Mumtaz Usmen, interim dean, College of Engineering
by Derrick Bean
COE Public Affairs Writer
The reason for engineering ethics is obvious: "People," says Mumtaz Usmen, interim dean of the College of Engineering.
Usmen, who teaches engineering ethics at the college, says ethics is an approach to engineering practice that is hopefully planted early in engineering school, and carried throughout one’s career.
“My hope is that since we teach and dwell on the issue of ethics that it will make a difference,” he says. The first step for any engineer and for students to understand, says Usmen, is that one should never compromise the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
Usmen is the former chair of civil and environmental engineering, a member on the Board of Ethical Review for The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), and holds workshops on engineering ethics in this country and abroad.
The Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) mandates coverage of ethics as part of the engineering curriculum. At the college, undergraduate students are required to take one ethics education course (Philosophy 1120: Professional Ethics) designed to set them on the right course to practice its principles on the job.
Usmen says his graduate level professional ethics course exposes students to “theories on what constitutes positive or negative practices. We don’t stop at just ethics. It’s not just one class and done. We talk about current events, discuss real-life cases and the correct ways to handle them.”
Usmen says he hopes that his students take ethics seriously. “Several of my students have expressed their concern about unethical practices they’ve observed in the workplace in relation to their employers and with other companies they deal with. Several of these cases involve falsification of documents and misrepresentation of facts about the company or the project.”
There is a breach of ethics in the world, says Usmen. “You see a lot of conduct that bothers you where the engineering profession is practiced from labs to construction. People might favor a company at the expense of creating possible risks. Then, the issue becomes environmental. You are expected to be all the way truthful in public statements. Because you have a degree and a license, the public develops this comfort that they’re in good hands. If an engineer says something is safe, the public will believe that.”
There are unlimited opportunities in the engineering profession when projects and personal integrity can be compromised for money, personal gain, or pressures to succeed. A hasty decision to meet a deadline may lead to death. Other examples of breached ethics include lax environmental controls, corruption, and misrepresentation of professional credentials.
Several decades ago, the collapse of the then three-year-old Kansas City Hyatt Regency Atrium -- which resulted in the deaths of 114 people -- was a hard blow to people’s trust in professional engineers designing structures. Investigators eventually determined that the atrium design, which had been modified from the original, supported only 60 percent of the minimum load required by Kansas City building codes. The Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors convicted the contractor of gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering. A number of principals involved lost their engineering licenses, several firms went bankrupt, and many expensive legal suits were settled out of court.
Usmen uses the case as an example of the importance of meeting professional responsibilities, and what the consequences are for professionals who fail to meet those responsibilities. “This case is particularly serviceable for use in structural design, statics and materials classes, although it is also useful as a general overview of consequences for professional actions,” he says.
Jason Dimaria, MSCEE’06, completed the ethics course in Fall 2006 in his last semester before graduation. “We learned about the professional responsibility engineers have to the well-being of the general public. Public safety is the most important aspect of being an engineer, and above all, having a good sense of ethics and integrity is one of the keys to having a successful professional career,” says Dimaria.
Dimaria, 29, went to work for Ruby and Associates of Farmington as a structural engineer immediately after graduation, but was laid off last June when the volume of company projects plummeted due to the recession. He says on the job he always remembers and examines what he learned about ethics at Wayne State. “I always have it in the back of my mind when an issue comes to the forefront.”
A client of Dimaria’s was once in a rush to get a job done, but he told the client he needed more time to do a thorough examination. “What was right trumped what the client wanted,” says Dimaria. His boss backed his decision.
Dimaria says he would not have been as prepared to deal with ethical issues if not for Usmen’s class a few years ago. “I don’t think it’s stressed enough. It shouldn’t be just one class. I would like to see it more expanded into the curriculum. Every engineer should ask, ‘Is this ethical?’ when dealing with a particular situation where doing the right thing is not always obvious. Because that’s where I think a lot of problems arise. We get hung up on other issues and do not always ask ourselves about the ethics and integrity of the problem at hand.”
Usmen adds, “A lot of what is unethical is also illegal. If by being unethical, you are violating the law, you will be prosecuted. When you are unethical, it catches up sooner or later. Whether you are a business manager, engineer, professor, or student – you will get caught.”
Driving that point home to students is his mission. “We have to educate the students about academic dishonesty and its consequences.”