MOOC Harassment

MIT removes courses of prominent professor it found to have engaged in online sexual harassment of a student.

December 9, 2014

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Monday that it has removed the online courses of a prominent physics professor after finding that he had engaged in the online sexual harassment of a female student.

Walter Lewin, the professor, has been a superstar researcher and teacher, with YouTube videos attracting a wide following from those who never enrolled in his courses. His classroom performances were legendary at MIT -- and gained him not only acclaim there but invitations that aren't normally extended to physicists, such as an appearance on Martha Stewart's show.

Lewin retired in 2009 and last taught a course on campus in 2008. But in retirement, he taught online at MITx through edX, the platform for massive open online courses created by MIT and Harvard University.

MIT's statement said that it received a complaint about Lewin in October and, at that time, asked him not to contact any current or former MIT students or non-MIT online students.

While MIT's statement did not detail the harassment, it said that the student "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." The investigation "included a review of detailed materials provided by the complainant and interviews of her and Lewin."

MIT determined that Lewin's conduct did constitute sexual harassment. He could not be reached for comment and MIT appears to have removed all contact information for him from the institute website.

In terms of a sanction, MIT said that "following broad consultation among faculty, MIT is indefinitely removing Lewin’s online courses, in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior."

MIT's policies against sexual harassment are specific that they apply to conduct "on or off campus." The honor code of edX also bans "content that defames, harasses or threatens others."

The unusual announcement from MIT included statements from its president and provost.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif asaid, “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.”

A statement from MIT's provost, Martin Schmidt, noted Lewin's role at MIT. “Dr. Lewin had a long and distinguished career at MIT, and it is painful to learn of the behavior that necessitated this action. However, complaints of harassment must be met immediately and squarely in all cases," he said. "Today’s decision was made in consultation with faculty leadership both in the physics department and across MIT more broadly.”

Here is a video showing Lewin teaching and talking about the art of teaching.



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