Interview with Max M. Houck
Written by R. Sue Salem, PhD   

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How college-level accreditation standards
have helped shape forensic-science research and education

An exclusive Evidence Technology Magazine interview with
Max M. Houck
Director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University
Outgoing Chair of the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC)

This interview was conducted for Evidence Technology Magazine by R. Sue Salem, PhD, Forensic Chemical Science Coordinator, Chemistry Department, Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas. Salem can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

For the past six years, Max M. Houck has served as the chair of the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). In that time, the commission, sponsored by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, has worked to establish a set of accreditation standards for colleges and universities, thereby improving the quality of educational opportunities for future forensic scientists. In February, Houck steps down as chair of the Commission, having met the term limit defined by FEPAC’s bylaws. We asked Houck to talk about the progress that FEPAC has made in recent years.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: I understand FEPAC has been working to gain recognition from other accrediting organizations.

HOUCK: Yes. First of all, FEPAC is now a member of the Association of Specialized & Professional Accredit-ors. That recognition by an external entity in the accrediting industry was a good first step for us. We are now working toward recognition by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. And, we are slowly working toward recognition from the U.S. Department of Education. That is a much more complicated process; it simply takes longer.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Part of that process involves establishing a federal link between a federal agency and the accredited institutions. Has FEPAC established such a link?

HOUCK: Yes, we do have a federal funding link through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which provided money through the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ Forensic Sciences Foundation for
student research scholarships.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do you think the U.S. Department of Educa-tion will recognize FEPAC accreditation soon?

HOUCK: Well, obviously, that is up to them. I think that our track record, and the recognition that FEPAC has received from other entities, and the success that FEPAC has had as an accrediting body will lead us toward a positive review by the U.S. Department of Education.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do you think some funding agencies may be slower to move to support forensic science because it is perceived as an applied science rather than a fundamental science?

HOUCK: First, consider this: The idea of a dichotomy between fundamental and applied science was developed by Vannevar Bush after World War II to highlight, organize, and strengthen science research in the United States in order to capitalize on the post-war boom. That dichotomy between fundamental and applied science is arbitrary. There is a great book by Donald E. Stokes, Pasteur’s Quadrant. He makes a very good argument why that dichotomy no longer holds true for science. So, I do not think forensic science is an applied science, simply because we look at things nobody else does in a way nobody else does. Also, forensic science looks at certain processes—natural and manufactured—that are largely unstudied: decomposition or tool marks, for example. I think the perception certainly exists that forensic science is an applied science, but we need to get past that notion in order for forensic science and forensic-science education to get where it needs to be.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: In your March-April 2006 interview with Evidence Technology Magazine you predicted that as a result of FEPAC, local law-enforcement agencies and crime laboratories would see an increase in the quality of job applicants. Have you seen this happen? Is there data to support that in the last four years or so?

HOUCK: I think I have seen that, but most of the data are anecdotal. It seems that laboratory directors are seeing shorter training times and faster training to competency on casework. And I think we will begin to see job postings saying things such as, “For entry-level positions, graduates from FEPAC-accredited programs are preferred.” I know a couple crime laboratories that tried to get that requirement through their human-resources departments.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: In the past four years or so, have more internships, short courses, or research opportunities been opening up for students in forensic-science programs at colleges and universities?

HOUCK: I do not know if there are more internships or short courses. I think there is still the same potential that has always been there. You know there are some laboratories that cannot or will not take interns. But I believe that the ones that do take interns are using them effectively and looking at them seriously as job candidates.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: How about research opportunities?

HOUCK: In terms of research opportunities, I think there are many, many more research opportunities available today, some of which are the research grants for FEPAC students from the Forensic Sciences Foundation. That is just one example.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do students at FEPAC-accredited universities have the option of applying for grants—and do their research advisors have that option?

HOUCK: The grant actually goes to the student. It is for research, and some portion of it can be used for travel to a conference to present the results of their research. It is provided through the Forensic Sciences Foundation and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and the grant is open to students in FEPAC-accredited programs.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: You mentioned in the 2006 interview with Evidence Technology Magazine that West Virginia University was “offering courses that provide…a mini-MBA for laboratory supervisors and directors through the College of Business and Economics.” Has that been well-received by the crime lab directors?

HOUCK: Absolutely. In fact, the first three times we offered the program, it was funded by an award from the National Institute of Justice. That program is now self-sustaining, and laboratory directors are signing up and paying for the course directly. In fact, we have done several open enrollments and we have a specialized program coming up tailored for an entire state forensic-laboratory system. So we can do either the open enrollment or, if a laboratory system gets a bunch of new people and wants them all to be trained together, we can accommodate that as well. The college is now in discussion about the possibility of adding a forensic component to our online MBA.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: That sounds like something that is needed.

HOUCK: Very much so. I always argue that we have been educated and trained as scientists, but that is a completely different skill set from what is needed to be a supervisor, a manager, or a leader.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do you see any evidence of increasing cooperation between the academicians and the forensic scientists?

HOUCK: I do, and that cooperation is coming through some expected venues as well as some unexpected venues. Typical venues include collaboration on research, projects that involve interpretation issues and that sort of thing. For an example, all you need to do is to look at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ annual meeting program to see that it gets a little more full every year. Overall, there are more papers being presented and more research being done. I think that is also in part due to the number of students coming out of these accredited programs and doing research. They have to do research for their advanced degree and, because that is one of the requirements for FEPAC accreditation, they are collaborating with operational laboratories.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: In what unexpected venues do you see cooperation between academicians and forensic scientists?

HOUCK: Here’s one example: The National Institute of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have a working group on human factors in latent fingerprint work. And on that committee, you have forensic practitioners; you have legal experts; and you have forensic scientists and non-forensic scientists—all working together and collaborating to look at this area of study. I think you are going to see even more collaboration. I think we have helped increase this collaboration, and you are going to be able to see the results of that very soon.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do you foresee cooperation to the point that academicians and forensic scientists are team-teaching courses at the
universities?

HOUCK: There already are courses being team-taught by forensic scientists and academicians. I know that is happening at many institutions.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Can you name one?

HOUCK: Most of the FEPAC institutions have a setup much like that where different aspects of the course are taught by practitioners and academicians. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Cedar Crest College, Eastern Kentucky University, West Virginia University… It is happening at most of the FEPAC institutions as well as others. I think the key factor there is that the laboratory is recognizing the value of having their personnel interact in academia.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Thank you for your time.

Dr. Max M. Houck is the Director of the Forensic Science Initiative, a program that develops resources and professional training for forensic professionals. Houck is also Director of Forensic Business Development at West Virginia University College of Business and Economics. He has authored and edited numerous books, including the forensic science textbook, Fundamentals of Forensic Science with Dr. Jay Siegel. Houck served as the Chairman of the Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission from 2005-2011. Houck is founding co-editor of Forensic Science Policy and Management. His scholarly work has been published and presented internationally; he also has appeared on The New Detectives, Forensic Files, National Geographic, and E! Entertainment Television. He has two degrees in anthropology from Michigan State University and received his PhD with honors from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Houck has received awards from the FBI Laboratory, ASTM International, and most recently the Mary Cowan Award for Service by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, among other professional organizations. E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it • Phone: 304-293-7538

 
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