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Use Care in Listing of P.E. Credential

Apr 1, 2018


Situation

A complaint is submitted to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), alleging that a member--a civil engineering professor in a large Mid-Atlantic state--has misrepresented his professional credentials and engaged in the unlicensed practice of engineering. The complaint states the member is not a licensed engineer in the state where he is employed but nevertheless identifies himself as a P.E. in university materials and other professional correspondence. Furthermore, the complainant claims that the member is actively engaged in seeking research funding and other commissioned research within the state and has falsely used the P.E. credentials both to secure grant funding and in his subsequent project reports.

In support of his allegations, the complainant submits copies of several research papers and journal articles authored by the accused member, along with a printout of the member's biographical page from the university website. In each document, the member has used the P.E. designation along with his name and university affiliation. Finally, the complainant includes a copy of search results from the state licensing board website, indicating no one with the accused member's name holds a P.E. license in the state.

FOR THIS REASON, the proper use of the P.E. designation is an important concern from both a legal and an ethical point of view.

A call to the state licensing board confirms that the professor does not hold a professional license in the state of his employment. Upon review of the university website, however, it is noted that the professor's full curriculum vitae (CV) is available for download. The full CV identifies the professor as having obtained a P.E. license in a neighboring state, and the neighboring state's board verifies the professor's license in that state is active.


Question

Did the member violate the ASCE Code of Ethics in identifying himself as a P.E. in connection with his employment and research activities in a state where he is not licensed?

Discussion

In the United States, the P.E. license is the gateway to the professional practice of engineering, signifying the recipient has met the necessary prerequisites of engineering education, experience, and examination. More than just a mark of achievement for the engineer, however, the P.E. license stands as a vital regulatory instrument for advancing the public good, protecting employers, clients, and customers from a potentially costly reliance on self-professed professionals who lack the knowledge or skills to provide engineering work that is consistent with the standard of care and safe for the intended use.

For this reason, the proper use of the P.E. designation is an important concern from both a legal and an ethical point of view. An individual who knowingly makes false statements about his/her licensed status is not only demonstrating a failure to meet ethical standards of truthfulness and integrity but also inviting questions concerning issues of competence, fair competition, faithful service to employers and clients, and preservation of the public good--in other words, nearly all of the ASCE Code of Ethics' eight canons.

More specifically, misuse of professional credentials is covered under guideline d to canon 5, which states: "Engineers shall not falsify or permit misrepresentation of their academic or professional qualifications or experience." To the extent that a false credential is used for deceptive purposes in a professional setting, such conduct also falls under guideline a to canon 6, which says: "Engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest or unethical nature."

When contacted by the CPC, the professor heatedly denied the allegation that he had violated the Code of Ethics. While acknowledging he had used the P.E. designation on research reports and other materials bearing the name and address of his institution, he claimed in no way did he express or imply his P.E. had been obtained within that state. He noted that his CV was readily available on the university website and opined anyone with an interest in his professional background could easily learn his license was from another state. He further claimed that neither his university responsibilities nor his research work involved the practice of engineering and said his P.E. licensure was largely irrelevant to his academic pursuits, meaning he could derive no benefit from misleading anyone about his state of licensure.

In support of this latter argument, the professor included a letter from a representative of the state department of transportation (DOT), the agency which had funded much of the professor's research work. In this letter, the DOT representative stated that its selection of researchers was based on criteria such as the Ph.D. credential, past research projects, and other academic achievements, adding the office did not solicit for work that would require an engineer's stamp.

The professor claimed the ethics complaint was prompted by a personal grievance on the part of the complainant, another researcher working in the professor's field of study. The professor stated he had recently authored a published paper discussing the complainant's own work--a discussion, he said, the complainant apparently felt had been unduly critical. The professor claimed that, since the publication of that paper, the complainant had made numerous attempts to discredit the professor and his work. The complainant had previously filed complaints about the paper's validity with both the professor's university and the publisher of the paper, complaints that were ultimately found to be baseless. This complaint, the professor alleged, was merely the next salvo in the complainant's campaign to tarnish the professor's academic reputation.

Based on their review of the case, the CPC did not believe the professor had practiced engineering without a license or intentionally misrepresented his professional credentials. Nevertheless, the committee did believe that--regardless of the lack of ill intent--the professor's use of the P.E. designation in connection with his university name and address was likely to create the misleading impression that his P.E. had been obtained within that state. Moreover, the CPC had encountered a number of other cases in which state licensing boards had taken disciplinary action against residents who made similar uses of out-of-state P.E. licenses. (See "The Proper Use of Professional Credentials" Civil Engineering, May 2014, pages 44-45.)

Ultimately, the CPC determined that the member's actions, while perhaps representing a minor breach of canon 5d, were not of sufficient concern as to warrant disciplinary action. The CPC voted to close the case, but it sent the professor a cautionary letter, advising him to take greater caution with respect to the use of the P.E. designation and to make note of state laws regarding references to out-of-state licensure, so as to avert the risk of sanctions from the state board. 

--TARA HOKE


Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering .

© ASCE,   Civil Engineering  , April 2018


Members who have ethics questions or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6151 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6151. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.