ASEE PRISM - October 2000
Teaching Toolbox
A Matter of Ethics

Engineering educators need to talk openly about the moral dilemmas they confront almost every day.

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

illustration by James Kaczman, Laughing StockIncorporating ethics into the curriculum is a much talked about topic these days, but what about the ethical dilemmas that educators face every day in the classroom? Some ethical problems associated with teaching are often not discussed--so let's drag a few of them into the light.

The answers to some questions, of course, depend heavily on context, and the border between ethical and unethical may be quite fuzzy. Our intention, therefore, is not so much to give cut-and-dried answers, but to get everyone thinking and talking about these issues.

In The Civilized Engineer, Samuel Florman's exploration of what it means to be an engineer, the author says that to act ethically an engineer must first be competent. While most engineering professors are competent in the subjects they teach, they are also responsible for ensuring that engineering graduates are technically competent. Viewed this way, educators have no choice but to fail incompetent students, even if they're pressured to do otherwise.

According to the ABET Code of Ethics, "Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence." Since teaching qualifies as a service, it is unethical to teach if one is incompetent. But who decides whether or not a teacher is competent? If professors judge themselves incompetent--if their students aren't learning, for example--they need to examine and change their teaching methods. But the code doesn't prescribe the actions the teacher's colleagues and supervisor should take under these circumstances: Is it ethical to allow an incompetent teacher to continue teaching? Does it make a difference if the teacher is trying to improve? What can or should the department chair and other professors do? What should an ABET team do with such evidence?

Another ethical area lies in the subtle (or not-so-subtle) biases that may cause educators to treat students unfairly. Most are aware of, and hopefully sensitive to, race and gender issues. But what about biases against students who ask for extra time because of legally recognized learning disabilities. Florman's advice, "Do not break the law!"--provide the time they are legally allowed--is an ethical response. What about prejudice against students from countries unpopular in the United States, such as Serbia during the war in Kosovo, or Iraq during the Gulf War?

Here's another sticky situation: You're convinced a student has lied to you, but your evidence is shaky. How do you proceed? Proof is often very difficult to obtain and there are many shades of gray in disciplining students. Should we graduate students whose behavior appears to be unethical?

Suppose you assign a problem derived from consulting work, and your class develops a surprisingly novel design that could save your client a significant amount of money. How do you share this solution with your client while giving appropriate credit to your students? Should financial remuneration be considered? Does your answer change if you gave the basic idea to the students and they proved that it worked?

Assigning a book that you've written and keeping the royalties is a potential conflict of interest. Is this ethical? "It's the best available," you say. But can you, as the author, objectively determine that another textbook wouldn't be better? An obvious solution is to donate the royalties to a university scholarship fund or similar charity.

At what point can you ethically decide you have put enough into a course or have done enough for the students? Is it right to skip class for a consulting trip? Where do you draw the line between focusing on students and focusing on research?

Many of these questions have complex answers, and the right solution may vary greatly depending on the circumstances and the opinions of those involved. But by considering and confronting ethical quandaries, we can all take a large step toward behaving as ethical engineers.

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