Sunday, December 21, 2014

Walter Lewin Barred From MIT After Serious Allegations of Harassment

For those who don't know already, MIT professor emeritus Walter Lewin has been barred from MIT and his ties with the University cut after a secretive investigation of Lewin claimed he had violated MIT's sexual harassment guidelines during an online course. In the wake of the decision, all of Lewin's video lectures on physics have also been pulled from MIT's open courseware site and several press statements released. There is more detail here and another blog about it here.

If these allegations are true it is truly a shame. I remember watching Lewin's now famous basic physics lectures while I learned the same stuff from my much loved but sometimes overworked physics professor, Erik Kramer of the College of the Redwoods (known simply as "CR" to any Humboldt county native). Prof. Kramer's class, unlike so many physics courses, was something students looked forward to and he put a lot of his soul into making it as good as possible. This was sometimes hard to do at a small community college where he was the only physics professor and which had no money for any new lab equipment, often making lab sessions and demonstrations minimal. Those of us who were interested in physics, including myself and my friend Noah Flemens (now a grad student in applied physics at Cornell), would supplement Kramer's lectures with Lewin's from MIT and pretty soon the small group of 'physics kids' at CR were comparing and contrasting their "two favorite Dutchmen", though of course only Kramer could truly be thanked (or blamed) for how any of us turned out.

To hear the decision on Lewin is heartbreaking and I don't think it's right that MIT is being so secretive regarding the evidence which pushed them to dismiss a legend in physics education. Sources I found say it was clear the incidents were real and serious and this may be true, but it is no more than hearsay until we are given something--anything--to back it up beyond MIT's word.

Another bizarre decision is MIT's removal of Lewin's physics lectures from their Open Courseware website. In my opinion this is one of the best ideas MIT has had in a long time and one of the only things keeping them relevant in a world where their prestige is based more and more on their brand rather than their research quality (aside: I could write multiple posts about my view on 'big' school brands but now's not the time). Lewin's lectures were undoubtably some of the best on Open Courseware and recent events don't change that. Instead it robs the world at large from hearing good, well put together lectures on basic physics, and is MIT breaking a promise they (very publicly) made to the world at Open Courseware's inception.

Thus it seems as if MIT has two responsibilities in dealing with this incident: (1) make public the evidence of Lewin's harassment; for those of us who once idolized him as a teacher, it's the least they could do. (2) restore Lewin's lectures to Open Courseware. These lectures in and of themselves have nothing to do with this incident and it is pointless to punish those who would like to learn more about basic physics for inappropriate things the presenter may or may not have subsequently done.

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