Following an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday severed ties with Walter Lewin, a retired physics professor known for his lively lectures and live demonstrations.
The story of the professor who makes sexual advances on his students is as old as academe itself, but this one was unusual because of its ultramodern setting: the free online courses known as MOOCs.
But even old problems are made new by the dynamics of MOOCs, where professors often preside over thousands of far-flung learners whom they will never meet in person.
Here is what is happening at MIT, and what it means:
What exactly did Mr. Lewin do?
We’re not sure, and MIT is not getting specific. In a news release, the university refers to a complaint it received from a female online learner, who claimed he had sexually harassed her online and who also provided information about “interactions between Lewin and other women online learners” that MIT deems to have violated its sexual-harassment policy.
According to the MIT policy, sexual harassment can mean “unwanted physical contact, requests for sexual favors, visual displays of degrading sexual images, sexually suggestive conduct, or offensive remarks of a sexual nature.”
Mr. Lewin did not return a phone message. An email sent to his university account was returned with a note saying that the account is “undergoing maintenance and can’t accept messages now.”
So, these women aren’t MIT students?
No. Mr. Lewin has been retired from MIT since 2009. He returned to help the university develop MOOCs, which take online lecture videos—the medium that catapulted Mr. Lewin to renown in the 2000s—and add interactive elements such as quizzes and message boards. The women he allegedly harassed were learners in those online courses, which are open to anyone.
Participants in MOOCs probably do not enjoy the same federal protections as do students enrolled in tuition-based programs, but some colleges have decided to treat them as if they do. For example, some colleges offering free online courses say they handle student data according to federal student-privacy standards, even though they may not be legally obligated to do so.
An MIT spokesman could not immediately confirm on Tuesday whether the university was legally obligated to respond to claims of sexual harassment from online learners who are not enrolled as students at MIT but who take classes through its edX platform.
L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, indicated in a statement that the university was nevertheless interested in creating a safe learning environment in its MOOCs. “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,” said Mr. Reif.