Contemplating the Rainbow Lotus of Ethical Competency


Contemplating the Rainbow Lotus of Ethical Competency
Jonathan O’Brien, California State University Long Beach

Since January 2016, I have had the pleasure of co-chairing an ACPA/NASPA Joint Task Force, comprised of an amazing group of educators, charged with revising and expanding a set of rubrics aligned with the new professional competency areas (ACPA & NASPA, 2015). These will be helpful tools for individual self-assessment, professional development frameworks, and conference planning.

In one meeting, our discussion turned to how individual competencies tend to intersect as one’s experience increases. Granted, years of experience do not correlate precisely to increases in professional competency, but common sense says there’s a close connection. Actually, this was explained in the introduction to the revised competencies (ACPA & NASPA, 2015, p. 9) and accompanied by a Venn-diagram of ten ovals exploding outward from a center point like individual petals on a giant, psychedelic flower. I started (affectionately) calling this figure the rainbow lotus.

Someone suggested we should color code the rubrics to show how competencies intersect, like they do in the rainbow lotus. Good idea we thought, but the intersections are so subjective and too complicated to explain without some tricky, 3-D printing. Even so, as a faculty member in a preparation program, I remained interested in understanding how competencies intersect as experience increases. The idea seems obvious on its face; yet, it’s unclear what “higher order synthesis and complexity” (p. 9) looks like in practice. Knowing more about these intersections could help educators to design authentic approaches to teaching competencies in professional development, supervision, and graduate curricula.

Ethical Competency is Fundamental
Since this is a column about ethics, I consider here how the other competency areas intersect with the Personal and Ethical Foundations (PEF), which involves the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to develop and maintain integrity in one’s life and work; this includes thoughtful development, critique, and adherence to a holistic and comprehensive standard of ethics and commitment to one’s own wellness and growth. Personal and ethical foundations are aligned because integrity has an internal locus informed by a combination of external ethical guidelines, an internal voice of care, and our own lived experiences. Our personal and ethical foundations grow through a process of curiosity, reflection, and self-authorship. (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 12)

I have already expressed concerns about the present version of this competency (O’Brien, 2016), so here I turn to reviving the idea that ethics is “an integral component of all the competency areas” (ACPA & NASPA, 2010, p. 12), despite the absence of this phrase in the revision. In a field like student affairs, without licensure or credentialing, it’s critical that we consistently emphasize a professional’s moral responsibility to know, internalize, and exhibit competencies and ethical standards. To belabor the metaphor, ethics is the stem that supports the rainbow lotus, not the mere petal it presently occupies.

Ethical Intersections in Practice
To pursue my interest in this idea, I had two goals: (1) to know more about how PEF intersected with the other nine competency areas, and (2) to identify any patterns in the intersections related to developmental level.

To do this, I used existing qualitative data I collected for an on-going study. The sample is a diverse group of Student Affairs professionals (n=49) representing a variety of institutions, job functions, and positions. Each was asked to share a recent incident that exemplified their best practice in a professional situation. I decided to use their years of professional experience as a proxy for developmental level: foundational, 0-5 years; intermediate, 6-14 years; and, advanced, 15 or more years. I know that time in the field isn’t the only factor that impacts one’s competency; but, for this purpose, it seems to be a reasonable indicator.

A research assistant and I individually coded each incident multiple times, guided by definitions of the competency areas (ACPA & NASPA, 2015). After reconciling our coding, we categorized incidents by participants’ years of experience. Finally, we sorted them into one of four categories that we discovered using inductive analysis procedures: influence & authority, diversity issues, misconduct, and student crisis. I present these and other observations below.

The table below displays competency areas intersecting with PEF the most, listed by incident categories, in ascending order of the predominant experience level(s) of participants in the category. Although PEF intersected with all ten competency areas, three did not make this list: Assessment, Evaluation and Research (AER), Technology (TECH), and Values, Philosophy and History (VPH). I’ll discuss these after I exhibit the competency intersections data.

Incident Category & Experience Level Competencies Intersecting with Personal & Ethical Foundations (PEF) Influence & authority Foundational · Leadership (LEAD) · Law, Policy & Governance (LPG) · Organization & Human Resources (OHR) Diversity issues Intermediate · Social Justice & Inclusion (SJI) · Organization & Human Resources (OHR) · Student Learning & Development (SLD) Misconduct Intermediate Advanced · Law, Policy & Governance (LPG) · Organization & Human Resources (OHR) Student crisis Advanced · Advising & Supporting (AS) · Law, Policy & Governance (LPG) · Student Learning & Development (SLD) · Social Justice & Inclusion (SJI)

Each incident category represented a point of intersection among PEF and a cluster of other competencies. I also found that foundational and advanced level participants dominated two categories more than others. Specifically, foundational participants disproportionately reported incidents in the influence & authority category, as did advanced participants in the student crisis category. Data from all four categories are presented below.

Influence and Authority
These incidents (n=24) involved becoming a skilled manager, making difficult decisions, and doing the right thing. Foundational participants were over-represented in this category in which LEAD was the core competency, supported by LPG and OHR. For example, Britt, a recent graduate and new Hall Director, objected to a policy requiring her to “store illegal drugs in my office safe until the disciplinary hearing.” She recalled when she voiced her objection:
My boss is so intimidating and I was very quiet in meetings. I finally brought it up and she was so offended. She shouted, ‘Listen, I have already told you what you’re doing. You need to stop!’ She just shut me down.

Other incidents in this category involved participants at intermediate and advanced levels exerting authority and advancing their positions amid opposition from colleagues.

Diversity Issues
These incidents (n=9) included managing diverse workplaces and supporting the needs of a diverse student body. SJI was the primary competency, but OHR was evident in incidents involving professional staff and SLD was only salient when students were the focus. The category was dominated by intermediate level participants, followed by advanced and foundational. Carlos, founding director of his campus’ LGBTQ center, “felt stabbed in the back” when students
used social media to bad-mouth me for ignoring trans issues. I’m a one-person office with limited resources, so this attack hit me really hard. I’d advocated on their behalf to administration in the past and they totally ignored that.
In other incidents, participants intervened in hiring decisions to diversify their staff, responded to bias incidents, and supported the actions of student protesters.

These incidents (n=26) involved responding to inappropriate behavior of students and colleagues. Participants were typically advanced, some were intermediate, and only one was foundational. LPG and OHR were strongly connected in this category. Yesenia was conflicted about how to respond to a staff member who was intimidating others with a voodoo doll on his desk:

I was trying to be respectful of his beliefs but, at the same time, be a good manager and address a toxic work environment. The doll has a religious affiliation, so that was my primary concern; but it is still an item that represents violence and hate.

Other participants in this category responded to unethical supervisors and disruptive behavior or bullying by students or colleagues.

Student Crisis
These incidents (n=15) included rapid response, case management or altering protocols to support a student. A&S was central to this category, supported closely by LPG, SLD, and SJI. Advanced participants were most likely to report these incidents and none were reported by entry-level participants. For example, when Veneshia was the first person to encounter a freshman who was “beaten and disowned” for coming out as gay, she explained

I immediately contacted our student advocacy department to set him up with services. I also knew the director of financial aid, so I contacted her to arrange for some help from our LGBT alumni scholarship fund. I also fast-tracked his application for the African American themed [residence hall] so he had a place to stay.

Incidents in this category also included creative interpretation of policy and hearing students’ petitions for special consideration or appeals to disciplinary actions.

PEF Interactions with Other Competencies
So, what about AER, TECH, and VPH? Despite their limited intersections with PEF, there is no doubt that professionalism demands that we handle data and use technology ethically and recognize how the values and history of student affairs impact our work. I have some thoughts.

AER and TECH were reported in few incidents (n=2), when research was used to justify controversial budget or reorganization decisions. The scarcity of observations may be attributed to data collection. Typical incident narratives were about intense, personal struggles or deeply moving interpersonal interactions. It’s possible that stories about ethical use of technology or responsible data management were not memorable or compelling enough for participants to share in an interview setting. If asked directly about these instrumental competencies, it is likely participants would have had something to say.

Intersections between PEF and VPH were often hidden in plain sight. Specifically, most participants were reconciling their personal beliefs and goals (PEF; LEAD) with institutional goals and regulations (OHR; LPG). Many had advanced in their career to a point where principles of student affairs (VPH) had become so internalized that they did not distinguish between their values and those of the profession. Entry-level participants felt pressure to downplay the values and ideals they were taught; as one participant said, “I was unlearning everything I learned in grad school. You learn how to do everything right and then you start [working at] your institution and you learn how to do everything their way.” From my perspective as researcher, participants’ actions (at least implicitly) mirrored traditions and values of the profession, but it was unclear if they were motivated by VPH, their moral convictions, or both. I could have asked them directly.

My first goal was to know which competency areas intersected with PEF the most. Here’s what I found:

  • LPG and OHR intersected with PEF most often. At least one of these two was observed in each incident category and across all experience levels.
  • Other intersections with PEF were context-specific. For example, SLD only surfaced when students were the focus. Likewise, SJI was prominent in diversity issues and in student crises, when participants advocated for vulnerable or troubled students.

My second goal was to see if years of experience had any influence on how PEF intersected with other competencies.

  • LEAD was central to establishing authority at the foundational level. In their first years on the job, participants were striving to do the right thing, assert their views, and adapt to the ethical culture of a new institution.
  • Competence was widely dispersed at the intermediate level. Participants were fully immersed in their careers and capable of synthesizing new knowledge with multiple skills to perform their duties in response to a variety of incidents.
  • A&S was central to helping students in crisis at the advanced level. Seasoned professionals actively intervened to reduce harm and tapped into their robust support networks to benefit students.

These points suggest that, at all experience levels, the core of ethical competency in student affairs is working with people and organizations, creating and interpreting policies, and fulfilling obligations as a member of an institution (PEF; LPG; OHR). Beyond this, context and developmental level determines the particular intersections of instrumental (TECH; AER), interpersonal (A&S; LEAD; SJI), and specialized knowledge (SLD; VPH) competencies needed to respond effectively.

The results suggest new avenues for educators and supervisors who wish to build ethical capacity in student affairs preparation program candidates and staff members. Here are some recommendations:

  • Assess ethical intersections and identify areas for development. Rubrics can help to identify ethical intersections among your advanced level competencies. Use your knowledge of these complex strengths to stimulate ethical development of other, foundational and intermediate level competencies.
  • Be explicit about ethical uses of technology. Few participants mentioned this new competency area; nonetheless, ethical use of technology (e.g., access, security, confidentiality, appropriate boundaries, etc.) is a critical proficiency that requires sustained attention and continuous learning.
  • Reflect on the relationship between personal and professional values. Many of the abstract concepts and history learned in graduate school remain relevant. Consider how your ethical foundations align with the customs and ideals that you value most about our field. Be a role model for new professionals and colleagues.

Discussion Questions
Building on the findings and implications reported above, I conclude with questions for further learning and application.

  • Where would you position ethical competency relative to the other nine competencies and various responsibilities of student affairs professionals? Why?
  • Recall a recent incident in which you faced an ethical dilemma or difficult challenge. Which competencies came together in this situation? How and why?
  • What is your understanding of the values, philosophy, and history of student affairs? How do they align with your personal ethics and beliefs? How do they differ?


  • ACPA – College Student Educators International & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (2015). Professional competency areas for Student Affairs educators. Washington, DC: Author.
  • ACPA – College Student Educators Interantional & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (2010). Professional competency areas for Student Affairs practitioners. Washington, DC: Author.
  • O’Brien, J. (2016). Ethical perspectives on the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies. Developments, 13(4), 39-43.

About the Author
Jonathan O’Brien is assistant professor of educational leadership and coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program at California State University, Long Beach. He teaches law and ethics and qualitative research methods. Jonathan has worked at public and private universities in Missouri, Kentucky, and California. His consulting and scholarship focus on assisting students in personal crisis and promoting professional conduct in student affairs practice.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jonathan O’Brien.

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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