Workshop review – Professions and Service to All: Challenges, Problems, and Solutions

Saul Kutinicki,
Emma Arrington Stone Young, and
Kenneth D. Pimple

Professions and other occupations exist because they serve human needs. The degree to which professions strive to meet vital needs vary across professions, within professions and organizations, and across time. There can be no doubt that in the United States today, many vital needs are not met, often because providing those needs is not profitable. Providing pro bono services and taking up specialties that serve underprivileged people or underpopulated areas are not practical for many young professionals who are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.
From the workshop description

The first of Indiana University Bloomington’s workshops of five in the series on the Future of Professional Ethics drew about twenty-five academic administrators, faculty, and a few undergraduate and graduate students (plus at least one retired professional) representing law, medicine, journalism, sociology, informatics, and more.

The workshop began with a common observation from the keynote speaker, Steven Salbu, Cecil B. Day Chair, Professor of Law and Ethics at Georgia Institute of Technology: IU has one of the most beautiful campuses he has ever seen. His follow-up was less common, but far from unique: How much does it cost to continually plant and re-plant every flower patch on the campus, and who pays for it? The answer to the latter is, at least in part, students pay for it.

Professor Salbu went on to highlight the terrible effects of rising costs in higher education that, according to the Wall Street Journal, exceed even the rate of rising costs in healthcare. Examples included  students who choose paying tuition at the cost of housing or food and scandals in which schools are sued by the dozen for padding their graduate employment statistics.

To trace the causes and ramifications of the increasing cost of a college degree, Salbu drew on his experience as both an instructor and a Dean. Focusing first on the role of higher education in society, including its role in mediating access to medical care and legal advice, Salbu noted that he sees more and students taking an instrumental view of education or making choices driven by financial pressure from their parents. He lamented the gap between those forces and the desire for personal growth and intellectual adventure that powered his own education. Worse yet, he argued that policy makers in university administration have taken up an “academic arms race” as they compete for ratings based on metrics devised and published by the likes of the U.S. News & Education and the U.S. Department of Education’s Government College Scorecard. The scorecard defines success in narrowly economic terms.

In the last third of the talk, Salbu turned to law and medicine, both of which he argued are failing to fulfill their vital social roles due to rising access barriers – to which higher education policies contribute. Young adults who are interested in providing important services are too often blocked from higher education due to the high cost. If they are able to afford professional licensure,  high student debt often diverts them from specialties that benefit under-privileged populations and areas in favor of careers that minister to the well-off. Diminishing citizen access to these essential professions undermines core social values. Salbu suggested that Milton Friedman might have offered an idea worth entertaining when he opposed professional licensure on the grounds that it drives up costs and limits access.

Following the keynote, three IUB panelists commented on Salbu’s themes:

  • Tim Hallett, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Sociology
  • Carwina Weng, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Disability Law Clinic at the Maurer School of Law, and
  • Jim Kelly, Association Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at The Media School.

The audience who responded to the keynote and panelists included academic administrators and faculty in all those areas, as well as medicine, informatics, and more.

The panel discussion and comments from the audience went in many directions, several of which will be explored in future posts: The role of new college admissions procedures in this picture; the emphasis of law school programs on facilitating corporate law careers over other types of legal service; the varying insights suggested by different definitions of “professional;” how wider social values about health care bear on the moral responsibility of medicine; and journalism as a profession that has been uniquely defined precisely by an ethical code and not by professional licensure barriers, yet which now are losing that touchstone.

Which issues do you find most interesting? We’d love to hear from you.

October 23, 2015

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Ken Pimple

About Ken Pimple

I've been involved in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics before its actual creation. I am coordinating the international conversation on the future of practical and professional ethics for APPE, and organizing five workshops that will be held at Indiana University in Bloomington in academic year 2014-15.

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