The University’s Department of Engineering opened a review into the teaching of an introductory engineering course after 28 students signed a letter alleging inadequate instruction, an inaccessible environment for students without a strong subject matter background and inequitable treatment for women and students of color under the instruction of Professor of Engineering William Curtin ’81 last spring.
Sent in May before the course’s final exam, the letter, reviewed by The Herald, accused one of the professors of ENGN 0040: “Dynamics and Vibrations” of treating white students more leniently than students of color, citing two instances — one during an exam and another during class presentations — where students of color allegedly received disproportionate treatment. The class had a total enrollment of 159 students, according to Courses@Brown.
This summer, Dean of Engineering Tejal Desai met individually with multiple students in the course to discuss its instruction, according to students who spoke with The Herald. Desai confirmed her receipt of a letter outlining complaints about an engineering course to The Herald. The Herald couldn’t determine if the review was ongoing. Desai declined to provide an update this month.
In a May email to the letter’s signatories reviewed by The Herald, Desai wrote that she had “escalated this to the appropriate campus leaders, including (the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity) and the Dean of the College who will follow up accordingly with Professor Curtin.”
Desai also wrote that “separately, if you are open to it, I would like to meet with members of this group to better understand your experiences and get additional feedback. We are in the process of examining our curriculum and inclusive practices.”
In response to The Herald’s request for comment, Curtin and his colleagues who co-taught the class denied any racial and gender bias and said Curtin has a history of “equitable” instruction.
The letter had 16 named student signatories and an additional 12 student supporters who took the class but chose not to disclose their names out of “fear of retribution.” As Desai wrote in an email to the signatories, the University has a policy protecting students, faculty, staff and other community members from retaliation after they make “Good Faith Reports” of the violation of a law, regulation or University policy.
“Writing a letter like this is not a step that we take lightly,” the students wrote to Desai in May. “But none of us ever envisioned we would endure this type of experience when we accepted admission to Brown University.”
The letter alleged that Curtin’s lectures provided little “fundamental instruction that would allow students to grasp” much of the course’s “advanced instruction,” and students were often “unable to do the necessary self-directed backtracking to fill the gaps in their instruction” on exams.
While the class was designed and taught with two additional instructors, Professor of Engineering Yue Qi and Associate Professor of Engineering Miguel Bessa, Curtin led 18 of the course’s 23 lectures and was the only instructor named in the students’ complaints.
In the letter, students claimed that those who lacked prior knowledge about the course’s content area were “left to fend for themselves” despite the course’s introductory nature.
“It definitely felt like (Curtin) assumed everyone had taken AP Physics before,” Mina Bahadori ’26, one of the letter’s signatories, said. “Some of my classmates had even said things like ‘Oh, yeah, the midterm was hard but it’s … basically just like what you learned in AP Physics,’ which was really hard because I had just used my class notes to study for the test, not any previous background.”
Bahadori primarily took physics online during her junior year of high school and felt she “didn’t really learn physics so well.” As a result, she felt that she was falling behind her ENGN 0040 classmates from the onset.
“If you come from a school with fewer resources, you’re already put at a huge disadvantage. And on top of that disadvantage, there’s a way bigger chance that you’ll fail the class,” said Chloe Chow ’26, referring to students who may not have had a chance to take AP Physics in high school.
The course was a “nightmare” for students without a strong subject background, Bahadori said.
Jules Silva ’26, another signatory of the letter, noted that ENGN 0040 caused them emotional and academic stress — and was discouraged by their experience in the course, especially given that engineering “wasn’t much of a welcoming space in the past.”
“But I figured it would be different at Brown,” they said.
Regarding opportunities for student support, Curtin, Qi and Bessa, in their joint response to The Herald’s request for comment, said that “Prof. Curtin also made a concentrated effort to provide extra help for all students who struggled to master key concepts needed for success in ENGN0040.”
The teaching team was “very distressed that some students have interpreted our best efforts and intentions in any way that has detracted from their learning experience,” the professors wrote in an email to The Herald, noting that “although ENGN0040 is a challenging class, the classroom environment is meant to be engaging, positive, and fun.”
Among the two incidents of alleged discrimination described in the letter was one in which Professor Curtin left the testing room unsupervised during an exam to knock on the bathroom door of a student who had asked permission during the exam to use the restroom. “You’re taking a while,” the professor said, according to Silva, who viewed the comment as an insinuation of cheating.
Curtin reportedly walked past several white students in the bathroom who were on their phones and made no comments to them. The student in the stall, to whom Curtin allegedly directed his attention, was a person of color, according to the letter.
The letter also described an incident wherein a presentation group composed “primarily of women of color” adjusted a project during testing, a permissible activity according to the project brief. Curtin yelled at the group and told them they were “unprepared” and “were doing something that wasn’t permitted in the project,” the letter claimed.
In an earlier presentation, an all-male group allegedly made the same adjustment to no response from Curtin. The project brief, reviewed by The Herald, noted that project designs were “adaptable” so long as groups could make changes within three minutes.
Curtin did not directly respond to a request for comment regarding these incidents, instead asserting in the joint response that he has a “30-year record of equitable treatment of students” and “has a personal history of support for women and people of color throughout academia, as Prof. Qi can attest, and for disadvantaged children in Rhode Island.”
Silva said that Desai also encouraged students who failed the class to “reach out,” as the school would need to look into every student who contacted the dean after failing and “see what the basis was.”
In a statement to The Herald, Desai wrote that the School of Engineering has several procedures in place to advance its commitment “to providing an educational environment that supports inclusive excellence.”
Desai said that generally, reports to appropriate campus leaders — including the dean of the department of engineering — trigger a review process that includes staff from the School of Engineering, the College and OIED meeting with all individuals affected, including students and faculty members.
“I can confirm that as dean, I received an email in the spring semester from students sharing their concerns about their experience in an engineering course, and we have acted following our policies and procedures,” Desai wrote to The Herald.
Desai also noted that students also have the opportunity to appeal their grade in a course if they felt as though the grading process was unfair.
“Any specific actions taken following a careful evaluation depend upon the findings, with an overall goal of developing a proposed solution to mitigate any issues or concerns,” Desai wrote. “Ultimately, our priority is offering an exceptional educational experience for all students that positions them for success, which includes preparing faculty to do their very best work.”
According to Silva, who is currently a TA for an introductory engineering class this semester, their experience in ENGN 0040 is evidence of one of their fears: that introductory engineering courses will continue to be inaccessible for many students.
“I don’t want another class to ever have to go through what we went through,” they said.
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.