'We All Felt Trapped'

The complainant in the sexual harassment case involving a prominent MIT emeritus professor speaks out about what legal experts called an "unprecedented" event for MOOCs.

January 23, 2015
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Walter H.G. Lewin’s debut as a massive open online course instructor was announced with some fanfare: “Afraid of physics?” a press release asked in January 2013. “Do you hate it? Walter Lewin will make you love physics whether you like it or not.”

That made his MOOCs a good fit for Faïza Harbi, 32, a private English tutor living in Montpellier, France. Harbi spoke openly to Inside Higher Ed but asked that her maiden name be used. She said she decided to take a physics course after struggling with the subject in high school. She was not familiar with the rock star professor, whose more than four decades at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, innovative and hugely popular video lectures and hundreds of scholarly articles had earned him international acclaim.

To connect with other learners in the MOOC, Harbi searched Facebook for groups dedicated to the course but found none, so she created one herself. On Nov. 24, 2013, someone with the profile name Walter Lewin requested to join the group. Believing it to be a parody account, Harbi approved the request and asked for proof. Within minutes, she received an email with a screenshot of her Progress page -- a tool only individual learners and their edX instructor can access (MIT's MOOCs are offered through edX).

Harbi said she was surprised -- not just by the fact that she was communicating with the real Walter Lewin, but also that she was doing well in the course. She takes medications for anxiety and depression, which she told Lewin makes it difficult for her to concentrate. Lewin, Harbi said, told her he would help her regain some self-confidence.

It would take almost a year before Harbi, with the help of MIT’s investigators, said she came to understand that Lewin’s interest in her was not motivated by empathy, and that their first conversations included inappropriate language. Shortly after contacting her, Harbi said, Lewin quickly moved their friendship into uncomfortable territory, and she was pushed to participate in online sexual role-playing and send naked pictures and videos of herself. After about 10 months, Harbi said, she resumed self-mutilating after seven years of not doing so.

The harassment, however, “started day one,” Harbi said. Eventually, she said she discovered she was one of many women, which MIT confirmed.

Harbi last October sent MIT a packet of more than 100 chat logs, emails, pictures, recordings and screenshots to document the harassment against her and other women. She gave Inside Higher Ed permission to view the contents on condition that they not be published and that names of the other women not be disclosed. The various pieces of evidence include nudity and sexually explicit language.

After reviewing the packet, MIT last month announced that an investigation had determined that Lewin, 78, had “engaged in online sexual harassment in violation of MIT policies.” The institution cut ties with Lewin, removing his online courses and lectures from MIT OpenCourseWare and its MOOC platform, MITx, and stripping him of his emeritus title.

Harbi was not named in the announcement -- her identity was disguised as a “learner in one of [Lewin’s] MITx courses” who last October provided “information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners” -- nor did MIT provide any further details about the case. To confirm her identity, Harbi provided a copy of the letter addressed to her from MIT announcing the results of the investigation. She is now coming forward because she is concerned the case will be forgotten.

“If I as a victim stay anonymous, I will send a negative message to the other victims,” Harbi said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “If I hide, how can I ask other victims to come forward?”

'Unprecedented' Legal Area

The Lewin case lacks precedent in higher education, experts on sexual harassment said. As MOOCs exploded onto the higher education scene as recently as 2012, “The Year of the MOOC,” the case took place in largely unexplored legal territory.

MOOCs can enroll hundreds of thousands of people, and -- like any massive online arena -- they offer some sense of anonymity, which can enable harassment among learners on the message boards. Moreover, MOOCs such as Lewin’s have been marketed as access to the most brilliant minds in academe -- superstar professors whose decades of experience and prominence in their fields made them known quantities, not potential predators.

“I would call it an unprecedented area,” said Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies at Western New England University. “There isn’t even a lot of precedent for online harassment in general.”

Sexual harassment of students in face-to-face courses is not unheard-of, however, said Billie Wright Dziech, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati who explored the issue in the book The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus, which she co-wrote.

“Many of the cases that I’ve dealt with or known about have been cases where the professor is very popular, very brilliant, very well-received by the academic profession, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re able to get away with a lot of what they do,” said Dziech, who specializes in research on sexual abuse and harassment. MOOCs, she added, could amplify that problem. “It seems to me that there are really serious legal hurdles for institutions that are using this technology.”

Whether MIT could be held liable for not protecting Harbi and the other women is still an unanswered question. MOOC providers differ on whether learners who are not enrolled at institutions eligible for federal financial aid are covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which some researchers have warned about. But when it comes to discrimination, legal experts said, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 should apply to anyone who registers for a MOOC.

“Title IX talks in terms of ‘no person’ shall experience discrimination -- not ‘no student,’ ” Buzuvis said. “That broad language creates the possibility for anyone who’s a victim of discrimination [to] potentially have a claim under Title IX.”

Buzuvis, who runs the Title IX Blog, said that, based on the severity of the Lewin case, a lawsuit against MIT could come down to if the institution knew about the harassment and didn’t act to protect learners.

Joel Robbins, a lawyer involved in a 2008 case where a student at Paradise Valley Community College overdosed on cocaine in a faculty member's home, interpreted the law similarly.

“It’s really going to depend on [Lewin] having shown his unsuitability for that job in the past,” Robbins said. “To put someone in a candy store and know they have a propensity for victimizing women ..., I think that’s where the crux of any issue is.”

An MIT spokeswoman said the university handled the case as though Harbi were enrolled at the institution.

“As President [L. Rafael] Reif said, we believe 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,” Provost Martin A. Schmidt said in an email. “Our actions did not depend on legal conclusions. They were guided by MIT policies with respect to teacher-learner interactions.”

As MIT pointed out, Lewin, 78, taught his last course on campus in spring 2008 and retired the next year. He has not taught online since his fall 2013 MOOC on classical mechanisms, during which he contacted Harbi. 

Inside Higher Ed was unable to contact Lewin or identify a lawyer for him. Many of his social media accounts have been closed, as has his email through the institution. Multiple emails -- one outlining the issues raised in this article -- that were sent to a personal account were not returned. Some web directories list a Walter Lewin in Cambridge, Mass., and Inside Higher Ed called and left several voicemails that were not returned. A Federal Express letter, which the company confirmed was delivered and signed for by someone with the last name Lewin, was sent to the address but received no response. Attempts to reach Lewin through publishers also proved unsuccessful.

The institution’s decision to remove Lewin’s courses from OpenCourseWare, a repository for free course content, was met with frustration from students not familiar with details of the case. MIT professors and administrators elaborated on the decision last week in independent campus newspaper The Tech, saying that not removing the courses “presented a [real] danger to people who would see them and contact [former] Professor Lewin, expecting a student-teacher relationship and getting something that was inappropriate.”

MIT has not been able to remove all trace of Lewin from the internet. The video lectures are still available through other sites that aggregate free course content.

Asked if he believed Lewin is still in communication with the women, Schmidt said “We do not know, but we have closed the communication channels through MIT.” He did not say if the case had been referred to law enforcement, as “disclosing more information regarding our actions would not be appropriate at this time.”

Balancing Privacy, Safety

After talking to a psychiatrist in September 2014 about what she described as a “breakdown,” Harbi decided to collect evidence of Lewin’s behavior to take to MIT. Within five days of searching, Harbi said, she found 10 other women whom Lewin had befriended and contacted on Facebook with inappropriate, sometimes identical messages. Lewin then blocked her from seeing his Facebook friends, she said.

Generally speaking, Harbi said, the women live in countries where speaking out about sexual harassment is taboo -- countries “where the culture is that it is better to actually not speak at all, because you’ll be a disgrace to your family.” Lewin confessed his love for several of them, chat logs show, but often denied those feelings to women who asked about the others.

Schmidt did not say how many women Lewin harassed, nor if any harassment took place while he taught on campus.

“In investigating the complaint and making that announcement, we attempted to balance our commitment to the privacy of the people involved with our commitment to ensuring safe learning environments,” he wrote. He later added that “MIT’s actions with respect to Dr. Lewin and the decision to describe some of those actions publicly were taken in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior.”

What may be most difficult to understand, Harbi said, is why anyone would respond to Lewin’s requests. Harbi, who is originally from Algiers, Algeria, is open about having been sexually assaulted in the past, and said she struggles with abandonment issues. The more she tried to distance herself from Lewin, she said, the more he attempted to contact her through email and social media. Ultimately, Harbi said, she felt forced to “obey.”

“We all felt trapped,” Harbi said.

Dziech said Harbi’s history as a victim of sexual assault was relevant.

“That stays with you all of your life,” Dziech, who this quarter teaches a seminar on child and adolescent abuse, said. “You never get beyond it no matter how much therapy. It’s terrifying, and it raises another problem for all institutions: They can never know the background of the student -- in what way the student is vulnerable.”

MIT last spring surveyed its students about sexual assault, an initiative that drew praise from victims’ rights groups. More than one-third of the student body responded; 17 percent of female students and 5 percent of male students said they had experienced sexual assault. The numbers grew to 35 percent and 14 percent, respectively, when the students were asked about sexual harassment.

The survey was not motivated by the Lewin case, Schmidt said. “The survey was undertaken to understand the extent and effects of sexual misconduct in our community,” he wrote. “The chancellor had already conducted the survey and was already preparing to make the results public when the complaint about Dr. Lewin was received in October.”

Despite the growing calls to address sexual abuse in higher education, Dziech said, the issue of professor-student harassment remains largely unexplored.

“We have never in the academic profession -- never, never -- in a collective way looked at the threat posed by professors,” Dziech said. “We have never been willing to confront whatever is happening on campus.”


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