Inaugural Remarks of 2017-18 Academy President Steve Alpert at the American Academy of Actuaries Annual Meeting and Public Policy Forum in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14, 2017

 
Alpert: The Academy is fortunate to have you and other leaders who are deeply committed to our professionalism and public policy mission. Over the past year as President-elect, it has been a tremendous privilege to see and participate in the dedication and passion that you, the past presidents, leaders, volunteers and Academy staff bring to that mission. 
 
And now, I have been honored with carrying the torch of professionalism and serving the public for the 53rd year of the continuing relay of our long-standing mission.

As Sir Isaac Newton once put it: “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty, & leave the rest for others that come after you.”
 
This coming year, my personal “little” task is increasing the public’s perception of the actuarial profession as a vital, necessary and valuable part of the social fabric. But before we get there, I would like to share a couple of personal anecdotes that illustrate how our collective “little tasks” can advance our overall goals.
 
My story begins in October 1965, when 1,466 actuaries came together as charter members of the American Academy of Actuaries.
 
While these were all pioneers and leaders in their own way, one is of particular importance to me:
 
Frank J. Alpert. 
 
Surely the idea of coming together as professionals, and the acknowledgment of “actuary” as a noble and valuable profession, was a topic of dinner table conversation – and one that a particular 2nd grader followed with eager interest.  So much so in fact, that a mere five months later, that 2nd grader had the prescience to foresee his own destiny, recognize that actuarial work is fun, and with succinctness and brevity that we can only aspire to now, bring the entire story to a close in a mere  60 words. 
 
Equally impressive, of course, are my parents, who had the presence of mind to recognize the historical importance of this document.
 
Even though I managed to forget all about it over the ensuing 21 years, they managed to keep and preserve it, saving it to present it to me when I had completed all my fellowship and Enrolled Actuary exams, and had become an Academy member myself. 
 
And I have been extremely fortunate that they continue to beat the longevity odds, and are both doing well and living in White Plains, N.Y., where I grew up.
 
So even though they could not make the trip down to D.C. today, I want to take a moment to thank them for their love and support, and for making this moment and story possible.

I would also like to thank my wife, Sharon, who knows a good thing when she sees it, for her patience and support while I was studying, and for finding a suitable desktop frame for my essay.
 
And now, “after exams,” I have my children to thank for setting me on a different sort of path: that of becoming a youth and high school soccer referee.
 
I know what you’re thinking – what could refereeing possibly have to do with the actuarial profession?
 
Interestingly, there are some surprising parallels between running around wearing polyester in the hot sun (beautifully modeled here by FIFA referee Howard Webb) and laboring toward perfectly crafted spreadsheet models…if you will bear with me for a few minutes.
 
Referees and actuaries have a similar history and bring similar professional characteristics to performing their duties.
 
We both evolved over similar timelines – Elizur Wright develops and applies the first solvency rules to life insurance in 1858.
 
Just five years later an association of 11 English schools agree on the first, common set of rules for what was then called “Association Football” – shortened in the box scores in the newspapers to “Assoc. Football,” and then by the public to “soccer.”
 
Between 1889 and 1891, growing complexity and skill amongst the practitioners creates the need for organized, professional judgment. David Parks Fackler founds the Actuarial Society of America, and the soccer referee – originally on the sidelines so that gentlemen schoolboys could “refer” to him if they had questions about the rules – gets moved to the center of the action and given the authority to make judgments, determine violations, and assess penalties. 
 
And in the past 50 years, both the soccer and the actuarial communities have seen a growing body of standards and interpretations defining our responsibilities to both our principals and to serving the public.
 
But wait! There’s more!
 
Actuaries and referees bring very similar skill sets to fulfilling their professional duties.
 
There aren’t many of us, and few people outside our small circle really understand what we do, although they rely on us to do it expertly and professionally. From the outside, it may seem that we are merely technical administrators of a set of rules – “just calling balls and strikes,” to mix metaphors from another sport.
The public may think they understand these rules completely, but in reality many may know them only selectively.

Of course, we know differently: each situation is unique, and we take into account both the context and the spirit of what the rules are trying to accomplish. In short, we are both empowered – and expected – to make decisions based on informed judgments, express opinions about materiality and significance, and use our discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the laws and rules.
 
We serve an important function: the public relies on us to assure both safety and fairness.

For a referee, that means keeping the players safe and letting their skill determine the outcome, within the established boundaries of fair play.
By providing objective, evidence-based information, actuaries help assure the public that financial security programs’ promises of future payments are fairly made and can be relied upon when and if they are needed.
 
Of course, perspective matters! You need to see things from the proper angle and the appropriate distance.
Knowing where to look and what to look for requires both training and continuing experience. (And in actuarial work, as in soccer, there’s no magic computer-generated line drawn by the TV network to help us make those decisions.) Not only do we need the right perspective to answer the question, we need the right perspective to know which question to ask!
 
We both have to tailor our actions and message to the needs of the moment – whether it is a routine adjustment to remain pointed in the right direction.
 
A warning that behavior may be nearing a boundary and needs to change.
 
Or a rarer, but necessary hard truth that current actions or behavior are out of bounds, must cease immediately, and be significantly penalized.
 
Depending on the context, any one of these situations could be a “moment of truth,” where failing to make the right call or take the appropriate action could result in irrecoverable damage to our respect and reputation.

A moment of truth can happen quickly or without warning, so it is important that actuaries or referees be prepared for anything to happen, because sooner or later, everything does.
 
And finally, we come to Ken Aston – a great British referee and pioneer in referee professionalism at about the same time as Henry Rood was pioneering actuarial professionalism and facilitating the founding the American Academy of Actuaries.

Aston had the insight that the red and yellow colors of traffic signals could simply and effectively communicate to a diverse, global audience.

He also coined the phrase, “Refereeing is thinking,” a sentiment which applies equally well to actuarial practice.
 
As I noted at the beginning, this year, I want to increase the public’s perception of the value of the actuarial profession. But, I can’t do this alone, I am asking for your help in fulfilling the profession’s responsibility to the public and upholding the reputation of the actuarial profession by being prepared for your moments of truth and making the right call.

Our dialogue about the public value of our profession will include many difficult questions such as:  What does the public — those individuals who may be relying on our work, but who are not principals paying for it perceive our responsibilities and reputation to be?
 
In other words, how does our professionalism deliver on our “brand promise” to the public?  How do we relate these responsibilities to our principals?
 
Answering these questions will not be easy; but thinking them through makes us stronger and improves the profession.
 
To Academy members, volunteers and leaders: Thank you for your efforts and for joining me in this challenge. Your membership and involvement demonstrate a commitment to the entire profession and recognize the Academy's essential role in protecting and preserving the public’s trust in what we do.  
 
Simply put, we could not fulfill our mission to serve the public and the U.S. profession without your hard work, dedication and invaluable contributions.
 
During the coming year, you can express your continuing support by convincing a member to volunteer for an Academy committee, task force or working group; or by convincing a volunteer to be a chair, vice-chair or board member.
 
Keep up the excellent work, take pride in your chosen profession, think, make the right call, and help make it fun to carry the Academy's mission forward.