Public Thinker: Donna M. Riley on Engineering, Ethics, and Social Justice

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Donna Riley is a lifelong social activist and student of liberation theology who also happens to be a ...

Donna Riley is a lifelong social activist and student of liberation theology who also happens to be a chemical engineer and the Kamyar Haghighi head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her books Engineering and Social Justice (2008) and Engineering Thermodynamics and 21st Century Energy Problems (2011), along with other publications on mercury exposure, engineering education, and science and technology studies, consistently challenge readers to promote engineering as an endeavor of the public trust.

Her approach to education is imbued with intersectional analysis for the sake of keeping gender, sexuality, class, and justice as components of what it means to do good engineering. We spoke about this approach in a wide-ranging interview that was anchored in concerns around the perceptions of engineering, the realities of engineering classrooms, the difficulties of designing technologies that serve communities and the public, and the very fact that a series about thinking in public rarely finds examples of engineers doing so.

Benjamin R. Cohen (BRC): One of the unique aspects of your career has been the way you integrate ethics and social justice into engineering classrooms. You’re in the first cohort of engineering educators to argue that social justice and engineering need to be held closer together. It’s not common. Certainly, engineering ethics is an entire subfield, but why is it so hard to get social justice—or honestly, even ethics, which still struggles to find a foothold—into the curriculum?


Donna M. Riley (DMR): I’ll start with the surface answer and just go deeper. One answer is that there is a split between the technical and the social complements of engineering. That is a false split, but it is a perceived split, nonetheless. That means anything that isn’t about mathematics and problem solving is often given short shrift in the curriculum. If we’re talking about communication skills, or learning the history of engineering, or the social context of a project, or social responsibility, or ethics, all of these get sidelined.


BRC: They are treated as nonessential, even given the diminishing nickname “soft skills.”


DMR: Right. Such ideas get marginalized as not really being as important as the technical aspects of engineering. So, that’s one level of problem. When you go deeper you start to get into some questions about what’s really valued, not just in engineering but in broader society. Probably more than any other discipline, engineers view education in this very enclosed way, as preparation for a career. For educators, that logic—the mistaken idea that we’re only preparing people for industry—means that, at the end of the day, ethics is a set of values that doesn’t have a monetized value in the marketplace.



BRC: You wrote an article with a colleague about design and development work that I use in class, about how US engineering students travel and work on projects in foreign settings. The point for students is how hard it is to decenter the technical from technology projects. That is, to see engineering work as inclusive of technical and nontechnical parts. Don’t assume it’s only math and equations, technical and mechanical. But decentering those elements—not removing, but decentering—is really difficult. I’m parroting your points here. It isn’t hard to get people to find that technologies are systems that integrate technical and nontechnical things. Professional engineers know this; it’s not controversial. Corporations know it. Accreditation boards.


DMR: Agreed.


BRC: But they integrate these elements asymmetrically, right?


DMR: That’s right. If you say, “Well, why does the technical have to be in the middle and everything else built around it? Why can’t we have community welfare in the middle and the technical built around that?” that starts to sound odd to many people.

BRC: So even the suggestion of decentering is perceived as a diminishment. It’s then not “real” engineering.


DMR: And it’s about power. Engineers believe that their power lies in technical expertise. This idea that “I can do what other people can’t do.” The fact that anything else is called soft skills is a denigration. And there’s a gender link to that too. Obviously, when you’re talking about soft things and hard things, there’s a male and female split that’s being reinforced.

There’s more to that, of course, I’m being quick in my comment, but still—our use of terms that get conflated with gender can gender engineering itself, shaping who can be an engineer and what engineering is.


BRC: That’s what’s at stake when we put the ethics of social justice and engineering together, or when we refuse to integrate them.


DMR: Engineering prides itself on being apolitical or depoliticized. Meaning that any time you bring up something—whether it’s about someone’s identity as a woman or a Latino—it’s seen as not belonging. As an engineer, traditionally, you’re supposed to be completely neutral to all of those things.

At the same time, what’s seen as neutral in engineering is actually quite conservative politically. Engineering, from its inception, has been about militarism and serving national interests, national military interests in particular. And, later on in US history, serving capitalists’ interests as well. This has been especially the case with the emergence of fairly large engineering corporations and supporting infrastructure for commerce. So, engineering’s logics are on one side of an equation—the moderate, status quo–preserving conservative side—yet it nonetheless views itself as neutral.

To even talk about engineering and ethics—or, goodness, engineering and social justice—is to create a negative reaction among engineers. I’ve had pushback, of course, even in the peer review process, where more than one reviewer called me a communist as a way to rebut the work. They don’t see social justice as a solid value. It’s not one they hold.

BRC: We should back up. Today, you’re the head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. A big engineering school. A famously reputable one. You had a similar role at Virginia Tech and before that you were a program officer at the National Science Foundation and an engineering professor at Smith College. You have had a long career in engineering education, yet it hasn’t been wholly orthodox. And today, as we’ve discussed, you’ve got ideas about engineering education that can put you outside the accepted norms of the discipline. How did you get here? How did your uncommon combination of attributes, for an engineering professor, start to show itself?


DMR: I started out as a chemical engineering undergraduate at Princeton University in 1989. And that was an interesting time for Princeton. It was the 20th anniversary of coeducation, but they still hadn’t quite figured out how to do coeducation at Princeton. To take one prominent example, social life at Princeton revolves around what are called “eating clubs,” which are somewhat like fraternities: places where students not only party on weekends but also eat all their meals every day.

About 80 percent of the campus was involved in the eating clubs when I was there. And yet, when I arrived, two of the eating clubs were still all male. There was actually a lawsuit—which had been filed 10 years prior—to coeducate them. During my time on campus, the New Jersey Supreme Court finally forced the coeducation of the eating clubs. In fact, my graduating class was the first class that was able to join the two all-male eating clubs. That created an interesting gender backlash on campus.


BRC: I’ve heard of eating clubs but, I admit, I didn’t really know their deal.


DMR: It was an odd situation. I had gone to an all-girls high school. I really didn’t understand that there were people who didn’t think that women belonged in engineering, or belonged at Princeton. So, it was really surprising as a first-year to confront that. And I was confronting that early on, really in the fall of my first semester. Then, in December of 1989, 14 women engineers were shot at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. This created a moment for me, where I had to think about my experience as a woman in engineering at Princeton.

In the wake of that tragedy, I was introduced to the Princeton University Women’s Center. The director of the Women’s Center reached out to me in the aftermath of the Montreal massacre, because I had attended a vigil. She also knew that a student had committed this weird microaggression against me during a chemistry test, actually the very night of the Montreal vigil.

Before the test—this is my first year, remember—we were all talking about what we were going to major in. I said I wanted to be an engineer, and this other student said, “Oh, you’re an engineer, where’s my gun?” Everybody’s laughing. Right then we hear, “Pick up your pencils, time to take the test.”

We couldn’t talk anymore, so I just took the test. But the whole time I had these thoughts running through my head: I can’t believe he said that? What am I supposed to make of that? I walked out of that test and the vigil was going on. Of course, it was the Women’s Center that sponsored the vigil. The College of Engineering didn’t seem to acknowledge it at all.

That was how I came to see the Women’s Center as a place where I could actually confront what was going on for me. I had had an interest in some activism prior to that. I got into engineering because I wanted to work on environmental problems, but this was a step up. I found the Women’s Center to be a really good place to do some organizing, not just around gender issues but around social justice issues more broadly. Princeton was such a conservative institution that all of the communities that were not conservative had to work together.


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BRC: It sounds like there was a double effect, because you’re studying engineering, which is one of the more traditionally conservative disciplines or professions, at a school which is already quite conservative.


DMR: That was definitely my experience. It led me to develop friendships with people through the Women’s Center. Those friends ended up being my roommates. None of them were engineers. They studied anthropology, political science, et cetera. I, curiously, learned more from them than I expected. And it was a window into my own experience, which engineering really didn’t offer me.


BRC: Right, though that’s a tough dynamic for an undergraduate, basically still a teenager.


DMR: Yes, true. Plus, on top of that, my high school upbringing led me to believe that I ought to take meaningful classes outside of engineering. A typical engineer’s strategy is very instrumentalist: Take the path of least resistance with your courses outside of engineering. Take the easiest thing to fulfill your general education requirements. I didn’t want to do that. I saw it as: I’m at Princeton University. I have one shot to take a class in literature. I’m going to make sure that I take something I love.

So, I took a class called “Five Romantic Poets.” I had no business being in it, because I hadn’t taken the intro class that covered Milton. But they let me do it and they were very welcoming. And that was true of almost all of the humanities and social science classes that I took. They would let me into these small advanced classes, and they were very generous. I had a course with Elaine Pagels on Gnosticism and early Christianity, and she made me feel like I belonged.

I took a team-taught course on liberation theology; Cornel West covered the black liberation theology part of it. This was the early 1990s. I grew up in Los Angeles and here I am in a class with West, on the other side of the country, when I learned that the cops who beat Rodney King had been acquitted. I had an inkling that justice would not be served in this case, but it was still a shock. Next, I’m in a three-hour seminar in the evening with West and he stops class and says, basically, “Look, we’re not gonna talk about the reading for a while, we’re just gonna talk about what’s going on in LA right now.”  He helped our class contextualize that event within the wider struggle for racial justice. Those were all ways to explore my engineering experience and make sense of it as an activist.

BRC: Taking the path of more resistance—though, I mean, just studying engineering as a woman in 1989 at Princeton is already not the path of least resistance.


DMR: [laughs] Yes, although, honestly, I don’t think I knew any better. I’ll give you another example of that “more resistance” path, one that sent me on my career path: I knew I wanted to work on environmental problems, except chemical engineering at Princeton had no connection to the environment at that time. There was a female researcher at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton, Valerie Thomas, though, who needed a research assistant to work on the industrial ecology of heavy metals in sewage treatment plants. That ended up being my senior thesis. And that led to a summer job where I was working on wind energy through the same center. And that experience was so rewarding I decided to go to grad school without quite knowing what that meant.


BRC: We’ve talked off-line about our various interdisciplinary experiences in grad school. You knew you wanted that kind of experience early on?


DMR: Yes, that part I knew. When I looked at PhD programs, I was looking for something interdisciplinary. I looked at STS; I looked at engineering and policy programs; I looked at multidisciplinary programs; I looked far and wide. I read everything trying to make sense of it all, and, of course, there’s no internet, so this wasn’t easy. I ended up choosing Carnegie Mellon’s program because at that time it was the only one that had a departmental structure that felt right. The other programs had people putting together an interdisciplinary engineering PhD, without a fully structured department with support for students and a full curriculum.

I admit, I didn’t really understand what a PhD was for and didn’t have anybody in my family who understood that. My dad was the first in his family to go to college—he had a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology). He grew up in rural Missouri on a dairy farm. So, nobody could explain graduate school to me. In fact, I was told by the head of my department of chemical engineering at Princeton—who wrote me a recommendation letter—that I could never be an engineering professor if I did an interdisciplinary program. So, that’s how that happened. [laughs]


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BRC: But you did go on to be a professor. How did that happen?


DMR: Well, first it was because I found out I really liked teaching, which was news to me. One of the requirements at Carnegie Mellon was teaching a project management class. I’d been thinking when I got there, Really, I’ll leave with a master’s degree and go work at EPA. But it turned out I—as well as the professor who recommended me—was wrong.

It was doing this project management class that changed things for me. It was a community-based learning class on Pittsburgh’s urban forest. We led student teams. One looked at the health of trees, one at the climate benefits of trees, another at the distribution of trees by socioeconomic and racial demographics in Pittsburgh, things like that.


BRC: So, it was practical environmental policy work?


DMR: Yeah, it involved a number of policy questions about how the forest is managed, or not—as was the case. It was a really influential project for me. I learned that I love teaching. And the report we issued was received well by the city of Pittsburgh, which created a shade tree commission to manage the urban forest. Which was very cool. It had a real impact.


BRC: You were making and doing.


DMR: I was making and doing. My students were, too, which is more important. And it was very satisfying. That’s when I made a connection between my experience in undergrad and how we could be teaching engineers in different ways—thinking back to my engineering classes, which were taught in a dry, traditional lecture format. The professor with his notes that were 30 years old, just writing them on the board. We would write what was on the board in our notes and there were few questions asked. Meanwhile, in my other classes, I’d be taking these seminars on Romantic poets and ancient Christianity, and Elaine Pagels would be translating these original Aramaic texts on the fly and we’re delving into them, and everything was different.


BRC: So, from the beginning you had wildly different ideas about what the discipline can and should do. The interest in social justice work, the input from the humanities, the interdisciplinary program, all of it.


DMR: Yes, I did. I wanted to be an environmental engineer to do social justice from the beginning. I was interested in things like hazardous waste sites, so that was already providing an environmental justice focus. I did an assignment on a couple of different Superfund sites around Los Angeles, which come with accounts of economic and racial disparity. I was interested in that. But I didn’t yet know exactly how to put that all together.


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BRC: I think it’s interesting, too, that you began your academic career after grad school as an engineering professor at Smith, a women’s liberal arts college. Looking back it all makes sense—this is Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan’s alma mater, right?—but as you were deciding to take that position, what was your thought process?


DMR: It was a new engineering program, so that was one thing. Starting from nothing, the founder, Domenico Grasso, brought in a civil engineer, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and I was nominally the chemical engineer. I taught thermodynamics at the start. They, we, were trying to build it and get it accredited—which we did, which it is. And we were building from scratch a curriculum that was interdisciplinary in some way. The cross-engineering disciplines were very much built around a core of sustainability.


BRC: Was it liberating to have such an open field? Or did you feel like you had to adhere to some prescribed pathway?


DMR: No, it was difficult. Domenico was particularly concerned about program rigor and worried about accreditation, because he had promised the first-year class of 20 women, “You will have an accredited degree.” Plus, we were taking heat in the engineering world and the land grant world; most faculty at the big engineering schools—like Purdue, like Virginia Tech—hadn’t heard of Smith.

I was in an awkward review panel at the National Science Foundation where someone asked me if Smith was a community college and I was floored. I said, “No, it’s like the women’s equivalent of the Ivy League, you know?” That was strange. So, we had a lot of pressure from the wider engineering community to prove ourselves in a technical way. Domenico paid a lot of attention to pedigree when he hired people; having excellent faculty mattered. Everybody else was MIT, Stanford. I actually had the least fancy degree, having come from Carnegie Mellon.


BRC: It sounds like an object lesson in battling the perception of technical credibility as the entirety of credibility. You had to play the game even as you were working on revising the game.


DMR: That’s probably right.


BRC: The premise of this series is about thinking in public, about scholars and thinkers who explicitly identify the work they’re doing as interested in people beyond the classroom. It isn’t just thinkers who consider their work as a learning service addition after the fact. Rather, they see the generation of public engagement as the core of what they do.


DMR: Right.


BRC: And that approach brings with it responses, critiques, backlashes: all the ways that these forms of public scholarship are resisted.


DMR: Yes.


BRC: We haven’t interviewed an engineer in the series before; the interviewees have largely been historians, social science types, STS people. But no engineers. So now we’re crossing a few hurdles, in a good way, in talking about engineering education and its role in public life.


DMR: Then I’ll give you an example that also pushes us toward the public engagement experience that I’ve had. When I was living in Northampton during my Smith years, I was involved in actions against an aging nuclear power plant called Vermont Yankee. It was owned by the state for most of its operating life. Then, in 2002, after three decades of operation, a private corporation bought it. This privatization of electric power was problematic from a policy perspective; it was also problematic because the company, Entergy, had a very bad record of environmental injustice. As many in my community saw it, Entergy was basically trying to extract the maximum amount of dollars from an aging plant by operating it beyond its original design specifications.

As someone who taught ethics to engineers at Smith, I got very interested in this issue. With any nuclear power plant, engineers are operating the plant with a certain level of competence and are learning its capacity. The operating capacity of the plant is designed with a lot of knowledge of the systems involved, and then there’s a margin of safety. So, what gives this corporation the right to second-guess the designing engineers 30-plus years after the fact, and push that plant beyond its original limits, without thoroughly assessing the state of the facility and the likely consequences of a power uprate?


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BRC: Was there any oversight?


DMR: Yes, Vermont actually had a state engineer with responsibility over the plant when it was a public utility. He knew that plant inside and out. And he said, You cannot increase the power of that plant by 20 percent without enduring damage to the plant. Certain components were going to vibrate so much that they would have to shut the plant down.

And there was also a citizen activist who had been involved in Maine on a similar design. This guy, Ray Shadis, worked with the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, and he’s there saying the same thing as the Vermont state engineer, that this is going to cause problems if they do the uprate.

By the way, Vermont Yankee had the same design as Fukushima, which is a whole other interesting side story. But this was all before Fukushima happened. In any case, the proposal went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Entergy Corporation told them not to worry. So, the NRC rubber stamped it. Entergy went ahead with the uprate. And sure enough, they had to shut the plant down because of the vibrations. It was exactly as the state engineer and the activist predicted.


BRC: Damn.


DMR: It got worse too. Later on, a cooling tower collapsed at that facility over what seemed essentially to be rotten wood and rusted bolts. I started to look at this as an engineer and as someone who studied risk, and I thought: This is so unacceptable from a public trust perspective. Whatever you think about nuclear power, this particular power plant needs to be shut down. Because the people who have been entrusted with operating it don’t have the trust of the public and are not upholding even basic maintenance on this plant.

I thought about whether I wanted to take action as an engineer and try to do an actual risk study of this plant. But I realized that that wouldn’t be effective. Instead, I just needed to show up with the activists and be there.

So that’s what I started to do. I ended up involving one of my classes, too. I already taught a science, technology, and ethics elective—a deep dive in engineering ethics. In 2012, I designed the class around the topic of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, and we worked with the citizen group I was involved in.

The group wanted to measure for themselves whether or not the plant was leaking—there were instances of tritium being found in the soil around the plant, and then there were issues with how that was communicated or not to the public. The activist group wanted an independent measure. They also wanted to know how the heat output was affecting fish in the Connecticut River. Our students got involved in thinking with them about how one could measure that. They were learning to be engineers by investing their course lessons in these issues of public trust and justice.

Fukushima had just happened the year before. In Japan, there was a project called SafeCast that was crowdsourcing radiation data to help identify the most contaminated areas. My students were inspired to make their own devices for measuring radiation. That had them coming up against these questions of expertise that we started with at the top of our conversation: Who gets to decide whether or not a device is legitimate for measuring radiation?


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BRC: Right.


DMR: And there weren’t any clear answers in class. The students struggled with that question as they went back and forth thinking about what it means to design technologies for public life. You know this stuff: citizen science, participatory design.


BRC: Public participation, community engagement, cooperative design. These certainly aren’t settled law, people argue over the various merits of the approaches, but they’re all key terms for imagining what an engineer does or who an engineer is as a public figure, right?


DMR: Yes, I’d say that’s right. Pedagogically, too, it was a fun way to get them very involved. Then the plant shut down in 2014, so, that was something.


BRC: This nuclear case seems to represent so much of our talk about integrating engineering and ethics, getting at social justice, too. I’m not gonna sit here and say engineering isn’t engaged with the public, but what I mean is, what I hear from you is that the structure of engineering education has not kept community welfare, let alone people with different identities (beyond consumers), as its core.


DMR: Here’s what I’d say. One of the problems with putting engineering together with social justice is that engineering as a profession has historically served certain clients, by and large. Many engineering projects serve the state fairly directly. For example, engineers design weapons: they work for Lockheed-Martin or some such and they design a fighter jet; they design weaponry. Or they serve the market: they design technologies for trade, sale, consumption.

Of course, our engineering ethics codes talk about holding paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public. But there are fewer engineering projects that truly serve communities or the public. For example, you can think of water and sanitation systems historically, for instance, saving a ton of lives—that’s an important thing you can point to as a broadly beneficial application of engineering. But even there, if you look closer, there are social justice issues: Who has access to clean water and at what cost? How is water quality managed and maintained, and who gets to decide how water is managed and what the standards should be? How can engineers be allies and advocates that expand the circle of who participates in this kind of decision-making? How can engineers be more accountable to the various publics they purport to serve?

There’s a lot of people who, over time, over history, have tried to broaden that set of people whom engineers serve, and who have tried to democratize engineering, or democratize decision-making about technology. That effort is not yet finished. In fact, we have a lot of work to do before we will see a truly broad-based movement that can realize a vision of engineering by, with, and for communities, with social justice at the center.


This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohenicon