
Lewin’s most recent MOOC course was in 2013, indicating that the accuser waited some time before bringing forward her allegations, or else that the harassment may have continued over an extended period.
“Dr. Lewin had a long and distinguished career at MIT, and it is painful to learn of the behavior that necessitated this action,” said provost Martin Schmidt in MIT’s announcement. “However, complaints of harassment must be met immediately and squarely in all cases. Today’s decision was made in consultation with faculty leadership both in the physics department and across MIT more broadly.”
MIT’s stern action may be partly motivated by a desire to respond to a recent survey of the school’s female students. In the survey, 17 percent of women claimed to have experienced behavior the school defines as sexual assault, though few had bothered to report their experiences. The survey prompted MIT president L. Rafael Reif to say he was “disturbed by the extent and nature” of sexual assault at the school. Officials at the school have pledged to improve how they address such matters.
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