From the Dean: Trusted Voices

Fall 2017

Joseph Helble, Dean

Each year, at Thayer School’s Investiture ceremony for graduating students, I find myself commenting on numbers that tell the story of this particular moment in Thayer School history. Number of degrees granted, number of patents issued to students, number of award-winning projects and theses—all of these describe our graduates in ways that we understand as engineers and that help give gathered family and friends a sense of the collective accomplishments of another outstanding Thayer class.

This year’s Investiture, part of the year in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the School, was no different. But this time I also called attention to one particular number with broader national significance: the number eight, the number of members of the current United States Congress that the Congressional Research Service identifies as engineers. Eight. Seven in the House of Representatives, one in the Senate.

That’s eight out of 535—just under 1.5 percent.

Not many are surprised to find that engineers do not often pursue political office. We generally view politics as the province of attorneys, business men and women, and “career politicians,” and not well suited to the analytical skills of engineers. Yet, that objectivity may be exactly what the public most needs, and most wants.

The polling organization Gallup, well known for surveying trends that affect elections and governance, also samples public opinion on the societal value of different professions. Last December, Gallup asked the American public their view of 22 different professions, asking respondents how they would rate the “Honesty and Ethical Standards” of people in those fields. At the top of the list were nurses, clearly admired for selflessness and their contribution to the greater good. But next, essentially tied, were physicians, pharmacists, and engineers, with engineers being seen by 65 percent of the public as having very high or high standards of honesty and ethical integrity, placing engineers well ahead of members of Congress, business executives, lawyers, bankers, journalists, psychiatrists—even ahead of the clergy.

As engineers, we often complain about a lack of public understanding of the value of engineering as a profession and of engineers as individuals, yet here is a clear signal that the public sees us serving the public good. Seeing the results of this survey, I was struck by the realization that engineers are viewed as perhaps one of the few remaining honest, ethical, trustworthy, and selfless groups of professionals in American society.

We know that engineers are data-driven, analytical, and fact-based, and I suspect this is why we are trusted. And yet this very passion for data and objective analysis causes us to stay on the sidelines and out of the public sphere, feeding the public stereotype of engineers as smart, hard-working, and generally introverted problem solvers.

But as I said to our graduates, Thayer engineers are different. Our students and alumni are anything but inward-facing, something I’ve seen repeatedly through more than a dozen years of interacting with new groups of students or traveling the country to meet our alumni.

We are at a moment when the public tells us clearly that the engineering voice is a trusted voice, and the Thayer voice, educated at the intersection of engineering and liberal arts, fully aware of the context of engineering in solving today’s most challenging problems, is not just an articulate one, but an eloquent one.

For 150 years the Thayer School has been driven by a mission “to prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.” These words were never intended to be restricted only to developing new technologies to solve technical challenges. Today, I do not believe there is any more responsible position nor any more difficult service than informing the public debate, regardless of partisan view or political affiliation. For if we as engineers do not speak out, using data and recognizing the trust the public places in us, then who will?