After a Sexual Harassment Complaint, MIT Removed a Professor’s Online Lectures

Retired professor Walter Lewin's physics videos were popular on the university's online education platform.



The internet age has brought sexual harassment to the digital realm on a lot of platforms—social networks, dating websites—even online education. On the last point: Monday, MIT removed the popular online physics lectures of retired Professor Walter Lewin after an investigation found that he had sexually harassed several women online who took his course through MIT’s EdX platform.

Until this week, Lewin had been a bit of an online education star. His videos showed him engaging in elaborate schemes to exemplify principles of physics, swinging from a giant pendulum, for instance, to demonstrate its motion. (Think Miley Cyrus.) The New York Times described his online course in a 2007 story:

Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube’s greatest hits […] Professor Lewin beats a student with cat fur to demonstrate electrostatics. Wearing shorts, sandals with socks and a pith helmet — nerd safari garb — he fires a cannon loaded with a golf ball at a stuffed monkey wearing a bulletproof vest to demonstrate the trajectories of objects in free fall.

When MIT co-launched its online education venture EdX, Lewin’s courses moved to the platform. In October, a student who took his class there complained to MIT. The university launched an investigation into his interactions with that student and others who took the course. In a release, MIT News reports:

Based on its investigation, MIT has determined that Lewin’s behavior toward the complainant violated the Institute’s policy on sexual harassment. Following broad consultation among faculty, MIT is indefinitely removing Lewin’s online courses, in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior.

Lewin’s lectures being as well known and well liked as they are, a lot of the online comments questioned MIT’s decision to take down the videos themselves. MIT’s statement didn’t elaborate on that decision, implying only that they didn’t want more students to come into personal contact with Lewin over the internet.

The whole situation brings to light many issues, including how a university should cut ties with a professor who is already retired. But another, more wide-reaching one is how universities expand harassment policies as they expand online course offerings. Many are confronting on-campus sexual harassment policies, especially given recent events. But Lewin’s case shows that the expansion into online education means university administrators cannot just focus on their campus-wide measures. They’ll have to look online as well.