Authored by R. L. Greene, The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying
Author: R. Larry Greene, PLSL, NCEES
Presented at the OEC International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science, March 1999
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) is an organization of seventy jurisdictional licensing boards that regulate the practice of engineering and surveying in the United States and its territories. The mission of licensing boards, in general, is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. NCEES develops uniform examinations that are administered by member boards which are designed to determine the minimum competency of candidates for licensure. Candidates are evaluated based upon these examinations, their education and their experience. Traditionally these examinations have focused entirely on technical competence. Only recently have any questions based on ethical standards and principles been included and then only on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination.
As a sitting board member on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors for more than 10 years, I have been witness to a wide range of disciplinary hearings and actions. I am struck by how seldom the issue before the Board involves the technical competence of the respondent. Almost every licensee has undergone rigorous educational training and obtained a degree, completed years of progressive work experience following their formal education and then passed comprehensive and challenging examinations to become a professional engineer or a professional land surveyor. This all but insures a minimum level of technical competence at the entry level to the profession. Rather it is almost always a question of negligence or misconduct which has placed the public at risk and the professional in jeopardy. In some instances, the unprofessional act occurs as a result of pressure applied by a client or an employer. This occurs most often with younger professionals or in instances where a practice is new and in need of all the business it can get. Economic survival can be a powerful incentive to stretch the envelope. It is also apparent, from my vantage point as a regulatory board member, that the respondent is not always aware of wrongdoing at the time the alleged unprofessional act was committed (or omitted). When I was a young man, fresh out of University, acting in an ethical manner seemed to be a straightforward proposition. An action was either right or wrong, black or white, moral or immoral. As an older and hopefully wiser man, I still try to guide my life by lofty principles, but I have learned that recognizing right from wrong and black from white is not always a simple thing to do. Every situation I find myself in is in some way different from any other I have ever experienced. As new scenarios are added to a job situation the ethical mix changes and the boundary between ethical and unethical conduct, perhaps already gray in nature, sometimes shifts. Many times the North Carolina Board has disciplined a professional for an unethical act which had gone unrecognized by the individual, perhaps in all honesty. Real life situations are not as clear cut as theoretical situations.
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NCEES and its member boards are becoming increasingly aware of the need for both primary and continuing education in the field of professional ethics. Evidence of this may be seen in recent committee assignments and in the results of recent studies and surveys by NCEES. Charges to the Committee on Examinations for Professional Engineers, the Committee on Examinations for Professional Surveyors and to the Professionalism and Ethics Committee during the 1997-1998 administration included the development of professionalism and ethics issue questions to be incorporated into the principles and practices examinations. The Committee on Professional Activities and Knowledge Study (PAKS) - Land Surveying, which surveyed over 5,000 land surveyors across the nation, identified ethics as the single most important professional study knowledge in the opinion of the respondents.
A recent survey of member boards by the Professionalism and Ethics Committee sought to determine if any boards had encountered problems with a professional in their jurisdiction as a result of different cross cultural values. This question has arisen as NCEES has struggled to find ways to facilitate international practice while maintaining standards. The thrust of this survey was at least two fold. One was to determine if any licensed engineer or surveyor with a foreign background had been found guilty of committing an unethical act primarily because of differently held values in the culture they came from. Secondarily, had any U.S. engineer or surveyor been found guilty of unethical conduct in an international situation because of an act which was clearly illegal in this country but which might be a standard way of doing business in another. Answers received on this survey did not indicate any serious problem had surfaced as yet in this area.
In the same survey we asked, "Are courses in professional ethics currently being offered as part of the engineering and/or land surveying program in schools in your jurisdiction?" Fifty-seven boards responded to that question. Twenty-eight boards said that no such coursework was being offered at schools in their jurisdiction. Seven boards were unsure if such coursework was being offered. Twenty boards said that this coursework was being offered. The following schools were cited as offering coursework in professional ethics - Auburn, U of Alabama at Birmingham, Arizona State U., University of Arizona, NAU, Georgia Tech, Southern Polytechnic, Mercer, University of Hawaii, Iowa State U., U of Kentucky, U of Louisville, U of Maine at Orono, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, U of New Hampshire, New Mexico State U, Oklahoma State, U of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Temple, Drexel, Penn State, Lehigh, Geneva, Roger Williams U., East Tennessee State U., U of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas A&M at Corpus Christi, U of Texas at Tyler, Houston Community College, Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, U of Virginia, VA Polytechnic.
Recognizing the need, what has NCEES done to date to travel down the road toward ethics education and testing and toward the enforcement of ethical standards?
With seed money provided by NCEES, a very rigorous correspondence course on professional ethics was developed by the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism of Texas Tech University. It includes a text book, a work book complete with case studies, lesson plans, paper assignments and a final examination. The program is offered at several levels, the lowest being a self-study option having no formal assignments and no examination. There are also basic and advanced level options, both of which require a final examination. This course, at whatever level, is designed primarily for the practicing engineer. The advanced version of the course takes about 60 hours to complete. The self-study and basic options are the levels most often chosen by the professional on a voluntary basis, while the advanced option is often mandated by a board in a disciplinary action. More recently, and again using seed money provided by NCEES, a similar course has been developed for land surveyors by New Mexico State University and the University of Maine, Orono. This course has been available for about one year and includes a work book, a case study manual, a video tape for each chapter in the work book and a final examination. It is also offered over the internet without the video tapes. While the utilization of these courses is by no means limited to disciplinary matters, it is a fact that many boards have required the successful completion of the appropriate course as a condition of relicensure (in cases of suspension) or in tandem with other disciplinary measures.
NCEES has developed an ethics statement entitled "Model Rules of Professional Conduct." This statement, in some form, has been around for a good many years. Individual Boards are encouraged to adopt this model code or to develop their own code based upon the principles expressed in the model code. Once adopted, these principles have the force of law in most jurisdictions, either by being a part of the licensing statute or by authority given the board in the statute, and can be enforced by the board. One of the surveys already cited reveals that 56 of the 65 member boards who responded have adopted an ethics statement or a code of ethics. Nine boards had not adopted such a statement. Of the 56 boards who had adopted an ethics statement, 37 boards had developed their own statement, rather than the NCEES statement.
Convictions based on specific violations of the "Rules of Professional Conduct" are not common but are not unheard of. In my 10 year tenure on the North Carolina Board, I can recall two such convictions and I am aware of convictions in other jurisdictions.
NCEES is not in a position to cause universities to require courses in ethics be taught to students enrolled in the schools of engineering. We do believe, however, that it is a vital and necessary part of a complete education and encourage the teaching of these courses.
ABET's "Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs" (1999-2000 cycle), which is currently being phased, out stated, "An understanding of the ethical, social, economic and safety considerations in engineering practice is essential . . . Coursework may be provided for this purpose, but as a minimum it should be the responsibility of the engineering faculty to infuse professional concepts into all engineering coursework." Engineering Criteria 2000, Criterion 3 Program Outcomes and Assessment states, "Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have (f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility." This statement does not seem to imply that ethics courses will now be a required part of an accredited program. It may be that the offering of such courses is the easiest way to demonstrate that their graduates have the necessary understanding of professional and ethical responsibility.
Many universities apparently are not yet offering coursework in professional ethics to the student engineer. I would guess that in the future many will do so, but with considerable reluctance because of the already difficult task of crowding the necessary technical coursework into an eight semester degree program. Yet ethics is a core theme as it relates to the health, safety and welfare of the public, perhaps as much so, albeit from a different perspective, as technical competence.
There are a lot of arguments one could raise why ethics should not be included as a required course of study for the professional engineer. One I have heard from individual members of jurisdictional boards is, "You can't teach a value system to an eighteen to twenty year old individual. They either have it instilled within them by their parents and peers by that time or they don't." That may be, but does that relieve us of the obligation to provide that individual with the knowledge of what is considered professionally ethical where such knowledge can be imparted? Does that relieve us of the responsibility to offer some guidance to help them through the maze when the line between right and wrong is not so apparent? Another often heard and previously alluded to argument is, "If ethics coursework is a requirement, something of value will have to go to make room for it." This is a valid argument. Certainly an ethically competent but technically incompetent engineer would be a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public. Can we afford to make it an either/or proposition? I think not. If the answer to a complete education in engineering is a five year degree program, then that should be the standard.
As one might expect with a national organization representing people from a wide variety of backgrounds, there is considerable disagreement and debate within the NCEES about the value or necessity of teaching professional ethics.
Because a charge is given to a committee to develop ethics questions for inclusion on a licensure examination does not mean that all agree that it should be done nor that it is going to happen immediately. The recommendation of the EPE (Examination for Professional Engineers) Committee, in response to its charge to develop and include ethics questions for the PE examination (Principles and Practices), was that the examination concentrate on technical competence and not include questions on ethics. They did recommend that ethics continue to be covered on the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) examination and that new questions be developed for the item bank. This is currently the only examination administered by the NCEES which contains questions specifically related to ethics and these are few in number. These questions in their current form tend to demonstrate only that the individual has read the "Model Code of Conduct". There is currently no attempt to evaluate a takers ethical competency. The argument is that NCEES is testing for minimum competence and that minimum competence in ethics cannot be tested. Is this really so? When we examine for technical competence, we are testing for knowledge and the candidates proficiency for applying that knowledge to an engineering situation. The theory is, if they can do the work competently on an examination, they should be able to transfer that knowledge to a real life situation and perform competently there. When we examine for ethical competence, we are attempting to test for knowledge and belief.. We want to examine the candidates proficiency in applying ethical principles to an engineering situation. Can we not assume, as we do for technical knowledge, that a demonstration of ethical competence on an examination at least demonstrates the ability to apply those principles in a real life situation?
There is less resistance to the inclusion of ethical questions on the land surveyor examinations where no questions currently are included. The EPS (Examination for Professional Surveyors) Committee has recommended the development of ethically based questions for inclusion on both the Fundamentals and the Principles and Practices examinations.
One of the problems encountered by both professions is the difficulty of writing a good question dealing with ethics. The correct answers appear to be obvious and the deflectors poor for current questions in the item bank. The naysayers do not believe it is possible to write ethics questions which perform well. An examination of the sample problems and case studies contained in the two correspondence courses previously cited reveal a different picture to me. I can see the basis for some good questions with deflectors that make finding the right answer a reasoning process rather than a recognition one. Perhaps we have the wrong people trying to write these questions.
In closing, it is my conviction that the teaching of ethical principles and standards are of paramount importance to the education of the professional engineer (and surveyor) and should not be neglected. I further believe such education should not stop at the graduate level but should be an integral part of a continuing education program. Many states now require continuing professional competency programs as a condition for relicensure. Perhaps a periodic ethics course should be a mandated part of such programs.
I also believe that professional ethics should be tested as a basis of entry into the profession of engineering (and of surveying) and that continuing education in this area should be required. Whether the primary site of that entry level testing should be on the national examination as now constituted is a question open to debate. In lieu of including the questions on such an examination, a separate test on ethics alone could be the answer. This would eliminate the argument concerning minimum competency and could conceivably be administered by the various jurisdictions rather than by NCEES, much as each jurisdiction now has its own additional test for land surveyors. It would also allow for the isolation and testing of ethical competency rather than simply including a few questions on ethics within the body of a larger test. A taker could conceivably fail all of the ethics questions using the current format while passing the overall examination with flying colors.
In any event, professional ethics is too important a question for NCEES to ignore, and I expect it will be eventually resolved along the lines of testing in one fashion or another.