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Key Milestones Missing From an Ethics Support Timeline on The Institute

Concerned members fill in the gaps and request to restore ethics advice and support

8 min read
Photo of a group of people sitting at a table surrounded by the word “Ethics.”
Photo-illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEWe are a group of concerned volunteer IEEE members who are providing recommendations to the IEEE Board’s ad hoc committee on ethics programs. We have written this follow-up to the “Timeline: Elevating Ethics for Engineers” article, to fill in what we believe to be important missing ethics milestones. Those missing milestones tell about the dark period in IEEE ethics history, wherein the organization restricted the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee (EMCC) from giving both “ethics advice and ethical support” to its members beginning around 2000. These restrictions are still in place today. Our efforts are aimed at getting those services restored.

What that article omitted was during the period between 1997 and 2005, the IEEE Board and its executive committee terminated all ethics advice and ethical support services without ever publishing its justification for so doing, in either IEEE Spectrum or The Institute. The Board further removed the pro ethics members such as Steve Unger, Ray Larsen, Walter Elden, and Victor Zourides from both its Member Conduct Committee and its Ethics Committee, who had each worked at that time so hard to implement those ethics services. A full account of these events is captured in the new IEEE Ethics History Repository.

The key missing milestone events start with establishing the call for ethical support in 1974, followed in 1975 with IEEE filing its historic amicus curiae brief in the BART case, the first time IEEE supported a member over an ethical matter.

1974: CSIT’s Resolution Calls for Ethical Support of Members

The Committee on Social Implications of Technology, CSIT, called for ethical support of engineers. Steve Unger and CSIT developed the view that IEEE needed to provide ethical support to its members, and adopted the following resolution on March 25, 1974—which CSIT passed unanimously (with 16 affirmative votes):

  • “Whereas in the practice of their profession, employee engineers sometime face conflicts between what they perceive to be the public interest, health, or safety and the demands of management. They sometimes face reprisals from their employers if they act in conformity with professional ethics. A notable case in point is the one of the three BART engineers, as described in the attached article.
  1. That the IEEE establish mechanisms for providing support to engineers whose acts in conformity with ethical principles may thus have placed them in jeopardy. These procedures could include information mediation, formal investigation followed by publication of the facts, litigation, and the public condemnation of unfair employer practices;
  2. That even before eventual establishment of such procedures, the IEEE intervene in the case of and in support of three BART engineers to help establish an important precedent for the engineering profession.”

1975: A Precedent Legal Argument from the BART Case Protecting Ethical Engineering

In the BART case, IEEE’s attorneys urged the court, by writing a landmark argument on engineers’ duty to protect the public, to make the following two important rulings:

  1. To rule that evidence of professional ethics is relevant, material, and admissible in this case; and
  2. To rule, as to any motions for judgment, or any jury instructions, that an engineer is obligated to protect the public safety, that an engineer’s contract of employment includes as a matter of law, and implied term that such engineer will protect the public safety, and that a discharge of an engineer solely for unsubstantial part because he acted to protect the public safety constitutes a breach of such implied term.

1977: The Board Only Wants Procedures for Disciplining Member Code Violation

Two different views then arose as to how the 1974 Code of Ethics was to be enforced. Members of IEEE’s Board wanted only to discipline members for a violation, but the United States Activities Board (USAB) wanted not only that but also to support members when their employment was placed in jeopardy for striving to uphold the IEEE Code of Ethics.

1977: IEEE USAB Approves Ethical Support and Proposes Member Discipline Procedures

USAB enacted its own procedures for a) disciplining members for code infractions and b) support procedures for members whose employment was in jeopardy for upholding the Code of Ethics.

1978: The Board Approves Discipline and Support Procedures, Establishing the Member Conduct Committee to Administer Both

An agreement was finally reached between the Board and USAB to provide both member discipline and ethical support, and the original Member Conduct Committee was formed.

1979: Virginia Edgerton Becomes the First Person to be Supported by IEEE Board

Because of the initiative of CSIT, the MCC recommends and the Board approves ethical support in the Virginia Edgerton case. The MCC does not publicize it, whereas CSIT does.

1983: Stephen Unger writes his “IEEE Guidelines for Engineers Dissenting on Ethical Grounds”

The goal of these guidelines is to provide general advice to engineers, including engineering managers, who found themselves in conflicts with management over matters with ethical implications.

1995–1998: Ethics Committee Forms and Institutes New Ethics Initiatives

The new Ethics Committee receives approval to put into place several new ethics services, such as:

  • 1995: Renewal of IEEE membership requires agreeing to upholding the Code of Ethics
  • 1996: IEEE begins operating an ethics hotline, offering advice and referring support cases to the MCC
  • 1996: Bimonthly ethics articles begin to be published in The Institute
  • 1997: Both the MCC and EC began operating their own websites for members

1998:IEEE’s Member Conduct Committee—20 Years in Operation” is published in The Institute

Published in February, it is the first and only article published about the MCC since its founding in 1978. Authored by Walter Elden, it discusses the 20th anniversary of the committee, what it accomplished during that period, cases handled, and challenges faced. No other articles have been published since, and MCC’s 40th anniversary is next year.

1998: The 1993 IEEE President and MCC Chair Proposes an Ethics Conflict Resolution Service, But It Is Not Approved by IEEE

Martha Sloan, the first female president of IEEE and then chair of the MCC, proposes a new Ethics Conflict Resolution Service. It is intended to provide education, advice, experts to investigate ethical conflict matters that members seek assistance about, suggestions on avoiding conflicts, and work with the Ethics Officers Association (an organization made up of corporate ethics officers who banded together to advocate improved conduct in their businesses). A proposal is developed but is never presented to or adopted by the IEEE Board, for unknown reasons.

1998: Wally Read, 1996 IEEE President and a Member of the Member Conduct Committee, States that “IEEE should not be involved in employer-employee ethical disputes”

This view may have been the source for what later, in 2005, becomes the Board’s adopted policy that restricts the EMCC from providing ethical support to members.

1997–1998: All Ethical Advice, the Hotline, The Institute’s articles, Legal Support Fund, and Support Activities Are Terminated; Pro-ethical Support Members of the MCC and EC Are Removed

Systematically, IEEE’s Executive Committee and Board terminated all the new ethics services that had been put into place and removed proactive ethics members of the EC and MCC from their appointments. The Board does not follow the recommendation from the task force it created to look into the Ethics Committee’s activities, to restore the hotline and other previously successful ethics services.

1999: “The Assault on IEEE Ethics Support,” an Article Written by Stephen Unger

This is the most authoritative article that sets out the exact sequence of events in the late 1990s whereby the IEEE Executive Committee terminated all “ethics advice and ethical support” activities that the Ethics Committee had been performing. This article is a must read.

1999: IEEE Has Shown Disregard Toward Proactive Ethics Activities

This letter to the editor, published in 2008, Volume 27, Issue 3 of SSIT Technology and Society magazine, is in response to Steve Unger’s article, “The Assault on IEEE Ethics Support.”Walter Elden provides support and verification of what Unger had written about, based on Elden’s personal experience serving on the Member Conduct Committee in the 1990s when all ethics advice and ethical support activities were terminated by the IEEE Executive Committee. His five-year term on the MCC was cut short after three years—it is believed to be for his advocating pro-ethics MCC activities.

2000-2004: The EMCC Is Informally Restricted From Giving Ethics Advice and Ethical Support to Members

First, the EMCC is denied the ability to provide ethics advice to members when IEEE Bylaw I-305.5 is adopted and added to the EMCC Operations Manual. That conflicted with already approved IEEE bylaw and policy statements. Secondly, starting in the early 2000s, the EMCC began, without a formal IEEE Board policy, to be restricted from getting involved in employer-employee ethics disputes.

2005: The Board Formally Restricts the EMCC From Providing Ethical Support to Members

A one-sentence statement was added to the EMCC Operations Manual that formally adopted the 1998 view voiced to the MCC by Wally Read that the committee should not get involved in employer-employee ethics disputes. Past EMCC Chair Charles Turner noted to Walter Elden in 2015 that a standard operating procedure in the early 2000s was for an EMCC staff member to initially screen requests for employer-employee ethics conflict support requests, prior to the committee seeing them, if they ever did.

2015–2017: Former MCC Member Walter Elden Challenges the EMCC Dual Ethics Advice and Ethical Support Restrictions

A position statement, written in 2015 by Elden, challenges the legitimacy of these two restrictions and was mailed to IEEE leaders in all 10 regions, including the 2016 president-elect, the 2015 president, and the 2014 president. There was no response until 2017 IEEE President Karen Bartleson took action by assigning Elden’s challenge of the legitimacy of restricting ethics advice and ethical support to the 2017 Board ad hoc committee on ethics programs, chaired by Greg Adamson, to look into the matter. To provide a factual basis for this challenge, Elden received approval and support with which the IEEE Ethics History Repository (IEHR) was created, beginning with the AIEE formation in 1884. This provided the factual and historical record for these two restrictions.

Elden’s challenge that the dual restrictions are invalid is based on Canon 10 of the IEEE Code of Ethics, established in 1974, plus the bylaws, policies, and procedures, set up since 1978, for the duties and powers granted to the Member Conduct Committee. As these pro ethics advice and support policy statements reside higher in the IEEE governance chain of policies than the two challenged restrictions in the EMCC Operations Manual, the higher ones thus override the lower restrictions and make them invalid.

2017: Our Ethics Advice and Support Group of Concerned Volunteer Members

This group of volunteers was formed by Walter Elden to address the two restrictions IEEE President Bartleson assigned to the IEEE Board’s ad hoc committee on ethics programs. It then prepared and submitted to the ad hoc committee a set of recommendations and comprehensive supporting documentation showing overwhelming support for ethics advice and ethical support being restored. In the supporting documentation, which included precedents, governance documents, published articles, cases supported, and ethics awards, the group provides overwhelming evidence of support for restoring ethics advice and ethical support to IEEE’s members. While the IEEE executive director, and governance staff, and the EMCC were repeatedly requested to provide the justification of why past IEEE Boards adopted the two restrictions, there was no response to the requests. The editors, however, of IEEE Spectrum and The Institute, reported that since 1998, nothing had been published giving the Board’s justification for these restrictions. This lack of published justification has not changed to date.

2017: At Sections Congress, Being Held in August in Sydney, These Issues Will Be Discussed

IEEE President Bartleson and Greg Adamson, chair of the Board’s ad hoc committee on ethics programs, plan to discuss the restrictions.

Present Actions Needed: What It Would Take to Restore Ethics Advice and Ethical Support

There are three steps that are needed:

  1. The Board’s ad hoc committee on ethics programs needs to recommend to President Bartleson and the Board to restore both services.
  2. The Board of Directors then needs to approve restoring both services.
  3. A governance ruling that the current restrictions are invalid is all that is needed to restore both to their original 1978 intents.

IN THE FUTURE:Young Members Are Urged to Get Involved With Ethics

Those of us who are ethics pioneers and advocates on the working group to the ad hoc committee are retired, and a new generation is needed to step forward. They need to carry this effort on to ensure the restoration of both “ethics advice and ethical support” as was established in 1978 when the MCC was created and to recognize that Canon 10 of the IEEE Code of Ethics requires members to support other members to practice ethically.

But More Is Needed in the Future

To ensure that some future IEEE Board will not be able to restrict ethics advice and ethical support by enacting more restrictive policies, the members need to approve a constitutional amendment preventing that action, which a Board would not be able to override on its own.

Walter Elden is the editor for the Ethics Advice and Support Group of Concerned Volunteers.

Contributors to this article who made up the group are: Stephen Unger, Charles Turner, Ray Larsen, Martha Sloan, and Victor Zourides. Among them are three IEEE Fellows, past founders and members of the Ethics Committee and the Member Conduct Committee, current members of the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee and a past IEEE president.

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