An investigation has discovered that popular, now-retired MIT professor Walter Lewin sexually harassed at least one female student online.
The 78-year-old retired from the school in 2008 and taught his last online course in 2013. Despite this, administrators at the school are hard at work erasing links to his online courses to stop Lewin from contacting any other students. In addition, his lectures, which drew an audience of around 10,000 viewers a day, were deleted from the education platform edX as well as from the school’s OpenCourseWare platform.
A press release announced the investigation came after a female student filed a complaint in October. While it is unknown precisely when she participated in his course, she does state that the harassment began while she was taking the class. She goes on to name other students who were subjected to inappropriate behavior. Upon reading correspondence between Lewin and several females, the university concluded that sexual harassment had occurred.
Several of his popular lectures still remain available online, despite being pulled from multiple sources by the school. A video featuring Lewin demonstrating the forces at play in a spinning wheel was found on YouTube with almost 2 million views. Another video showing the professor beating a student with cat fur in a demonstration of electricity has about 1.3 million views. Still others are available featuring hundreds of thousands of views.
Lewin became increasingly popular online through the circulation of his videos, according to Andy Rosen for The Boston Globe. According to a 2007 New York Times article, Lewin was “part of a new generation of academic stars who hold forth in cyberspace.”
“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,” the story said.
And indeed, Lewin did have a brush with fame as he made an appearance on season 3 of the Martha Stewart Show riding a bicycle powered by fire extinguishers.
However, all that has changed. Lewin was reportedly asked to not contact any MIT students or online learners with the start of the investigation conducted by Professor Peter Fisher, head of the school’s physics department.
The investigation found that Lewin had “violated the Institute’s policy on sexual harassment” and a decision was made to indefinitely remove his lectures from the school’s OpenCourseWare as well as from edX and MITx, “in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior.”
In a statement, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said:
Students place tremendous trust in their teachers. Deserving that trust is among our most fundamental obligations. We must take the greatest care that everyone who comes to us for knowledge and instruction, whether in classrooms or online, can count on MIT as a safe and respectful place to learn.