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Discrimination Allegation Would Fall under New Canon

Sep 1, 2017


A community college in a small mid-Atlantic city takes the unusual step of instituting formal proceedings to dismiss a tenured professor of civil engineering from its staff. Termination of tenured faculty is permitted only upon a showing of good cause, and the college states that the basis for the proceedings is the professor's neglect of duty and his incompetence in meeting his obligations, "resulting in detriment to the students, his peers, and the reputation and programs of the college."

The college cites a number of alleged lapses, including the professor's failure to adhere to posted office hours; repeated shortening of class time because of late starts, early dismissals, and prolonged breaks during class; and an overall lack of preparedness for assigned courses. It notes that the professor's courses have seen a significant decrease in enrollment compared with courses given by other instructors, along with a large percentage of student withdrawals, and claims it has determined that students are intentionally adjusting their schedules to avoid taking the professor's classes.

The college also adduces a recent complaint signed by nearly two dozen foreign-born students alleging that the professor engaged in discriminatory practices in his introductory engineering course. The complaint states that the professor was unfairly critical and even insulting to foreign-born students in his class, deriding them as "slow" or "thick" and comparing them unfavorably with their American counterparts. While claiming not to care about a student's command of English, the professor was quick to mock students who struggled in asking a question or making a comment, and he often implied that such difficulty was a symptom of intellectual limitations. Several of the complaining students report having approached the professor with questions about course work only to be told that they should drop the class and reconsider their choice of engineering as a career.

The complaint notes that the professor's grading system involved three components: a final exam (50 percent of the overall grade), homework assignments (30 percent), and a "performance assessment" (20 percent). The complaint avers that this assessment was, in fact, a purely subjective evaluation through which the professor favored certain students. One foreign student reported receiving a C for work in which he had correctly answered 25 of 40 problems, while an American student received an A on the same assignment with 24 correct answers. Other students had similar accounts of unfair grades, contending that their grades could not be justified on the basis of attendance, participation, attitude, or any other equitable criterion.

The complaint concludes that the professor's discriminatory grading practices had been harmful to the foreign students' academic prospects, particularly as many of the students had hopes of moving on to the local university's highly competitive four-year engineering program. 
The professor chooses to resign rather than test the outcome of the dismissal proceedings, and reports of the action are published by local news organizations. One such report is forwarded to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), which upon confirming that the accused professor is an ASCE member opens an investigation.


Did the professor's conduct violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?


In examining whether the professor's conduct represented an ethics violation, the CPC first had to determine which of the code's canons was applicable. While the reference to "competence" suggested a connection to canon 2, that canon, according to the guidelines to practice, emphasizes that services may be rendered by an engineer "only when qualified by education and experience in the technical area of engineering involved." Upon review of the professor's credentials, which featured an impressive list of both academic and professional achievements, the CPC concluded that the issues in this case related not to his knowledge but to the way he comported himself as a professor.

With this distinction in mind, the CPC next considered canon 4: "Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest." The members of the CPC felt that the professor's purported lack of diligence could represent a violation of this canon. However, they saw no evidence that the professor had acted with willful intent to harm his employer's business or prospects, and in the absence of such bad faith they were reluctant to set a precedent by determining that an employee's poor performance constituted a breach of ethics.

They then looked to canon 6: "Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession." The committee members felt that if the professor's conduct discouraged or hindered foreign-born students from pursuing careers in engineering, then such conduct would have tarnished not only the reputation of his employer and its academic program but also the integrity of the engineering profession itself and thus would be covered by canon 6.

When contacted by the CPC, the member rejected the suggestion that he had failed to meet his professional obligations as an instructor. He alleged that the college had recently begun pressuring its instructors to pass increasing numbers of students, favoring the financial benefits of expanding enrollments over the preservation of academic standards. The member further argued that it is a disservice to students to encourage them to embark on a field of study for which they are academically unsuited and that his candid advice to students in this regard had incensed college administrators and made him a target for dismissal.

With respect to the foreign students' complaints, the professor dismissed the allegations as nothing more than the opinion of one or two disgruntled students, who then had enlisted their friends in an attempt to have him fired.

Despite its review of case materials and interviews with both the professor and college officials, the members of the CPC were unable to come to a firm conclusion that the professor had violated the Code of Ethics. Noting that the member had already suffered the loss of his position and was the subject of unflattering media exposure, the committee questioned the need for further discipline. Ultimately the committee members voted to dismiss the case, and the member was notified of this decision.

While past cases of discriminatory conduct have been considered under canon 6, as in this case, and under the guidelines to practice for canon 7, which call for "mutually satisfying relationships between employers and employees," future cases will now receive scrutiny under ASCE's newest canon. Canon 8 deals expressly with an engineer's obligation to act in professional matters without bias in the areas of race, national origin, or other such characteristics. Approved by ASCE's Board of Direction on July 28, 2017, the new canon reads as follows:

Engineers shall, in all matters related to their profession, treat all persons fairly and encourage equitable participation without regard to gender or gender identity, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, or family, marital, or economic status.
The board also approved guidelines to practice for this canon:  

a. Engineers shall conduct themselves in a manner in which all persons are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.

b. Engineers shall not engage in discrimination or harassment in connection with their professional activities. 

c. Engineers shall consider the diversity of the community, and shall endeavor in good faith to include diverse perspectives, in the planning and performance of their professional services.

Members who have an ethics question 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.

© ASCE, Civil Engineering , September 2017