The Cost of Integrity

Dr. X, a distinguished structural engineer, received a phone call from an engineering student at a nearby college. The student expressed concern that Dr. X's famous skyscraper had a serious technical design flaw. At first, Dr. X dismissed the student's concerns outright but the conversation gets him thinking. Over the weekend, Dr. X sifts through his data and realizes the student is indeed correct - strong winds could cause this famous landmark to topple and in the process kill thousands of innocent people. Rectifying the problem would be no small task and would require notifying the building's owners, city officials, and the press and might negatively impact Dr. X's professional reputation.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that the building Dr. X designed could potentially topple in strong winds.

2. Who or what may be affected?

The building's owners and occupants of whom there are thousands (large number).

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

The building occupants could be maimed or killed. The building's owners would be ruined. Dr. X's professional reputation and career would certainly be ruined and he could also face imprisonment and civil lawsuits.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Certainly if the building collapsed and people died, Dr. X would be guilty of many counts of murder. There are likely many laws and regulations that would also apply. Likely the code of ethics for Dr. X's profession holds its members responsible for ensuring public safety.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Dr. X can go to the building owners and inform them of the problem and of what needs to be done in order to fix the skyscraper.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly by informing the owners as soon as possible Dr. X will minimize the severity of the consequences. Dr. X should also carefully review his calculations to determine how/why he made the error in the first place. This will allow him to make sure that he doesn't make the same mistake again in the future.

Basis for Case Study 2

This case is based on the true life story of Dr. William LeMessurier, a famous structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the 59-story N.Y.C. CitiCorp Tower and was confronted with the possibility that he had made a serious error that had the potential to not only possibly bring down the tower but also irreversibly harm his professional reputation and career:

E. Karagianis. (1999) MIT Spectrum: 11, p. 3. "The Right Stuff. A Question of Ethics."