Farewell Remarks of 2015-16 Academy President Tom Wildsmith at the American Academy of Actuaries Annual Meeting and Public Policy Forum in Washington, D.C.Wildsmith: Nothing of lasting importance is ever accomplished by just one person. This is true of the Academy. Our strength lies in our 19,000 members, and especially in our countless volunteers. I also want to recognize Academy staff. I have been struck by the remarkable dedication they show to a profession that is, in most cases, not their own. To all of our members, volunteers and staff—thank you.
November 3, 2016
November 3, 2016
I would also like to thank Mary Downs, for her support, encouragement—and patience. Breaking in a new president each year must be a challenge, but she handled it with grace and good humor. I also owe a special debt of gratitude to a small cadre of past presidents who were willing to serve as a kitchen cabinet, providing constant advice, support and perspective. Mary Miller, Tom Terry, Cecil Bykerk and Ken Hohman—thank you.
Earlier this year, I was talking with the president of another actuarial organization. He mentioned how his association’s mission and vision have evolved over time—and seemed surprised when I said that the Academy’s mission has not changed since it was first founded in 1965. The Board has tweaked the words over time to try and express that mission more clearly, but the mission itself has not changed.
Understanding why the Academy’s mission has not changed—while those of other actuarial organizations have—is the key to understanding what makes the Academy unique.
It’s not unusual for organizations to revise their missions over time. They do this to stay relevant in the face of market shifts, new technologies and social changes. But there are some organizations that—by the very nature of their mission—are of enduring relevance. They do not sell a product in the market, provide a technology that can be superseded, or ride the wave of a social fad. Instead, they play an essential role in government, society—or a profession. The Academy is one of those organizations.
So what is the Academy’s mission? The Academy was established in response to a very specific need. As one regulator put it at the time, “Our laws today demand no more proof of the actuary’s competence than did the laws of ancient Rome.” Anyone could present themselves to the public as an actuary, without regard to training, background, or expertise. Tens of millions of Americans depended on the work of actuaries, but actuaries were largely unregulated. That had to change, because it put the public at risk.
This wasn’t a problem that could be fixed by more—or even better—education and research. It was a different kind of need, and demanded a fundamentally different response. It was time to make the transition from an occupation—a technical specialty—to a true profession. U.S. actuaries faced a simple choice. We could regulate ourselves—setting our own standards of conduct, practice and qualification—or wait for the government to do it for us.
Leading actuaries had the vision to recognize the problem. They knew we had to build a profession that would ensure that practicing actuaries were both competent and committed to serving the public. They had the insight to recognize that it could be built on a flexible self-regulatory system, rather than relying on rigid and prescriptive government regulations. And they had the initiative to make it happen.
Rather than waiting on government to impose the types of standards and institutions that are required of other professions to protect the public, they decided we should do it ourselves—and created an independent body, the Academy, for that purpose.
The historical record is very clear on this. The existence of the Academy as a separate entity is not a historical accident. It is the result of a deliberate decision by a generation of leaders who understood that they couldn’t professionalize the actuarial community—or gain regulatory recognition for actuaries—by simply building a bigger and better, more consolidated education and research organization. It required something new and different.
That’s why they established the Academy as “a new organization which would be neither subordinate to, nor would have any authority over, any other actuarial professional organization.”
So, creating and maintaining the professionalism infrastructure for the U.S. actuarial community is at the heart of the Academy’s mission, and the primary reason it was established. Building this infrastructure was a slow, deliberate process—the Academy spent its first 25 years putting it into place. We now have a framework of mature institutions that allow us to be a truly self-governing profession. The Academy’s role in these standards and institutions isn’t a historical accident—it’s the reason the Academy exists.
The Academy is also the voice of the profession to the nation. This role flows naturally from our professionalism mission, and was part of the founders’ original vision. But it’s important that we understand what this role means. The Academy serves the public interest ... on behalf of the actuarial profession.
We aren’t a union or a trade association—we don’t represent the commercial interests of any particular industry, group of employers, or segment of the profession. When it comes to public policy, we are the means by which the U.S. profession serves the public. Is serving the public ultimately good for the profession? Yes! But it has to be real service-not industry lobbying dressed up with “public friendly” catchphrases.
The only way to maintain a reputation for being impartial, nonpartisan, and unbiased is to truly be impartial, nonpartisan, and unbiased. Washington is full of groups that claim the mantle of impartiality while actively lobbying on behalf of a special interest agenda—it’s also full of folks who are very skilled at seeing through that sort of thing.
Impartiality has to be real, or it won’t work.
Over the last year I’ve had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the U.S. actuarial profession. I have tried to speak clearly, faithfully, and compellingly—because the profession deserves no less. To preach, if you will, the gospel of professionalism. This has been the greatest honor of my career.
Even so, my voice is a small one—and my time in this role has been relatively short. But the Academy, the Academy has been speaking clearly, faithfully and compellingly on behalf of the U.S. profession for more than a half-century. Over those decades, it has developed a voice that is truly powerful—a voice that is heard in the halls of Congress, in federal agencies, and in state capitals and departments of insurance across the nation.
So why don’t we “update” the Academy’s mission? Because the Academy was created for a very specific reason—to provide the infrastructure, the standards and the disciplinary process necessary for the U.S. actuarial community to be recognized as a self-regulating profession. This mission will remain not just relevant, but vital, as long as there are actuaries practicing in the United States. It’s a role, and a need, that’s simply not going away.
That being the case, the only thing that could make the Academy irrelevant would be for us to lose sight of who we are, and why we’re here. Changing our mission—evolving it into something else—would not just endanger the relevance of the Academy, it would be a betrayal of the profession and the public the Academy was created to serve.
So we should be proud. We have a truly honorable mission—to ensure that U.S. actuaries remain a self-regulating profession worthy of the public’s trust.
We should be confident. We have a five-decade track record of excellence, a culture of objectivity and independence, and an unsurpassed reputation for nonpartisanship.
And we should be optimistic! Because building on that foundation, the best is yet to come.