As many of you who may follow academia or physics may know, MIT terminated its relationship with prominent emeritus professor Walter Lewin back in December.** At the time, the official explanation was that MIT had received credible accusations that Lewin had been sexually harassing people using edX/MITx and MIT’s own online coursework. As part of the response, MIT removed Lewin’s famous online introductory physics lectures and other material from the OpenCourseWare site. This set off a firestorm across the internet with accusations that MIT must be overreacting and that the response was tantamount to Nazi book burning.
Over the past few days, a few articles have come out going into the accusations in more detail, which is what prompted me to write this. First, The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, reported on Lewin’s supposed unprofessional behavior on Twitter. Then, Inside Higher Ed was provided with much more detailed information the person who reportedly was the one who made the complaint to MIT.
You can read the articles yourself, but I think this new information (provided that it’s true) makes it much clearer why MIT responded in the way it did. The accusations are that Lewin deliberately sought out women who were in his online classes or were interested in his classes and repeatedly sent sexually harassing messages to a number of them. Even if some of them didn’t consider this harassment (and it’s clear that at least one did think it was harassment), this kind of behavior is highly unethical and unprofessional. As far as I am aware, none of the alleged behavior is actually illegal. Regardless, it is absolutely unacceptable for a professor to exploit his (or her) position to manipulate people seeking a student-teacher type of relationship in this way. Had this been an actual MIT class, it would almost certainly expose MIT to some sort of legal liability and termination even of a tenured professor would potentially be warranted. MIT’s response of stripping Lewin of his emeritus status and removing the material he was allegedly using to harass students is simply saying that professors will also be held responsible for their behavior even in the rather new and unregulated world of online education.
**A brief disclaimer: I do know some of the people who are at least indirectly involved in this, although I don’t know Lewin or anyone who has received the kinds of messages described here and in the source articles. I don’t have any inside info or confidential info or anything beyond what has been publicly revealed so far.