A female student accused him of engaging in “sexual harassment.” Over the internet. She was participating in a MOOC, massive open online course, and he said something that offended her. What he said is unknown, as it hasn’t been revealed and likely never will. Maybe it was pretty horrible, or maybe it violated that politically correct sensibility that just hurts so very much. Without details, this part may not be known.
But Walter Lewin is 78, retired from active teaching and, for a physics prof, a rock star.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it had determined that a retired faculty member, Walter Lewin, a physicist with a distinguished teaching career, “engaged in online sexual harassment.” As a result, the university said, it has revoked his status as professor emeritus and removed his lecture videos and other course material from OpenCourseWare and edEx, the online learning platform started by Harvard and M.I.T. In a statement Monday, the university said it received a complaint in October from an online learner who provided information about Dr. Lewin’s interactions with her and other women online. After an investigation, the statement said, M.I.T. “determined that Lewin’s behavior toward the complainant violated the institute’s policy on sexual harassment.” Dr. Lewin, 78, retired from M.I.T. in July 2009, last taught a course on campus in spring 2008 and last taught an online course in fall 2013.
The product of this determination is two-fold. First, access to Lewin’s lectures has been removed by MIT from the internet (edit: though the videos have found new homes with other hosts), eradicated as if his mere existence would somehow do harm. These lectures were loved, to the extent any physics lecture could be loved.
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.
The deprivation wasn’t merely of the man, but of the substance of what he offered. Was there a concern that merely seeing, hearing him lecture on Youtube would so profoundly traumatize viewers that the world must be protected from him? It’s utterly absurd.
But there is a secondary, more nefarious, aspect to the “disappeared” Dr. Lewin. The vague accusation of sexual harassment, via some online medium, raises more questions than it answers. No longer does the mere incantation of “sexual harassment” carry any gravitas, any seriousness. No longer does it give us much of a clue what it refers to.
The phrase “sexual harassment” has been stripped of definition by its abuse, its being tossed about with such carelessness that we no longer know whether it means he did something seriously improper, such as a direct sexual advance on a student, or something trivial, such as use a politically incorrect characterization, like referring to her as “honey.” At 78, that could happen.
But what we do know is that the world will be worse without Dr. Lewin’s lectures. Knowledge of physics will be dimmer. Students will have one of the best resources available denied them, and they will suffer for its absence.
Whatever happened, it wasn’t of such a nature that it demanded immediate protection from harm, as it took about a year before it found its way to the surface.
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.
Reaction at MIT was strong, with (at this moment) 238 comments at The Tech questioning the sanity of the Institute’s handling of this matter. Millions of students will be denied access to learning physics through Lewin’s videos, and perhaps it’s because he used an inappropriate word in today’s gender lexicon.
No doubt someone will think, perhaps even comment, that as unfortunate as it may be that so many students will be denied Lewin’s videos, we should not blame the victim and appreciate the mental damage suffered. As one commenter (anon at #25) at the Tech noted:
MIT found he violated their code of conduct, and that’s all we need to know. All those asking what the charge was or speculating he didn’t do something all that bad, how can you stand in defense of someone when you have zero information, and it has already been investigated. They know what happened. You don’t.
Given that whatever transpired happened online, inherent limitations suggest that it’s not as if he groped a student, but that the worst that could happen is he communicated inappropriately. But is that “all we need to know”? In the past, probably. Today? Hardly.
Violating MIT’s code of conduct imparts no clue as to the seriousness of the purported sexual harassment, and given that it was, by definition, words alone, particularly from a 78-year-old professor who somehow managed to never sexually harass anyone up to now,* it’s a fair assumption that whatever happened was more a matter of gender-offensive language than anything else.
It’s awful, horrible, that someone may have used a word that may have hurt someone’s feelings? Maybe so. And millions will suffer, and the world will be less knowledgeable for your feelings. And some of you probably think it’s a worthy tradeoff.
* It has been suggested to me that my assertion that he “somehow managed to never sexually harass anyone up to now” might be inaccurate, as there are now rumors that he has been engaged in such conduct all along. However, in the absence of his having ever been found to engage in sexual harassment, the only reasonable presumption is innocence, that he has not done so. I will not presume him guilty in the absence of allegations, no less “conviction.”
While that isn’t proof that he didn’t, it certainly isn’t reason to add fuel to the rumors that he might have, and so he is entitled to be cast as someone who has never engaged in such impropriety, and I will presume that to be true until proven otherwise.
Update: After reading further in the comments to The Tech, this (see comments numbers 160 and 161) was offered as an example of Lewin’s offense:
160 Bret at 9:52 AM on December 11, 2014:
This comment is to give everybody here an idea of the sorts of things Lewin was doing.
As mentioned above, Lewin’s twitter account mysteriously disappeared in the last 24 hours. I saw it before it disappeared and I will piece together one of a few inappropriate (in my opinion) sequences.
The sequence is between Lewin, tshelsea ( https://twitter.com/tshelsea/with_replies ), and VeeNasrallah (https://twitter.com/VeeNasrallah/with_replies ). Some of it (as noted below) is only from memory:
Chelsea. tshelsea – 11 Jun 2013
If Walter Lewin doesn’t open a water company called Wally Walter’s Water then what’s the point.
From memory, Lewin tweets something like (to tshelsea, VeeNasrallah): That’s a good idea, will you be my CEO.
The Head Captain. VeeNasrallah 16 Jun 2013
walter_lewin tshelsea chelsea did walter lewin just tweet us.
From memory, some back forth banter, discussing payment with Lewin tweeting to the effect that she would like the payment a lot.
The sequence is capped off with Lewin tweeting, “I will do my part, queefing is yours.”
So pretty bad. Note that this is only one sequence in twitter (though this one was the worst in my opinion) and who knows what happened via email, etc.  and  above can (still) be found on the women’s twitter pages,  and  are from memory before Lewin’s account was deleted, and  is an exact quote though I don’t have a screen shot or date.
161 Anonymous at 10:34 AM on December 11, 2014:
I managed to archive Lewin’s exact quotes. They were:
 “tshelsea May I hire you as the CEO?”
 “tshelsea You will get paid a way that will broaden your horizons and enrich your life. You life will never be the same.”
 “tshelsea I will do my part, queefing is yours.”
The jokes are of course inappropriate, though, call me sick-minded, but I laughed.
For context: I do remember this being the worst Tweets as well. Most of his Tweets were him just nicely offering to sign books and so on.
The Tech is free to delete this comment if it wishes. The tweets were public and will come out eventually.
Now that you’ve read the offending twits, make your own decision. As for me, I had to google “queefing,” and it’s totally inappropriate, creepy and disgusting. So we should all call Lewin a monumental asshole. And then move on. No one was harmed.