IEEE Ethics: When Advice and Support Went Dark

An overview of what led to activities being terminated, as well as efforts to restore them

20 June 2018

This is the third in a series of posts about IEEE’s current ethics policies and practices and to what extent they support IEEE’s “Advancing Technology for Humanity” tagline.

During 1997 and 1998, a high-activity period for the IEEE ethics committee, there developed a pattern of terminating several key ethics support services. Up until then, each had operated effectively and without any problems, such as the Ethics Hotline, ethics articles being published by The Institute, and a liaison with the member conduct committee (MCC).

During IEEE Board of Directors deliberations about terminating those efforts, the ethics committee chair, Member Stephen Unger, was not allowed to sit in. Recommendations to not dissolve the programs by the Board’s own task force, formed to review and advise it on the matter, were rejected. Shortly thereafter, members who supported the continuation of the services were removed from both the ethics and member conduct committees.

Also in 1998, about the time when the ethics committee’s activities had been most successful, an IEEE past president and a member of the IEEE member conduct committee said at a committee meeting I attended:

“I do not believe that IEEE should get involved in employee-employer disputes.”

Because IEEE’s constitution already prohibited engaging in matters that trade unions and collective bargaining dealt with, his statement applied only to ethical and professional activities.

The proposal by another past IEEE president to establish an ethics conflict-resolution service that would have provided advice, education, a board to hear cases, and mediation, was never acted on.

Key pro-ethics members of both committees, such as Unger, Ray Larsen, and me (each who are current members of the IEEE Concerned Ethics Volunteers) were summarily removed from the committees.

That began what I call the dark ethics period, which continues to this day.

INFORMAL ETHICS RESTRICTIONS GO INTO EFFECT

In the early 2000s, the two committees, which had been separate entities, were combined to form today’s ethics and member conduct committee (EMCC). In 2015 I contacted the IEEE member who replaced me on the MCC after I was relieved of my duties in 1998. He chaired the EMCC in the early 2000s and wrote me that a staff member would brief it on employee-employer complaints, requests for support, and inquiries for advice. The staff member would screen the motions before they were submitted to the committee; therefore, some would not go to the committee. IEEE Policy 7.11, however, states that member inquiries, complaints, and requests for support are to be directed to the EMCC chair.

In 2005, with Board approval, IEEE began a systematic restriction of ethics advice and ethical support to its members. In the view of the Concerned Ethics Volunteers, this is a clear violation of 40 years of established IEEE bylaws, policies, and procedures, some of which were written by CEV members. To date, those services have not been reinstated.

Attempts to find out why the restrictions went into effect have been unsuccessful. But the statement expressed in 1998 against employee-employer dispute involvement certainly would not have helped

When I asked the editors of IEEE Spectrum and The Institute whether the Board ever published information to the members about enacting those restrictions, they said nothing had been published in either publication informing the members of the change in policy and practice. That leads me to ask: Why not?

ATTEMPTS TO RESTORE ETHICS ADVICE AND SUPPORT

In late 2015 I learned from the former EMCC chair that for the past 20 years the committee had been denying members ethics advice and ethical support, in violation of 40 years of established governance policies. I began an effort to make this known to the highest IEEE leaders by way of a position statement, distributed to all 10 IEEE regions. I received no responses or requests for further information.

The 2015 president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) did express interest. He subsequently received authorization from the IEEE Technical Activities Board to assemble several society members for a task force to look into IEEE’s existing ethics programs and point out gaps that needed to be fixed. I collaborated with him for the first six months. I provided materials to enlighten him on the restrictions and the history of IEEE’s ethics support. But he did not report back to me on his efforts until he told me a survey would be conducted. He did not share a draft of the survey with me. After about nine months, he informed me he was finally assembling a group to consider the materials I shared with him.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the SSIT’s Technology and Society magazine about the denial of ethics services, but it was not published. I came away feeling dejected.

In early 2017 the IEEE president established an ad hoc committee on ethics programs, and the same ethics task leader became its chair. He was assigned to respond to the issues I had raised. To get greater credibility about my concerns, the CEV was formed to support the ad hoc committee. The CEV developed and submitted to the committee chair a comprehensive set of recommendations for reorganizing the EMCC, along with a detailed history of events. I wrote a blog post for The Institute that filled in gaps about the dark period of ethics history.

Prior to the November IEEE Board meeting, the CEV prepared recommendations for the ad hoc committee chair to persuade the Board to restore both ethics services, but it did not. All that happened was a suggestion to the Board to look into restoring services this year. I felt we had been strung along.

This year IEEE’s president appointed the same ad hoc committee chair to be the IEEE ethics champion. Once again, the CEV prepared documentation for an item to be brought before the Board to act on at this month’s meeting. As of 10 June, I had not received confirmation that the item would be on the agenda.

Let’s hope that if nothing is achieved this year, 2019 President Moura will put this matter before the Board to correct things.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Will the IEEE Board act to restore ethics advice and ethical support to IEEE members? And what can members do on their own to try to get the services restored if the Board does not act? 

Life Senior Member Walter L. Elden is the editor for the Concerned Ethics Volunteers. He can be reached via w.elden@ieee.org.

Learn More