Category Archives: Concerning professions

The Broken Bargain With College Graduates

An op-ed in today’s New York Times reiterates points we made in an earlier post: The high rate of college tuition debt is an ethical problem for the United States, in part because, as the editorial says,

the familiar assumption — graduate from college and prosperity will follow — has been disproved in this century. College-educated workers have not seen meaningful pay raises, and public policy has failed to address the stagnation.

The editorial goes on to paraphrase President Obama on ways to improve the situation:

Modernize infrastructure. Raise the minimum wage. Reverse the dynamics that increase executive pay and depress employee pay. Close tax loopholes that enrich the wealthy, and give tax breaks to families to help pay for child care. Ensure that women earn equal pay for equal work.

One must hope that our next president, and the congress with which she or he will have to contend, will act quickly and comprehensibly.

Ken Pimple
May 22, 2016
6:30 pm EST

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Mapping the “New Professionalism”

On January 21st, Associate Professor of Sociology Timothy Hallett gave a Poynter Roundtable presentation on his work-in-progress with Matthew Gougherty, an in-depth study of a “Masters of Public Affairs” program. The project was originally inspired by an interest in the explosion of “accountability” logics across sectors; one research question being how educational programs might be functioning as incubators of this phenomenon. In the course of gathering extensive data on a cohort of MPA students and their faculty, the researchers found the concept of “professionalism” coming up repeatedly – yet not in a way that fits the dominant sociological definitions. What can this study tell us about the meaning of “professionalism” today?

One theoretical approach to defining a profession is functionalism. On a functionalist account, a profession is distinguished by having a recognized civic role, entailing that its members define themselves by a role-specific code of ethics and exercise a high degree of autonomy, both in applying their skills to meet public needs and in regulating themselves as a group. As a result of public trust and responsibility, they enjoy high social status. This view aligns with the self-understanding of fields such as law, medicine, the clergy, and engineering, the classic professions.

An approach based in a theory of power will emphasize the opposite side of the coin, arguing that professions emerge when members establish monopolies: through licensure and internal policing mechanisms like professional associations, the classic professions control access to a field of practice. This view might lend itself to more cynical or critical arguments, attributing high social status to successful power management rather than to social service — but like functionalism it is best tailored to explain the classic professions.

The MPA degree doesn’t seem to lead to anything that fits either of these definitions of “professional.” Graduates don’t expect to exercise the autonomy of judgment that functionalism predicts, instead being trained in the logic of “accountability,” which trends in the opposite direction. And degree holders don’t have a jurisdictional monopoly of power; there is no analogue to the American Medical Association. And social status is contingent on a variety of factors beyond the control of the degree program: the term “MPA” itself does not, as yet, have much of a vernacular status value.

Yet faculty and students in the program alike are deeply concerned with “becoming more professional,” “acting professional,” etc. Of course, as pointed out in the Roundtable discussion, these terms can have a vernacular meaning that points to working in an office or following a certain dress code, in opposition to working in the service industry or other explicitly low-status jobs. However, the class background of students in the program suggests that the majority of students would be destined for some type of suit-and-tie or business-casual employment no matter what. So their interest in the MPA is not primarily about accessing middle-class status in the first place, but implies a more particular set of concerns to which the new meanings of “professionalism” (as well as “mission” and other signifiers) provide some kind of answer. The current phase of the project is exploring what light newer theoretical approaches may shed on these emergent meanings.

Many aspects of this outline ring true for other emerging fields, degrees, and job types – there is a clear need for new theory to really explain how today’s college graduates are sorting themselves out in the contemporary social order. We look forward with interest to Hallett and Gougherty’s conclusions, as they promise to prove relevant not only to understanding MPA programs and the proliferation of accountability logic, but also to contribute to our understanding of 21st-century professionalism more broadly.

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A risk factor for lapses of professionalism

The Indiana University School of Medicine Newsroom circulated an interesting report on research concerning professionalism. The study “is one of the first to provide quantitative evidence to support anecdotal claims linking reflective ability of medical students and professional behaviors of future physicians.”

The term “reflective ability” is new to me, but a simple example made it clear.

“Medical students know right from wrong but don’t always reflect on the short- and long-term consequences of their actions,” Dr. Frankel [senior author of the study] said. “For example, cutting and pasting sources from the Internet without attribution, which some students believe is permissible, is actually a form of plagiarism as is cutting and pasting patients’ electronic medical records. Not seeing or reflecting upon the connection between these two types of behaviors can pose a risk for serious lapses in professionalism. By enhancing students’ training in reflective practice we can boost their awareness and vigilance regarding professionalism.”

I can’t help wondering whether other practitioners in other professions are at a similar risk, and whether mentioned training in reflective practice would help them.

Anonymous. 2016. “Low reflective ability is risk for professionalism lapses during medical school and beyond.” IUSM Newsroom (Jan 21).

Ken Pimple
January 22, 2016
5:10 pm EDT

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Ethics and Technology in the U.S. Navy

Professor Thomas E. Creely, Ph.D.*

1. What ethical challenges do professionals currently face?

As the world becomes more globalized, there is a lack of fusion of cultures with respect to Western versus Eastern values. In the midst of globalization, there is increased polarization ideologically. This presents not only a global clash of cultural values, but a local clash of cultural values.

The use of social media presents ethical dynamics for people who have a physical personality and a separate online personality. This presents ethical challenges for ethical leadership. What happens when a millennial leader projects the online personality adversely in the work place?

As technological autonomy increases in warfare, desensitization of the human factor increases. How do we keep technology humane? Or, does the “Other” simply become an object? Young people who have coursing personal values (ethics) are adept with technology. How will they handle ethically complex technology in warfare?

Increasingly, millennials prefer texting as the primary means of communicating, which presents a challenge in the military environment. At least 60 percent of communications is the visual reception of body language. The lack of face-to-face communications appears to adversely affect trust, transparency, and ethical engagement.

In developing a deeper ethical culture in the Navy, do incentives for ethical behavior or celebrating ethical behavior have the greater impact on ethical leader development?

Across the board, senior Naval Officers notice the general lack of empathy among young Sailors. This lack of empathy has an impact on projecting moral leadership.

Social media and games influence Sailors’ ethical values. Social media and many games do not reinforce positive values for moral engagement and impact. The lack of civility on social media and the permissive violence in games is opposite of developing ethical leaders in the Navy.

The increasing government bureaucracy within the Navy and U.S. Government overcomes reasonableness and marginalizes and constrains ethical decision making.

2. What do the professions and professionals need when encountering new ethical challenges? How might Association for Practical and Professional Ethics address these needs?

In Navy Recruiting and Basic Training, Sailors need robust ethics education and introspection of values for personal development. Seeds must be planted early in young Enlisted and Officers for future leader development.

The gap between the average Sailor’s ethics and technology must be closed. The Sailor’s knowledge and use of technology is more advanced than their ethical knowledge and critical thinking skills. This requires a focus in teaching ethics in all of Naval Education and Training Curriculum.

Thomas E. Creely, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership, United States Naval War College (Newport, Rhode Island).

*Note: We are pleased to share Professor Creely’s answers to key questions associated with the Year of Conversation on the Future of Practical and Professional Ethics.

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Ethics in the era of journalists as “essentially anyone with a cell phone”

Saul Kutinicki

In the flurry of controversy surrounding media coverage and one professor’s attempt to bar journalists from entering the protest space of student athletes at the University of Missouri last week, the question of ethics in journalism couldn’t be more important. Regardless of how these events will continue to unfold and what sort of central issues emerge out of a confrontation, which appears to have been recorded on a cell phone, there are certain aspects worth highlighting. I consider these recent episodes in light of some remarks by IU Bloomington journalism Professor Jim Kelly at the first Future of Professional Ethics workshop organized by the Poynter Center.

Journalism, which is now a part of The Media School at IUB, has traditionally provided a liberal arts education that creates a path for students to enter a variety of journalistic professions. There is no professional licensure required to be a journalist. Instead, Kelly claims, the professionalism of journalists has historically rested squarely in their own standards of practices and code of ethics. As Kelley indicates, the current job market for journalism professionals has been more focused on hiring graduates with skills in public relations and advertising rather than service-type fields, such as investigative journalism, political commentary, and consumer rights reporting. Along with these changing expectations, there have also been changes in the way news is written, recorded, and distributed. Online platforms forego most editorial processes, and more news sources are being driven primarily by diversified forms of PR work than by a mission to provide informational and local reporting. While newsprint has always been driven by advertising revenue, the notions of professionalism within journalism have traditionally helped to maintain the integrity of journalistic education and practice.

The changing media-scape, identified by Kelly, raises concerns about how journalism can continue to be framed as serving a public good. He emphasizes how changes in the media landscape should make the issue of professionalism and ethics central to an education in journalism. He explains how journalism is becoming less recognizable as a distinct profession in the midst of increased online circulation of news, documentary, and photography reportage.

To illustrate the issue, consider the photographer, Tim Tai, who appears in a video circulating this week from the Missouri protests. Tai attempts to approach the protest site, insisting that he is “doing his job” and that barring him from taking photographs is a direct violation of a “free press.”

Countless comments now and in coming weeks will echo the Tai’s sentiments and many will invoke the principles of “free speech.” Yet the question remains, what are the ethical concerns at the heart of such principles as free speech? And what are the ethical stakes of a protest initiated and led by black students and student athletes, who have expressed a desire to limit certain forms of media coverage that they may deem harmful to their cause? Beyond these specific questions, we might also ask: How many amateur “journalists” (essentially anyone with a cell phone) will uphold the ethical practices or raise the ethical challenges that have traditionally been the purview of the professional journalists? Such questions get at some of the overarching concerns that the Poynter Center and the Future Professional Ethics workshops will continue to grapple with in the following year.

November 17, 2015

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A Professional Life: A Question of Stages?

Emma Arrington Stone Young

A Professional Life in Stages

On September 15, 2015, Joseph Coleman spoke at the Poynter Center about his new book, Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce. Through personal interviews with dozens of subjects in the USA, Netherlands, France, and Japan, Coleman explores how these individuals and their nations are handling the world-wide boom in older workers.

Of the many interesting topics that arise – the long-lasting effects of the Great Recession, employer strategies, worker motivations, and who’s ultimately responsible for what – one that especially caught my attention was the notion that we might want to be thinking about professional working life as a series of stages rather than a single stage preceded by education and followed by retirement. Sweden has been relatively successful at creating social programs that re-train and re-employ middle-aged and older workers in new sectors after layoffs, Coleman says, suggesting that there might be benefits if industry and government more deliberately plan for workers to phase out of one industry and in to another.

It’s easy to think of benefits: At the individual level, workers may have new capacities to offer after children are raised, or may find more personal fulfillment in having more than one career. But it could work for industry too: Mid-life transitions from more to less physically demanding jobs might improve the overall health of the labor pool, and workers might bring more value as a fresh perspective in a new sector than by continually updating their training in the same sector. And in the broadest perspective, strategic programs to offer older workers the chance to renew themselves with a beneficial career change could, when needed, open up jobs for young workers (as when there is an over-supply of recent college graduates) and develop economic opportunities based on the unique strengths of older workers.

Of course, the notion of working life as a single stage between education and retirement only applies to certain relatively high-status occupations in the first place – professions and “skilled” trades. It has long been relatively easy to make career changes among certain kinds of occupation: it would startle no one to hear of a single career that included stints in law, politics, business, and academia. It isn’t clear whether transitions between “professional” and “non-professional” jobs could be as easily accomplished. In the US at least, access to professional careers and their accompanying class status is most often determined before the age of thirty, and in general the high cost of licensure and the pressures of class status maintenance are potential roadblocks.

On the other hand, workers in midlife may in some ways be the ideal candidates to take on the complex moral reasoning involved in professional life, as well as the pragmatic hurdles of advanced degree programs, even if their first career was not considered professional. Several decades of cultural pressure to professionalize young has produced an enormous problem: a glut of young workers with advanced degrees, few opportunities, and little experience. So a thoughtful shift toward encouraging more workers to consider professional careers after gaining life experience in jobs considered blue, white, or pink collar, or years of working in the home, might actually have some far-reaching effects: At a large enough scale, it would certainly change the demographics of degree programs and alter the stock narrative of status attainment. And it might create a new kind of professional. It’s certainly a provocative notion.


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More on the cost of higher education

Our review of the first workshop at IUB, Professions and Service to All: Challenges, Problems, and Solutions, we mentioned the unintended consequences of the relentless climb of college tuition. A recent New York Times editorial, The Law School Debt Crisis, highlights the role of corruption in law schools fueled by the federal Direct PLUS Loan program.

You should read the editorial; I can’t do it justice, but here’s a summation: The high rate of tuition creates high student debt which is not relieved by the plethora of high-paying law jobs promised by law school recruiters because the promise is empty.

There is too much wrong about this picture to enumerate, so I’ll just mention one: How can we believe that law schools are instruments of the common good when they act like organized crime?

Ken Pimple
November 1, 2015
1:10 pm EST

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Professional Judgment

Emma Arrington Stone Young

The phrase “professional judgment” is usually taken to refer to the exercise of expertise. We trust that the doctor or architect has superior information and comprehension of their subject matter, and this is why their professional judgment carries weight.

However, there is a second dimension to professional judgment, an often implicit moral dimension that is made explicit when a field attempts to increase its “professional status” through codes of ethics or principles. Professionals are never only market actors; they are governed by specific role-based ethics that put them in a direct moral relationship to (a) the individuals they serve, e.g. clients, and/or (b) the field to which they contribute, e.g., the sport, the theater, the academy, and/or (c) a community, for example the nation, in which the profession as a whole is seen as playing a necessary or a beneficent role. This dimension of moral responsibility complicates professionals’ relationship to employers and regulators. One important function of a code of ethics is to create a third point of reference in certain conversations: In a moral dispute with a colleague or employer an engineer can appeal to “professional integrity” in a way that a store clerk cannot.

Thus, while a professional may be either independent or employed, she is never only an employee.

In the twentieth century, this unique dimension of professionalism was expressed partly through professional associations such as the AMA and ABA. Sectors that wished to “professionalize” did so not only through developing claims to expertise — degree programs — but also notions of integrity, codes of ethics, and professional associations that instantiated their members as participants in a specific self-regulating moral role, and entailed on them the responsibility of making judgments about both the ends and means of the profession (e.g.,

Currently, we can see the field of moral judgment as an interesting element in the various shifts, debates, and innovations in different fields of work. Consider:

Rubrics over judgment: Increasing standardization, once the sign of “low-skill” occupations, is on the rise in long-standing professions such as medicine and education. Standardized procedures automate and regulate decision-making, placing new limits the exercise of professional judgment, both prudential and moral. In the wake of a sharp shift away from medical paternalism, and with the rise of evidence-based medical standards, technocratic and care-based narratives about medicine compete. Nevertheless, while the moral focus has shifted, the moral foundation of the doctor’s calling remains largely unquestioned. Standardization in education has hit teachers harder: Many find themselves fighting a constant battle to be seen as professionals who exercise moral judgment about the ends of education, goods and harms to their students, and appropriate means of cultivating the goods, rather than as assembly line specialists turning out test result quotas while managed by pervasive quality control “assessments.” In contrast, the law and the clergy remain largely un-standardized domains.

Moral choices: One of the touted benefits of “freelance professionalism” is “choosing clients,” not only in terms of market advantage, but in terms of choosing work that is meaningful and morally satisfying. Many freelancers try to resist the suspension of moral judgment that characterizes wage-work. Whether or not this benefit actually materializes in all cases, its discursive prominence points to the role of moral judgment in how people think about the difference between professional work and a mere job.

Integrity: Many occupations continue the tradition of attempting to professionalize by instituting ethics codes. The Designer’s Hippocratic Oaths ( is one — albeit a post-modern, de-institutionalized (more on that another time) — continuation of the tradition of codes of ethics  that serve to separate guild members/moral actors from wage laborers/market actors. This case of the Designer’s Hippocratic Oath is particularly interesting, because designers are well represented in the ranks of the salaried, the self-employed, and hourly workers. Asserting professional identity isn’t just about rare skills or economic status. It’s also about whether going to work demands that you exercise moral judgment, or suspend it.

In a precarious economy, the link between professional identity and moral judgment is one that matters to people. And the places that we recognize moral judgment in action may help shape which new occupations become “professions,” and which do not.

Emma Arrington Stone Young
September 28, 2015

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