Inclusive Excellence: What’s Missing


Inclusive Excellence: What’s Missing

Matt Cabrera
California State University, Long Beach


Since my undergraduate years, I have seen and believed that the ideas of diversity and inclusion have been the foci of colleges and universities. More recently, as a student affairs professional, I have been pleased to see these ideas packaged into what is now called “Inclusive Excellence”, a concept that has come to be woven into the work of our many professional associations. It is refreshing to also see many campuses begin to re-envision their mission, purpose, and core values with more intentional efforts towards inclusive excellence.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) (Williams, Berger, & McClendon, 2005) defines inclusive excellence as a compilation of four primary foci: student intellectual and social development; development and implementation of resources to enhance student learning; attention to cultural differences students bring to campuses and that enhance the academic experience; development of a welcoming community engaging all diversity in the service of students and learning (p. vi). Williams et al. (2005) also state that inclusive excellence is “where educational excellence cannot be envisioned, discussed, or enacted without close attention paid to inclusion” (p. 29).

However, I see a hole in our work around inclusive excellence, a hole that has continued to be overlooked. This hole is the absence of discussions about the role of spirituality and religion into the rhetoric of inclusive excellence. In the discourse of inclusive excellence, the terms diversity, culture, and inclusion do not seem to include spirituality and religion. Mutakabbir and Nuriddin (2016) have noted that the term “diversity” is a higher education buzzword but “primarily conjures dialogue on race, gender, or LGBTQ issues” (p. xii). Additionally, the four primary elements in the definition of inclusive excellence, according to AACU (Williams et al., 2005), include a list of what to include in the broad category of cultural difference. More specifically, the term “cultural differences” includes “race/ethnicity (e.g. Latino, Caucasian, Asian/Pacific Islander, African American, American Indian), class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, first language, physical and learning ability, and learning styles” (Williams et al., 2005, vi). However, the list does not include spirituality and religion. AACU (Williams et al., 2005) has stated that there will be a reworking of inclusive excellence “as campus leaders juxtapose the definition against institutional mission, policies, and practices” (p. vi). It seems that this juxtaposing and reworking of inclusive excellence is beginning to take place as AACU (2017) and other institutions are starting to include religion as part of their lists regarding inclusive excellence work. Still, when multicultural or diversity issues are discussed on campus, the focus is usually on race, gender, or sexual orientation. (Mutakabbir & Nuriddin, 2016).

The ethical considerations of our profession call us to serve all students and to address all student needs. Not addressing spirituality and religion in higher education flows against our roles as ethical practitioners/leaders and as educators focused on developing students for successful personal and professional lives, which includes developing their ability to be ethical leaders themselves. How are we being ethical practitioners if we neglect to address and meet the needs of students coming from various religious/spiritual lenses and expose students to the worldviews of religion and spirituality? Also, as educators, we strive to prepare and develop students to become successful in their personal and professional lives. Our students are and will face ethical dilemmas in their lives. It is our hope as educators to prepare and develop our students to become ethical leaders. Providing opportunities for students to explore spirituality and religion will assist in their self-understanding (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm, 2011). Astin, Astin, and Lindolm (2011) pose a relevant question: “If students lack self-understanding – the capacity to see themselves clearly and honestly and to understand why they feel and act as they do – then how can we expect them to become responsible parents, professionals, and citizens?” (p. 2). Exploration of religion and spirituality can facilitate such self-understanding.

In the following sections, I will provide some ideas on the importance of including spirituality and religion in the discourse of inclusive excellence and suggestions on how to address spirituality and religion on your institutions.

Terms and Definitions  

I would like to take a moment to provide some definitions on relevant terms that have historically been used interchangeably and sometimes difficult to define. I focus this article on the ideas of religion and spirituality. But what do these terms mean and how are they different from one another?

Religion is probably the easiest to explain and is simply the beliefs and practices of an organized established denominational institution (Frame, 2003; Stamm, 2006). Spirituality, on the other hand, can be difficult to find agreement among various authors and researchers. However, for the purposes of this article, we will use the definition used in Astin, Astin, and Lindholm’s (2011) seven-year longitudinal study on spirituality in higher education. Spirituality, as they define it, is a multifaceted concept that encompasses and involves our inner lives, affective experiences, the values that we hold important to our lives, our sense of who we are, where we come from, our beliefs of why we exist, our life meaning, our life purpose, our sense of connectedness to others and to the world. Astin et al. (2011) also note that spiritual persons manifest personal qualities such as love, compassion, and equanimity.

The Importance of Spirituality and Religion

Why should we even include spirituality and religion into the discourse of inclusive excellence? According to Williams (2006), real inclusive excellence needs to be measured by how well the campus as a whole meets the “needs of all students, regardless of socioeconomic, racial, gender, or other characteristics” (p. 17). Religion and spirituality are identities or characteristics that are part of the student body that institutions serve. The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) indicates that of the 20,436 first-term students in a 2015 cohort from 122 participating institutions (a mixture of public and private institutions), 41% identify as “both religious and spiritual,” 26% identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” 22% identify as “neither religious nor spiritual,” and 11% identify as “religious but not spiritual” (Mayhew, Rockenbach, Correia, Crandall, & Lo, 2016). Thus, there are a sizeable percentage of students on our campuses for whom religion and/or spirituality play an important role in their identity and their college experience.

Student development, intercultural competencies, and global citizenship have also been desired outcomes of inclusive excellence (Whitehead, 2015; Williams et al., 2005). Various researchers have indicated the attainment of many of the same desired outcomes when spirituality is addressed during a student’s collegiate years. More specifically, improved self-esteem, civic responsibility, empathy, cultural awareness, life satisfaction, commitment, community service, and self-knowledge are positively affected when spirituality is addressed (Astin et al., 2011; Geroy, 2005; Sikula & Sikula, 2005; Hoppe, 2005; Capeheart-Meningall, 2005).

Additionally, there is a link between spirituality and mental health. Astin et al. (2011) reveal the negative correlation between a student’s psychological well-being and the increased demands of college/academic work paired with the stress of finding life balance. Also, the American College Health Association (2017) cited depression and anxiety as among the top obstacles to academic performance. Astin et al. (2011), however, indicate that psychological well-being is positively affected through a student’s spiritual growth. I hope that through this short discussion, we can start to see the importance of including spirituality and religion into the conversion of inclusive excellence. How then might institutions and higher education professionals include spirituality and religion into their focus of inclusive excellence?

Approaches on How to Address and Support Spirituality and Religion

Step 1: Know Your Students

In 2015, AACU published a document entitled “Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning.” Part One of this document provides a list of guiding questions for higher education leaders to ask as part of their foundational work towards inclusive excellence at their campuses. The first question in Part One of this document is to know who your students are and will be. This is a critical step in also addressing spirituality and religion into a campus’ commitment towards Inclusive Excellence. Aside from the age, ethnicity, gender, and other typical data points that are collected about students through departments of institutional research, what other data points are missing to truly know who students are at our institutions? As already stated, a majority of students nationally are already identifying with specific religious and/or spiritual traditions. Are questions asked about their religious/spirituality background and/or viewpoints? Are questions asked about their dietary needs, which may be part of their religious/spirituality adherence?

In addition to the students who affiliate with traditional forms of religion and spirituality (i.e. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc.), it is also important to acknowledge that there may be another group of students on your campus that are part of an unaffiliated group known as the “nones” or the “unaffiliated millennials.” The “nones” or “unaffiliated millenials” refer to persons who identify as atheist, agnostic, those who state that their “religion is nothing in particular” (Lipka, 2015, p.1), or those who “are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality” (Thurston & ter Kuile, 2016, p. 4). It is important to be aware of this other group of students to avoid marginalizing them when addressing spirituality and religion for the common groupings of students who specifically affiliate with a religious and/or spiritual tradition. Knowing and understanding your campus community is an important first step.

Step 2: Do Additional Research and Develop a Framework

The next step is to develop a framework based on the theory and research to better serve your students and the campus community. In my own research focused on addressing spirituality in public higher education, I used the five measures of spirituality developed by Astin et al. (2011) as my theoretical framework. Through their seven-year longitudinal study, Astin et al. (2011) identified the following five measures of spirituality as five aspects of students’ spirituality – Spiritual Quest, Equanimity, Ethic of Care, Charitable Involvement, and Ecumenical Worldview. For the purposes of this conversation on inclusive excellence, I focus on the measures of Ecumenical Worldview and Spiritual Quest.

Ecumenical Worldview focuses on understanding other countries, cultures, and different religions, developing a strong connection to others, belief in the goodness of others, acceptance of others for who they are, and an understanding that life is interconnected (Astin et al., 2011). Spiritual Quest focuses on the processes of searching for meaning and purpose, attaining inner harmony, and developing a meaningful philosophy of life (Astin et al., 2011).

Through my research, I found at least three viable options that addressed these aspects of spirituality and could be utilized in both public and private institutions – a reflection room, an interfaith center, and student organizations. The reflection room that I studied was a room within the university’s student union, which was open to all persons for the purposes of reflection, meditation, prayer, and/or silence. The interfaith center was a non-proselytizing space that was managed by volunteers from local religious institutions, including Hillel (Jewish community), African Methodist Episcopalian, and the Cooperative Protestant Campus Ministry (CPCM), which represents Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Church of the Brethren. The interfaith center was open to all students from different faith, religious, and spiritual traditions. With regard to student organizations, the university I studied had over 200 student organizations. Of the 200, approximate 30 student organizations had a focus on a specific religion, faith, or spiritual tradition.

Step 3: Figure Out Options

The next step is to identify options to address spirituality at your campus. The following sections provide detail from my research as to how a reflection room, interfaith center, and student organizations can be vehicles for campuses to address spirituality and religion.

Reflection Room.

The reflection room examined in my study was a resource advocated for by students from various backgrounds and supported by the board of trustees of the student union that it occupied. As stated on the sign outside the reflection room, the room was designed as a space for individuals looking for a quiet space for their individual purposes. My interviewees all benefited in many ways from their use of this reflection room. With regard to developing an Ecumenical Worldview, one participant (a Muslim) stated that she had met a number of other students through the reflection room: “I’ve met a lot of people in [the reflection room]. It’s interesting. Not just Muslims, too, non-Muslims. Christians and others come to pray.”

As a vehicle for Spiritual Quest, the reflection room became a place for this student and others to develop a connection with other Muslim students and the desire to become a better person. Specifically she stated: “[Praying] helps me. Just reminding me, you know, being with [other Muslims]. It makes me want to become better and the reflection room helps me go and pray.” Another student summarized the importance of the reflection room as “a place to reflect. It’s a place to grow, it’s a space to, you know, practice whatever it is, you know, you’re practicing. So yeah it’s important.”

Interfaith Center.

Interfaith Centers vary from institution to institution. For some, the Interfaith Center or interfaith programs are integrated and funded through the institution; such an approach is more likely at private institutions. Other institutions house Interfaith Centers through off-campus entities that pay rent for the use of university space. The Interfaith Center in my study reflected the latter approach, housed clergy from various traditions, and was a space for various religious student organizations to utilize. Agreements of Interfaith Center users and signage at the Interfaith Center clearly stated that the space was a non-proselytizing space for the purposes of spiritual exploration.

One student explained that her participation in the Interfaith Center helped to open the bubble that she was in. Reflecting on her experiences before using the Interfaith Center, she stated, “I was…in this bubble of being Catholic, and I wasn’t experiencing or encountering people who were of different faiths.” An Interfaith Center staff member explained the variety of students served through the center: “Some are strong in faith, some are searching, some are non-believers, some are seeking a family atmosphere.” This staff member hoped that the Interfaith Center would help each student “grow spiritually, grow in understanding of those who are different from themselves, encounter and build trust in those who offer caring interests.”

Student Organizations.

Student organizations can be seen as one of the most impactful ways students can find community and support from their peers in addition to self-development. All campuses house a long list of student organizations with eclectic varieties, including political, academic, career, social, and cultural. In my research, participants benefited greatly from the religious student organizations of which they were a part. One student explained that through his religious student organization he learned: “how to talk to people. Knowing how to be sensitive to their situation. Understanding, knowing how to take care of a person, and …. just even practical human skills like you know.”

Talking about her Muslim student organization, another participant stated:  “You don’t have to be a Muslim. We don’t just like preach the religion. We do fun things.” One specific activity that this Muslim student organization organized is the annual Islam Awareness Week, which is a week of events that was focused on increasing the visibility and understanding of the Muslim community. From this activity, the Muslim student organization members worked together to provide the campus community opportunities to learn more about the Muslim faith. This came about through students tabling on campus and answering questions about Islam and also hosting special presentations, such as a lecture on the history of Muslims in the U.S.

I hope that the three examples provided new ideas for addressing spirituality and religion at your campuses. There are many innovative options that other campuses are beginning to implement. Also, your campus might already be offering opportunities that just need to be expanded and/or institutionalized.


Addressing spirituality and religion with students during their collegiate years provides many positive benefits to the development of a student’s life, including community building, intercultural competencies, ethics, care for others, and mental health (American College Health Association, 2017; Astin et al., 2011; Capeheart-Meningall, 2005; Hoppe, 2005; Geroy, 2005; Sikula & Sikula, 2005). With regard to ethical considerations, addressing spirituality and religion helps to fulfill our roles as educators who serve all students and all their needs. Additionally, addressing and exposing students to spirituality and religion affects their personal and professional development that influences their own ethical viewpoints. Take for example three of the spiritual measures proposed by Astin et al. (2011): Ethic of Care, Ecumenical Worldview, and Charitable Involvement which are not only positively correlated with each other but also stress a sense of caring about and for others and discovering a sense of connectedness with others. Addressing spirituality and religion in our campuses (public or private) need not be complicated. This work might already be happening on your campuses – subtly or explicitly. Focusing on options that address spirituality and religion adds to the engaging and developing movement of inclusive excellence. How well is your campus meeting the holistic needs of all your students, which includes all the intersections of identities that they bring with and that which they are seeking to develop?

Reflection Questions

  1. As educators, what are our ethical obligations to support and engage students coming from all backgrounds (including religious, spiritual, secular, atheist, agnostic, etc.) and to expose students to all worldviews (including religious, spiritual, secular, atheist, agnostic, etc.)?
  2. How well do those on your campus know students’ spiritual and religious characteristics and needs?
  3. What already exists at your institutions related to spirituality and religion for students, and how could you make it more transparent and connected to inclusive excellence?
  4. What does not exist at your institutions related to spirituality and religion for students?
  5. Who on campus do you need to connect with to make spirituality and religion a part of your institution’s focus on inclusive excellence?
  6. Are there students, faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues already engaging in the research of spirituality and religion? What advice or help can they provide?


American College Health Association (2017). American College Health Association-National college health assessment II: Reference group executive summary Fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2015). Committing to equity and inclusive excellence: A campus guide for self-study and planning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2017). Making excellence inclusive. Retrieved from:

Astin, A.W., Astin, H.S., & Lindholm, J.A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ inner lives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Capeheart-Meningall, J. (2005). Role of spirituality and spiritual development instudent life outside the classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 31 – 36.

Frame, M. W. (2003). Integrating religion and spirituality into counseling: A comprehensive approach. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole – Thomson Learning.

Geroy, G. D. (2005). Preparing students for spirituality in the workplace. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 67-74.

Hoppe, S. L. (2005). Spirituality and leadership. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 83 – 92.

Lipka, M. (May 13, 2015). A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones.’
Retrieved from:

Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Correia, B. P., Crandall, R. E., Lo, M. A., & Associates. (2016). Emerging interfaith trends: What college students are saying about religion in 2016. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.

Mutakabbir, Y. T., & Nuriddin, T. A. (2016). Religious minority students in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sikula, A. & Sikula, A. (2005). Spirituality and service learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 31 – 36.

Stamm, L. (2006). The dynamics of spirituality and the religious experience. In A. W. Chickering, J. C. Dalton, & L. Stamm (Eds.), Encouraging authenticity and spirituality in higher education (pp. 37 – 65). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Thurston, A. & ter Kuile, C. (2016). How we gather. Retrieved from:

Whitehead, D. M. (2015). Global learning: Key to making excellence inclusive. Liberal Education101(3), n3.

Williams, D. A. (2006). Inclusive excellence: UConn builds capacity for diversity and  change. Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education21(1), 17-19.

Williams, D. A., Berger, J. B., & McLendon, S. A. (2005). Toward a model of inclusive excellence and change in postsecondary institutions. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

About the Author

Dr. Matt Cabrera is an assistant director for the Office of Student Life and Development and coordinates the Leadership Academy program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Dr. Cabrera is also serving as a post-doc fellow for the Educational Leadership Department at CSULB. He has co-taught Organizational Management for the M.S. Student Development in Higher Education program and has taught Ethnic Studies for the CSULB/LBUSD joint program for high school students.

Please e-mail inquiries to Matt Cabrera.


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

Ethics and the University: Connecting the Dots

Ethics and the University: Connecting the Dots

Anne M. Hornak
Central Michigan University

For this column I had the great pleasure of interviewing Father James Keenan (Jim). Father Jim is an ordained Jesuit Priest and Canisius Professor Director of The Jesuit Institute at Boston College. Additionally, he holds faculty status in the Theology Department at Boston College. I was first introduced to Father Jim when I read his book, University Ethics: How Colleges can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Keenan, 2015). The book offers discussion about the role of ethics in higher education and very much serves as a call to the higher education and student affairs communities that we need to be doing more to focus on ethics in our work, from both a practical and scholarly perspective.

Anne: Much of your work has been focused on ethics and theology framed within the church. What was the catalyst for the university ethics book?

Father Jim: Honestly, it was the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. I live in Boston and it was in the newspaper every day for 17 months. We were living the scandal in our lives and the newspaper every day and we could not escape it. I am an ethicist and priest and began asking certain questions.  I started to ask questions about how the church, as an institution, practices ethics. I was concerned with the scandals impact on the church as an institution; the issue was not just about the individuals within the church, i.e. the priests involved, but the ethics within the church as an institution. I was concerned with the professional harm to all those involved and those affiliated with the church.

In 2002-03, I was in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University teaching for the summer. All of the American Cardinals were summoned by the Pope to address the issues happening in the United States with the scandal. Well, the media found out that I was in Rome and was from Boston. A reporter thought that interviewing a Jesuit Priest affiliated with Boston, teaching ethics in Rome, was worthy of an interview and discussion. I remember clearly walking on a rooftop piazza with the reporter and she asked me if I was afraid.  I said, I was afraid. She then asked why I was doing what I was doing? I said, “I am a Priest teaching ethics in Boston; I need to speak out.” It comes with the territory of my work and affiliation with the church. This is about more than the scandal but my profession and the greater good of the church in the modern day.

We need to address the issues; the summons to ask tough questions about the sex abuse scandal was larger and dealt with what is going on socially all around us. As higher education professionals we are all employees within an institution and have an interest in the success and ethics of the institution. If you do not that is a big problem. It is a big problem if you do not care about the success and ethics of the institution in which you work.  It was natural to move from the church as a teaching institution for ethics to the university as a teaching institution for ethics. The news media focused on church scandal, but what is going on at the universities is just as problematic.

My focus on ethics at the university really came to life in my living community. I live in a community with 5-6 other priests, and 4 are also ethicists. One day I told them I had a hunch that we should pay attention to ethics and the university. From that statement each morning I would come down for breakfast and they would say, “you have to read this,” “you have to read this.” It was truly one scandal after another. My colleagues just kept egging me to truly identify and explore these issues. I had a lot of support because we had survived the sex scandal in our own institution.


Some people believe ethics is boring. However, you need to be aware; very aware. Being in Boston in the height of the scandal, in the church as a teaching institution, and personally as a priest, I had a responsibility. I had the ethical responsibility to write the book due in part to my position.  Being in Boston in the height of the scandal coupled with the fact our church was a teaching institution, I felt compelled to attempt to impact the situation.  I had a responsibility to direct discussion to the university and the focus on what is going on at the university. For example, professionals working in development and advancement know more about ethics because they got caught taking gifts they never should have.

Think about who we are hiring to be vice presidents at our universities. More and more they are coming from business and industry. They do not come into the university and take an ethics course, nor do many understand higher education as an organization, which is very different from business and industry. They most likely had an ethics course in their discipline, but it is different to take an ethics course that focuses on the issues related directly to the work of the university. One must wonder how much they truly understand the university, as they are more interested in successful management than an ethical ethos and culture. Oftentimes, if administrators see a problem, they are more apt to bring in a lawyer than an ethicist. Leaders need to understand ethics is integral for the future of the institution. It can only be successful if it is truth bearing and reliable.

For example, Harvard had a huge cheating scandal and as part of their reaction they focused on teaching and how faculty were teaching. They missed a huge opportunity to understand what it means to be a university with high ethical standards and to truly understand who they wanted to be. What does it mean to be at Harvard and as an institution what does it mean to be part of this community? That is the conversation that was missed in focusing on what was going on in the teaching realm and stopping the cheating. In this case the lack of addressing this problem from an ethical perspective was the constraint. Understanding the role of ethics is not to constrain but to develop and help an institution become who they want to be.

Anne: Whose responsibility is it to create a culture of ethics?

Father Jim:  People want to fix it right away. Many who are doing this work have been doing it for a very long time.  However, we have failed to connect the dots. We need to take issues and truly connect across the institution, connect the dots! We need to be talking across the board, all units, academic and student affairs, faculty and staff, leaders at every level. Here at Boston College we have created a conference and put folks talking about different topics on the same panel so they can hear each other talk. It is about connecting the dots and talking to one another about how we are connected and how many of these issues have similar elements. We are not talking to each other enough. We have become organizations that work in silos.

I would argue that sexual assault on campus is deeply connected to how we treat adjunct faculty on campus. The neglect of ethics for adjunct faculty is related to the neglect our students have in how they treat one another, which can lead to sexual assaults on campuses. We are not inclusive with our adjunct faculty; we often do not include them in any governance decisions. They are limited in how much access they have to departmental resources, faculty, and the university more broadly, yet they are bearing much of the workload related to teaching. In terms of sexual assault we are not giving voice to victims or survivors. Many times sexual assaults on campuses are going unreported and victims are unsure where they go for support and justice. This is a problem on our campuses and one that we are not doing a good job addressing.

Originally university faculty were deeply connected to students, but over time, faculty gave connecting with students over to student affairs officials.  In my opinion faculty feel that the only place they belong is in the classroom and in a sense have lost a bit of the university. This is a great example of how faculty and student affairs can work together to reclaim the university and in that, reclaim ethics.  

I became an acting chair of the department and found out some of the shenanigans of faculty. We have created autonomous spaces and we do not want any horizontal accountability. We do not hold each other to higher levels of ethical behavior. Many deans are horrified by the behavior of faculty at the university, but are unwilling to address the behavior.  The reporting lines within the university are very medieval and unlike any other professions we are very autonomous.  In no other field do you find that people rarely come to campus and lack a larger sense of community. Many within the academy are academic nerds and their social skills are pretty low. We treat our students singularly; the very nature of our vocation is not collegial. We are singular professors who do work and believe our accountability is to write for an audience outside the university. We are seeing more and more collaboration among researchers, but it is still a novelty within institutions. This is also a lesson faculty could take from student affairs professionals who often work collaboratively.

Office hours are interesting as well, as the advertised times they are available are to their own making. There is no other place where a professional has this much autonomy over their work hours. Administrators do not even have this freedom.  We need to take a closer look at some of these issues and work to create a more horizontally accountable community. Beginning to look at these issues from a bigger picture would begin to connect some of these dots across institutions.

Anne: How do you help new professionals create a professional ethical identity?

Father Jim: New professionals need to go out and meet all sorts of individuals across the university. I run a center on faith and culture. Part of the work of the center is to run professional development for the university community. For many years the seminars were just for tenure track faculty. It has changed and now we have more adjunct faculty attending and one of the trends the faculty attending realize is that others across the university are feeling the same way they are: isolated, disconnected, and that folks at the university are more focused on their own discipline rather than betterment of the university.

At Boston College we have what are called professors of the practice. They are permanent faculty, not tenured or tenure track, but with long-term employment. I invited these faculty to dinner and they could not get over meeting one another. For the 6 months they were very excited to just get to know one another, then it turned into a book club meeting, and now they host a conference. The relationships have evolved and turned into a conversation about ethics and the moral responsibility of the university, which is what we address at the yearly conference.

People need to start realizing they know nothing about the university. We need to have folks meet one another and get out of their spaces.  Many faculty do not even know the names of the residence halls on campus. They are hard pressed to name one residence hall or even buildings on the other side of campus. Additionally many have no idea what goes on for students outside the classroom and who does that work. They are not involved in a student’s life outside of the classroom. We need to get to know one another and what we do to support the university together.  The more we collectively work the closer we get to making good ethical decisions and being able to identify ethical issues within our institutions.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s the medical profession underwent a radical transformation in how they deliver medical news to patients. Previously, it was the role of the nurse to deliver medical news to the patient and doctors would talk to family members and others involved in the decision, but not the patient. In conversations at their professional associations they began to internally investigate the practice and have debates at multiple levels. The decision ultimately was that patients should own their medical decisions and it was the ethical responsibility of doctors to give full information to patients and help them make the best decision for their situation. This is a great example of a collaborative discussion that resulted in changing an entire profession, but the decision was not made in a vacuum, but rather in a way that everyone had an opportunity to feel they had voice in the changes. I would like to challenge higher education to let the public examine their practice and decide if the institution is acting in ethical ways.


This interview was such a pleasure to conduct. The wisdom and insights of Father Jim can really aid in helping us think more deeply about ethics and how we address the very complex issues we are facing in higher education and student affairs. We have a moral responsibility to our students and those that call the academy their home. We have a moral obligation to do the hard work it takes to address these complex issues. We should be bold and brave in facilitating the tough conversations, as Father Jim challenges us to do.

Discussion Questions

  1. Ethics does not happen by taking a course but rather having conversation in the public and with the public.  How do you begin to facilitate those conversations?
  2. As student affairs professionals, how do you help create environments that embody the ethics of compassion, confidence, and accountability?
  3. Part of the difficult work around the identification of ethical issues is asking the right questions and then presenting choices. What are some ways you begin asking the right questions to be able to present the most ethical choices to the community being impacted?


Keenan, J. F. (2015). University ethics: How colleges can build and benefit from a culture of ethics.

Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.

About the Author

Anne M. Hornak is a Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She teaches courses in student affairs and higher education administration, ethics, and social justice. Her research interests include ethical decision-making, transformational learning and international education, and community college students. She has been involved with ACPA as a Directorate member of the Professional Preparation Commission, where she coordinated with the ethics committee. Her most recent book is entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Student Affairs Educator: Competencies and Case Studies for Early Career Professionals” [Stylus, 2014] co-authored with Sarah Marshall.

Please e-mail inquiries to Anne M. Hornak.

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.

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.

Global Citizenship and Higher Education’s Responsibility

Global Citizenship and Higher Education’s Responsibility

Anne M. Hornak
Central Michigan University

International travel can be a powerful transformative experience. Colleges and universities all over the United States and internationally are seeking out opportunities to sponsor study abroad programs, partner with institutions across the globe, and expose students to other parts of the world through an educational experience. Student affairs professionals work closely with faculty, students, administrators, and many other college and university personnel to make sure these experiences are educationally valuable. Putting the experience into context in professional settings, classrooms, and everyday life is one of the most critical pieces to making these programs successful. As I sat down to write this article I was struggling with the question: is it our ethical responsibility in higher education to prepare students to be global citizens?

I am going to present reasons why higher education professionals may want to think about their responsibility in this domain. I want to begin with a story I recently heard that really resonated with my focus on cross cultural experiences and dialogue.

Joe’s Narrative

My friend Pam was flying home from Poland and she sat next to a middle aged man named Joe. She began talking to Joe and realized he was heading home to a small town in the Midwest where he was a machinist. He was talking about how excited he was to get home and see his family. Pam asked him what he was doing in Poland and he said he had been there for a year working on helping them set up some specialized machinery for a new production facility. He was asked to go because he is one of the only machinists qualified and specially trained to work with these machines. Pam was quite intrigued and asked about his time in Poland. Joe said originally he was only supposed not have spent 2 months in country to get the machines up and running. He ended up being there for a whole year. His family did not have the financial resources to visit. He has been home twice in the 12-month period.

Joe went on to talk about how incredibly unprepared he was to live and work in Poland. He did not speak the language, nor did he really have any clue about Polish culture. The company helped set up travel and accommodations for Joe, but little else was done to prepare him to live and work in this new culture.  He went on to tell Pam that when he first arrived he found it exciting and new. There were a couple of other individuals from the same company finishing up assignments, so he was able to gather some information and assistance in getting set up. After the first month his colleagues left and he felt he was pretty much on his own. Language was the biggest barrier. Navigating around the city to meet basics needs – groceries, transportation, communications with home were among a few of the issues Joe faced in the first few months. The next issues Joe faced were long bouts of depression related to having few friends and acquaintances. The language barrier was difficult to overcome to have any meaningful interactions with the native Polish people.

Joe discussed his community college experience and how having a certificate did not prepare him for his international experience. He told Pam how he never really anticipated doing much traveling and that he preferred to drive to locations in the United States, rather than living abroad for a year. It was difficult not having his basic needs met as well as being so far away and lonely. He now has a new appreciation for the idea of a global workforce. He stated it is critical for everyone to have some idea of how to live and work and in another culture. The community college he attended never even discussed this concept. He also noted that it should have been the responsibility of the company he worked for to help prepare him for this time abroad.

Preparing Students for Global Work

Joe’s situation and story is not at all uncommon in the global world we live in. In thinking about Joe’s story, what is the responsibility of higher education to prepare students to work and potentially live in a foreign land? Do we have an ethical and social responsibility to prepare every student for these opportunities? I would argue yes and that it is not that difficult even in the brief amount of time we have as we work to certificate students. Clearly some institutions have a stronger international footprint than others. For example, many four-year colleges or universities have the infrastructure to support international education as part of the organization.  However, helping students understand that importance of international and cross-cultural experiences does not have to include a trip abroad.

There are many avenues to help students understand the importance of what it means to be a global citizen without ever leaving campus. Here are two ideas for on campus programming to increase student understanding of global citizenship. Ideally the student affairs divisions should work collaboratively with the international affairs and study abroad offices to maximize the reach and impact.

Global Competency Workshop

This workshop would be designed to explore the idea of what it means to be a global citizen. The United Nations has a series of goals, named The Global Goals, that cut across disciplines. The goals are international challenges that require action and impact. The workshop could be designed around these goals with the objectives designed to help participants understand and begin to appreciate that being a global citizen requires a shared responsibility in solving problems.

Global Communications Workshop

This workshop would be designed to look at issues of communication across cultures. The objectives could be designed to offer students tools they need to be successful in engaging with people of diverse backgrounds and outlooks. The workshop would include three elements to effective intercultural communication. The first is awareness. If we want students to change anything about their own communication styles, they need to be aware of the nuances of how they communicate with others. The second step would be self-analysis. During this step, students spend time reflecting on their own communication styles in order to understand how to best interact with others. The final step is to expand ones repertoire. This includes offering students multiple communication tools to use and experiment with. When one technique is not working, try another tactic.

Partnerships and Collaborations

Many colleges and universities struggle to connect students to the resources they need to experience study internationally. Offering workshops on campus provides the opportunities for students to explore and exchange ideas about global citizenship. It provides a venue that is accessible for all students and if done effectively could build powerful partnerships across campus with international and domestic partners. Additionally, given our perpetual engagement with social media platforms, colleges and universities could easily connect with international partners to help facilitate and engage with participants without being on site.

Joe would have benefitted greatly from attending a workshop when he was a student at his community college. If he was given the opportunity to explore how to engage and communicate across cultures his comfort level may have increased during his time in Poland. Navigating across cultures can be exciting, but also difficult. The fear of making a mistake is ever present, as well as the threat of offending someone because of one’s own ignorance regarding differences. As student affairs professionals and educators, part of our responsibility should be to provide students the tools they need to be successful global citizens. We have both an ethical responsibility to the students earning an education, and an ethical responsibility to the employers who are hiring our students.

Going back to Joe, I do believe that his company also failed in helping prepare him to live and work in Poland. The company had an ethical responsibility in making sure Joe was ready for that experience and they failed in doing so. While this is a shortcoming of his company, this is also an opportunity for corporate America and colleges and universities to partner to meet this challenge. The focus on career readiness is ever present across higher education; preparing someone to work across borders is critical. Leveraging the skills and talents available on college campuses with the needs of corporate America should begin to meet the ethical responsibilities I argue are important for global citizenship.

Within higher education we strive to address big questions and give students the tools to solve complex problems. As we think about Joe and our responsibility to educate and prepare students to live within this complex global world, I reflect on the question I posed at the beginning of this article: is it our ethical responsibility in higher education to prepare students to be global citizens? I have offered some ideas to begin to ponder this question and challenge those reading this article to think about other ways to give students to the tools they need to be responsible global citizens.

Discussion Questions

  1. The term global citizen can be defined in many ways. How do you define global citizen within the work you do?
  2. We often talk about shared responsibilities on our campuses regarding personal and professional development. Think about ways to work collaboratively on your campus to create global conversations about skill development. What offices will you partner with to create these programs?
  3. What is the ethical responsibility of student affairs professionals to facilitate global engagement on their campuses? Whose responsibility is this on your campus?

About the Author

Anne M. Hornak is an Associate Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She teaches courses in student affairs and higher education administration, ethics, and social justice. Her research interests include ethical decision-making, transformational learning and international education, and community college students. She has been involved with ACPA as a Directorate member of the Professional Preparation Commission, where she coordinated with the ethics committee. Her most recent book is entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Student Affairs Educator: Competencies and Case Studies for Early Career Professionals” [Stylus, 2014] co-authored with Sarah Marshall.

Please e-mail inquiries to Anne M. Hornak.


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.

Life Off-Campus: A Personal Reflection

Marisa Vernon, Cuyahoga Community College

I recently changed jobs, taking on more administrative responsibility and strategic leadership. My current position has brought me to another large community college only a few hours from the familiar campus where I learned to fully embrace and understand the role of the two-year college in our educational system.

In the three years I spent at Columbus State Community College, I learned how to truly lead others and also how to navigate the politics, processes, and strategies of a large urban community college.  Leading an advising office through the peaks and valleys of institutional change, I began to understand how to inspire others to focus on student needs, provide exceptional support to the campus community, and push others to dissect the student experience.

Though this professional experience has, undoubtedly, added a valuable layer to my administrative foundation, the most profound impact from my time in Columbus, Ohio, was not gained on campus. Rather, I now find myself most grateful for a personal challenge I decided to accept in order to connect even closer to the students I served.

This article takes a bit of a detour from my regular, less personal commentary on issues facing community colleges, though I am convinced we become better educators when we share interesting, rich experiences from an honest perspective.

Poverty and Education: The Beginning of a Passion

As a kid growing up, I shook things up a little bit. I was relatively reserved, though balanced with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experiences that had to have been utterly exhausting to two young parents. I asked questions often, and I cannot imagine most of them were easily answered or satisfied with a yes or a no.

Colleagues know my brain has not changed much, and now rather than exhausting my parents, it can at times exhaust me as a professional. A never-ending stream of intake, processing, and reflection means I rarely exit experiences without takeaway. Like many who work in two-year college environments, layers and layers of experiences have slowly stoked the social justice fire within. I carry it around often, and am blessed to have a career where open dialogue is not only appreciated, but encouraged.

I first came to the community college world after a seven year experience at an open-enrollment regional campus of a large University, which was a wonderful bridge. The two environments were similar in terms of access missions, retention challenges, and low tuition costs. I understood the student population, trends, and stigma associated with open access education, which supported my smooth transition into a community college culture. I happily settled into a nearby suburb, and got to work.

In an effort to meet my new colleagues and connect further with students, I joined a learning community, open to faculty, staff, and students, focused on diversity issues. The dialogue was richer than I had experienced in previous environments, and our group conversations often touched upon the great, unspoken factor linked to success in life: wealth. While I, perhaps intellectually, understood that wealth could facilitate choices, achievement, and further attainment, I had not fully connected its power in education until then.

Almost immediately after engaging in raw, uncensored dialogue through the campus learning community, I began to see differences in the student population that had initially seemed familiar. I no longer simply heard student stories about struggles related to transportation, lack of book money, childcare conflicts, and domestic struggles; rather, I really listened to the stories and tried to comprehend their impact on the students’ ability to complete a degree. Suddenly, the standard excuses I had heard from students for nearly a decade began to seem deeply individualized, intertwined, and complex. One barrier to success seemed to be tied to another, and untangling the web of challenges facing our campus’ urban population presented a daunting task.

My lens is that of a middle class, majority, heterosexual, graduate school educated professional. I could have left it at that, and tucked myself away into a pocket of the world that feels comfortable, safe, and familiar. I have, many times, felt as though I don’t belong in conversations about race, class, sexuality, or culture. During those moments, all internal alarms signal to run back to safety. But on many occasions while working at community colleges, I have ignored that internal alarm and challenged myself to understand how these forces may apply themselves to educational attainment.

Making the Move

As I began to interact with more students, hear their stories from my Academic Advisor supervisees, and engage in dialogue at the campus level, I felt a disconnect between work focus and my personal life. Daily, I immersed myself in developing strategies to increase attainment and success among first-generation, minority students from impoverished backgrounds. At the end of each day, I returned back to a comfortable suburb packed with dining and shopping options, two-parent families, and an esteemed school system. The gap between the two environments was pervasive and a bit unsettling, especially as I developed a deeper understanding of the challenges poverty presents to community college students.

After several years on the job, my husband and I decided to begin looking for a home to buy. We quickly realized many of the suburbs were financially out of reach given our preference for disposable income. I had become familiar with the area near the community college campus, an old neighborhood seeing its fair share of challenges. The area was exceptionally diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and income levels, with boarded up homes next to newly renovated ones. I knew many of the college’s students lived in the area, and was aware of the challenges as the neighborhood fought to find equilibrium.

We worked on an abandoned home for several months before moving in. And in the months to follow, I learned more about the issues facing the students with whom I worked than I could have ever imagined.

Experiencing Challenges Firsthand

While working with urban community college students in an academic advising capacity, safety, transportation, access to quality food, and a lack of social support are often described as barriers to success in education. These concepts often made me reflect on my own educational journey, which was relatively void of serious challenges and free of barriers. Looking back, I realize how simplistic my advice may have seemed to the students with whom I worked. While I logically knew students relied on a complicated bus system to access the community college, I did not fully understand this impact on course scheduling, the ability to engage while on campus, and the time invested in travel. I listened to students’ stories about their responsibility in caring for family members with chaotic lives, often prodding them to focus on themselves and their education. I could not understand why a student struggling financially would decline the student loans intended to help him or her obtain an education, or why another may jeopardize his or her financial future by maxing out Financial Aid each semester. I even sat in student affairs meetings and wondered whether or not the campus truly needed a food pantry, and why some students seemed to rely so heavily on the campus community to provide even more than just access to an education.

I did not realize how difficult these success barriers were to untangle until I lived in the same community, attempted to overcome the same barriers, and saw firsthand the lack of resources available to those who live in a deteriorated neighborhood.

As an avid runner, I felt trapped by my concerns about safety past dark. This simple unfulfilled ritual forced me to think about what a student walking home to the neighborhood from evening class may encounter. In addition, I found myself thinking about related issues, such as stress management, health, and overall wellness, and how these aspects of a student’s livelihood may be impacted simply by his or her address. Sure, an individual can make a conscious choice to select a different means to an end (in this case, outdoor exercise), but doing so requires additional steps, complications, and intrinsic motivation.

Similarly, I was immediately able to see why the area from which many of our students came had been deemed a “food desert”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” Save a few urban gardens and a recently added co-op, the nearest grocery stores required access via automobile or city bus. Even as a new member of the community, I could envision how, without reliable transportation, access to food could become a cumbersome chore to those already juggling roles as students, parents, caretakers, and employees.

This observation was exacerbated by a robust discussion among neighbors via an online forum. One individual posted a long rant about a national pizza chain that refused to deliver to her home based on her address. The issue sparked an ongoing debate about access to services, and how limited services may be for those who live in neighborhoods deemed “poor” or “unsafe.” While pizza delivery served as a trivial issue on the surface, the example was a simple display of the differences in convenience, commodities, and service available within less developed sections of American cities.

Previous to my move, I had been involved in several campus meetings focused on initiating a campus food pantry. As a student affairs administrator, I had always supported the idea, and joined active committees to push the idea forward. However, I can honestly say I did not fully understand how such a resource could alleviate stressors for our students until I placed myself directly in the same environment. While my experience was far different than my neighbors’ due to my earnings, even minimal exposure to a food desert was enough to show me how students may be struggling to meet basic needs while attending community college.

As I observed the neighborhood through a lens of privilege, I began to notice that the most profound factors were actually intangible and difficult to describe. Each year in my previous neighborhood, middle- to upper-class families proudly displayed banners in their front yards, boasting high school graduation and the name of the student’s destination college or university. Celebrations of success were not present on the blocks surrounding our new home, though I knew students attending the campus on which I worked lived behind those doors. Such intangibles, immeasurable details, are the differences that I continue to reflect upon even now that I have moved on to a new community college system.

These subtle social nuances between the “haves” and the “have nots” surely play a role in the resiliency, persistence, and motivation it takes to complete a college degree. While I am not a social science expert or researcher by trade, I can tell a deep shift in my approach to working with students who juggle multiple stressors on their way to a degree. Students who start off with few resources are far more likely to experience bumps in the road more frequently, are more fragile than their privileged peers, and perhaps experiencing greater stress than others will ever encounter.

The Take-Away

The social issues impacting our students are complex, and so are the lenses through which we view them. However, sitting back and looking through the lenses we were given has its limits. By pushing the limits of a comfort zone, we cannot help but learn and question in order to adapt. In turn, we are better educators, supporters, and guides for students who face challenges that may be different from those with which we have personal experience.

The return on pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone is that we can no longer ignore large-scale social issues when we are close to them. When issues like food deserts, income gaps, access to quality education, and transportation serve as inconveniences in our own lives, we begin to take notice. For educators who appreciate the process of learning, choosing to be part of the solution means watching from the sidelines is no longer an option. It’s not a matter of settling for less; it is a matter of leaning into uncomfortable experiences knowing the return will help us be better, know more, and empathize more deeply.

As faculty, staff, and administrators, moving to a new neighborhood, worldwide travel, or additional education may not be feasible to all. However, small attempts to push our personal boundaries can help to chip away at the walls that often prevent us from supporting students in the best way possible.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some small ways you can learn more about what your students may be experiencing in their lives off-campus, and how can your institution address some of these issues?
  2. Reflecting upon your experience, have there been student success initiatives your college or university may have explored that you did not support? Looking back on these initiatives, can you view them with a different perspective?
  3. What are some of the invisible or visible privileges you have that may prevent you from fully understanding certain students’ experiences while in college?


A Look Inside Food Deserts. (2012, September 24). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from

About the Author

Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree.  The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


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

Overcoming the Competition and Ensuring Higher Education Quality in a Growing Global Market

Tadd Kruse, American University of Kuwait

The mobility of populations is an ever-present concern given ongoing global conflicts and plights, resulting in the highest number of refugees since the Second World War.  In addition to the political and economic impact of migrations, the global mobility of students is expected to increase, as seeking a high quality university degree is an essential necessity for career development and advancement.  Access to education and tertiary degrees is greater than ever, making competition for institutions of quality and reputation even greater.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that the international student population will increase from five million in 2015 to eight million by 2025, showing a growth rate of 60% in overall global mobility over the next decade. This significant growth and projection is important for educators to take note, as international student populations present a number of benefits and challenges for institutions.  Overall, and aligned with internationalization or global learning initiatives on campus, these populations serve as valuable resources to both campus and local communities.  Many United States colleges and universities internationalize their campuses strategically and invest considerable resources to attract students by offering internationally focused curricula, by recruiting international students, and by enhancing their international programs and services.

For decades the United Stated and Europe were the hubs of tertiary education, drawing in over half of the world’s students studying outside of their home country.  According to the 2015 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education released in November, the United States reached a record-breaking number of international students at universities with 974,926 (10% increase) in 2014-15 academic year.

Although, these are significant figures, and the United States remains the leading study destination, the United States share of the global population dropped by nearly 10% during a twelve-year period since 2000.  Additionally, the recent IIE report indicates an overreliance on China and India who sent 44.8% of the almost one million international students noted above.  Notable shifts are occurring in student mobility and these factors will shape the landscape of international education over the next decade.  These shifts appear to be currently driven by increasing regional educational hubs, growing middle classes in Asia, regional mobility over global mobility, and increasing competition.

The latter causation, increasing competition, is one to take pause and warrants deeper consideration.  Competition has not just increased in the usual leading destination countries, but continues to develop on other European, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations.  Demand from Asia has been the greatest driver, but a number of important emerging markets will play a key role moving forward.  Competition is shifting and includes more widely distributed destinations, including increases in non-English-speaking countries.

Destinations for international students are expanding, and growing more competitive as institutions look to increase international populations on campus to enhance fiscal, academic, and diversity initiatives.  Systems and tools to rank institutions and compare institutional data (particularly outcomes), ultimately serve as an aid to students making decisions about higher education opportunities, are expanding and becoming key factors in how competition is perceived.

Competition in Perspective – Higher Education International & National Ranking Systems

In a global marketplace, a prospective student must begin to filter through the thousands of institutions of higher learning to determine quality and fit.  One such mechanism has been the utilization of ranking or scoring systems.   These systems are attempts to compare people’s perceptions of institutions resulting in a compilation of supposed public perception, a direct impact on brand recognition.   However, there are a lot of ranking schemes, comprised of varying methodologies (often including inputs on selectivity, faculty resources, spending, and research productivity), and each striving to identify how well-regarded an institution is perceived against a peer group.

National rankings have existed for decades and have been recognized for years as a guide to quality.  US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings is more relevant than all the global rankings given its history and structure. The same goes for national rankings published in the United Kingdom such as The Times Good University Guide or The Guardian University League Table.  National ranking systems are growing around the globe with thirty-two new national ranking systems put into place since 2005. National or regional systems are often developed on multi-leveled metrics and apply different criteria to evaluate institutions of higher learning on different criteria.   In 2015, US News & World Report for the first time published the overall Best Arab Region Universities and subject rankings, featuring 91 schools (from a directory of more than 800) across 16 countries.  There is helpful information in a growing higher education market. However, unless one read the methodology they would not be aware that the rankings were based solely on publications and only those from one citation database.   This is a very limited scope given the common perception associated with ranking systems as indicators of quality.

However, international rankings of universities, which have existed for approximately a decade, are establishing a new avenue for consumers to consider the strength of institutions outside of the United States and Europe.  Examples include Times Higher Education World University Rankings (UK), QS World University Rankings (multi-national), Academic Ranking of World Universities (China).  Equally, these systems are often developed on metrics not easily decipherable to most, and evaluate institutions of higher learning on different criteria.   For example, the Academic Ranking of World Universities from the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China) has been in existence since 2003 and uses four criteria: Quality of Education (10%), Quality of Faculty (40%), Research Output (40%), and Per Capita Performance (10%).  However, the QS World University Rankings utilize eleven criteria and over 50 indicators: Core Criteria (50%), Learning Environment (16.67%), Specialist Criteria (16.67%) and Advanced Criteria (16.67%).

The IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, established formally in 2009, is an international association of ranking organizations and universities aimed towards the improvement of the quality of academic rankings and the quality of higher education in general. The body is interested in gathering information on all relevant ranking activities in the field of higher education, yet it notes that very limited information is available on national university rankings. National rankings are an integral part of the world’s higher education landscape and are much more developed, more comprehensive as on the national level universities operate within the same cultural and legal system and a rich body of comparable data is available.

Regardless of the system or ranking body these structures do influence perspectives.  In a NAFSA (Association of International Educators, the largest association of professionals committed exclusively to advancing international higher education) report A Utilitarian View of Rankings, Alan Ruby addresses the importance of ranking systems as they influence young people’s decisions about institutional quality and where to study, especially for prospective international students.   Systems utilize varying methods to assess an overall institutional rank, but many rankings systems also focus on a particular field (i.e. academic discipline, institution type, research, or specialty programs).  These systems vary greatly in scope, structure, and reliability from the applied methodology to the resulting ranking figures which are often misleading.  Common interpretation would be the higher the rank, the better the product, but institutions of higher learning are complex systems that provide a multitude of services to students. Therefore, it can be challenging to understand what factors are incorporated into each ranking.

Competition in Perspective – Accreditation, Quality Assurance, and the College Scorecard

Accreditation and Quality Assurance are essentially a systematic review of programs to ensure that acceptable standards of education, scholarship and infrastructure are being maintained.  UNESCO and the OECD created in 2005 an educational quality assurance framework that cultivates a culture of quality in higher education known as the Global Initiative for Quality Assurance Capacity (GIQAC) .  This framework is outlined in the Guidelines for Quality Provision in Cross-border Higher Education and serves as a guide for institutions and nations around the globe to develop processes which will enable monitoring using a set of commonly agreed-upon standards.

In the United States, higher education accreditation began in the 1880’s and was developed to protect and serve the public interest.  The process later evolved in 1952 into regions in a post-World War II America, and the rapid expansion of higher education as a result of the GI Bill. Processes were based on peer-evaluation amongst institutions and accrediting agencies, and the development of regulation, legislation and oversight by state and federal governments.  With the creation of the United States Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the United States Secretary of Education is required to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training.  The United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education.

With criticism of the current United States structure existing for more than a decade, accreditation in recent years has been ever present from presidential candidate speeches to the President’s State of the Union address.  More recently, in September 2015 United States Senators Bennet and Rubio introduced a bill that establishes an alternative, outcome-based quality review process to authorize “innovative, high-quality education providers” to undertake quality review based on stipulated performance measures of student learning, completion and affordability/benefit to students as set by the United States Department of Education. In short, it would test federally approved alternatives to accreditation, federal performance measures for providers, including student learning, and performance-based access to federal student aid.

Critiques of the current system include too much emphasis on processes and input measures (i.e. faculty credentials, research, etc.) and not enough on performance outcomes (i.e. student learning, retention and graduation rates) which should be at the core of quality assessment.  Access, affordability, accountability and student debt are at the forefront of concerns with current practices, followed by making this information easily accessible to the public.  How to disburse the most useful information about institutions of higher education to students and parents in a way that’s not overwhelming and that includes key information is challenging.  The United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator tool, a top priority on the Obama administration’s higher education agenda, provides updated information on institutions, but was felt by many to be too overwhelming.

The United States Department of Education’s College Scorecard was designed to be an easier means to provide consumer information to assist students in choosing the best college, and allow users to search for institutions by name and by metrics such as cost, graduation rate, average amount borrowed, and employment data.  Some critics state that until a student unit record system exists, the College Scorecard data offers a much-needed step towards transparency in higher education. However, readers must also be warned of the confusion of correlation with causation when presenting data (especially related to earnings, as many factors impact a graduate’s salary potential). There are a number of limitations in the College Scorecard including: (1) exclusion of institutions primarily awarding certificates; (2) many metrics available are limited to data on students who received federal aid; and (3) average salaries for each institution are based on very wide ranges.  Overall, the College Scorecard is a positive step in providing outcomes and output based information to the public including some data not available outside of this system.

Each of these systems exist in an attempt to provide to the public access to outcomes based useful information related to the affordability, accountability and value of a higher education.  Information can be accessed through the specific program websites, the United States Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, or the websites of various regional accreditors.


As mobility and competition for students internationally continues to grow, universities must become savvy and engage in the changing global market.  As student affairs practitioners, it is important that we acknowledge these shifting factors in how our institution, and those to whom we compete, are perceived.  We further must act to ensure quality education amidst a climate of increased accountability.  So how do we prepare?

Ask questions: “How are we using rankings and dataset information? What does it say about us?  What doesn’t it say about us?”  This is critical information guiding fine decisions between schools in the same type, field, price point, or rank.  Identify what are the institution’s communications efforts which highlight what sets it apart from its peers.

Understanding the basis of the ranking systems, accreditations, or college data dashboards to which you assume your students or their families may consult, will allow you and your colleagues to address rankings based on merit and not misaligned perceptions.  Ranking systems and even outcomes based data present one view of a college or program, so it is important for professionals to be aware of institutional strengths and be able to equally highlight further areas that are notable (i.e. new student center, enhanced security measures, expanding academic program).  Be ready to address the variability within, as some programs inside an institution may be ranked higher or lower than the overall institution itself, or may be greater attributes than others. Recognize these special attributes or niche of your institution and identify methods to highlight these in your programs, recruitment strategies, services, and strategic plans.  For the recruitment and retention of students choices will often come down to a series of factors including programs, location, cost, selectivity, reputation and diversity.  Be equipped with complementary information providing a wider perspective to enable students to look beyond the narrow scope of rankings systems or datasets and see the whole institution.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the figures and make-up of your international student population on campus?
  2. Are you in a state or institution hosting the most international students (see Open Doors 2015 “Fast Facts”?  How do you see the international population on your campus growing over the next ten years?
  3. Where does your institution rank in the US News & World Report Rankings?  How do you and your campus utilize the rankings in recruitment and retention strategies? How does your institution utilize accreditations and scorecard figures or other data dashboards to maintain a competitive edge?
  4. How can you as a Student Affairs practitioner be informed on applied strategies at your institution?  How can you support your colleagues to be more informed on quality assurance best practices? What can your department and you do to emphasize institutional strengths?

About the Author

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK).  With over fifteen years of higher education administrative experience and having worked at institutions in the US, UK, and in the Middle East, he has spent more than a decade working abroad. He has experience in international education on a variety of fronts including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs. He currently serves as a Leadership team member for the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS).

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.


The opinions expressed by Developments author(s) are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Ethical Perspectives on the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies

Jonathan O’Brien, California State University Long Beach

A new version of the Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Educators (ACPA & NASPA, 2015) was released in August 2015. In this column I will focus on two of the changes that are related to ethical practice. One is replacing the term attitudes with dispositions, to describe the values and assumptions that practitioners bring to their practice. The other change is the decision to combine two competencies, Ethical Professional Practice and Personal Foundations, into a new one called Personal and Ethical Foundations. I will conclude with some questions to prompt reflection and discussion on these topics.

Attitude? Disposition? What’s the Difference?

Each competency lists multiple outcomes that reflect the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of good practice. In this revision, the Task Force started using disposition, rather than attitude, because they felt that the latter is a more comprehensive term. They also noted that many accreditation agencies use disposition. Indeed, most student affairs programs are housed in colleges of education where K-12 teacher preparation is the predominant academic function. Ensuring that candidates have suitable dispositions for teaching is an important part of the credentialing process.

I applaud this change, which is more than just a revision in terminology. Attitude and disposition are different concepts. I was never fond of attitude, which refers to the positive or negative outlooks we hold about people, ideas, things, and places. They can change easily, based on feelings or environmental factors. Dispositions, on the other hand, are a combination of several cognitive functions, including awareness, values, motivations, and inclinations that shape the habits that lead to our actions. In an earlier column, I described them as “enduring influences on our behavior that others come to perceive as our character.” Dispositions are the mental precursors to our professional conduct.


Our field has been concerned with the qualities of good practitioners for some time. For example, the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS, 2006) publishes a list of 50 Characteristics of Individual Excellence, describing the exemplary values, behavior, and commitments of student affairs practitioners. However, not all of the characteristics on the list qualify as dispositions, as they blend skills and knowledge together with dispositional attributes. Missing from this list are characteristics representing the motivations and inclinations that influence our practice.

There are at least three features that distinguish dispositions from characteristics and attitudes and underscore their importance in practice. In particular, dispositions are:

  • Context-dependent. Dispositions are more stable than attitudes, but they don’t reveal themselves until they are triggered by a particular situation, including the place and the people involved. We do not know how we will respond in the future, but we can identify our triggers and prepare to meet them.
  • Shaped by motivation and inclination. Each of us has personal reasons for why we respond in certain situations. We also have preferences for how we respond and when we decide to take action (or not). These may not always match what our colleagues think and do. Owning our idiosyncrasies and discussing them with others can diffuse potentially awkward situations in the midst of crisis.
  • Grounded in our character. Dispositions arise from who we are, not always what we know or do. We can learn new facts or replace obsolete skills, but it is awkward or even distressing to change our dispositions substantially in order to comply with a supervisor’s directive or an institutional mandate we do not accept.

Dispositions in the Real World

So what do dispositions look like in practice? To illustrate, I use Tina’s experience as coordinator of a brand new, grant-funded sexual-assault intervention program. One morning, the university president emailed Tina directly, asking for “any promising data” to share with a group of potential donors that afternoon. Tina collected surveys a couple weeks ago, but she had no time to look at them, much less compare the findings to benchmarks.

When she took the job, Tina knew the program’s budget was tenuous and she would have to prove its effectiveness to secure more funding. She did not want to delay a request from the president and miss a chance for additional support. On the other hand, if she responded in haste she risked distorting the data and possibly discrediting the program in the eyes of important stakeholders. What should she do?

This situation could play out in many ways. In any of them, Tina’s dispositions would play a pivotal role. Although it’s highly unlikely she thought about it in the moment, an outcome from the Assessment, Evaluation, and Research (AER) competency obliges Tina to

Identify the political and educational sensitivity of raw and partially processed data and AER results, handling them with appropriate confidentiality and deference to organizational hierarchies (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 20).

In reality, Tina was a bit rattled by the president’s unexpected email. It triggered her awareness that a rare opportunity for additional resources was being offered by a powerful player in the organization. Tina was personally invested in the program. She truly valued being of service to students, educating them about personal safety and advocating for survivors of assault. Her motivation was to respond immediately to the president, with any data she had, to show how the program made a positive impact. Tina’s inclination intervened as she realized that the president’s request was tied to a high-stakes funding negotiation. In similar circumstances she would consult her supervisor first.

These thoughts swirling in Tina’s head are the building blocks of her dispositions toward competent data management, at least in this context. They included a sense of purpose, integrity, respect for authority, and creativity. These dispositions, in turn, led Tina to call her supervisor immediately, so they could strategize together how to meet the president’s urgent request for credible data in a timely manner.

Why are Dispositions so Important?

Student Affairs is the “moral conscience of the campus” (Brown, 1985, p. 68) and our individual dispositions contribute significantly to this reputation. As a profession, I think we do a good job of educating our practitioners about self-awareness (e.g., identity, job duties, etc.) and sensitivity to the cultural complexities of the campus environment (diversity, bias, crisis, etc.). However, we are less adept at helping practitioners to recognize how their dispositions align with the profession and, simultaneously, the places where we do our work (e.g., institutional type and culture, functional areas, etc.).

While factual knowledge and skills can be taught and evaluated in controlled, classroom conditions, dispositions arise from individual experiences, values, and biases, making them difficult to teach or change easily. Nonetheless, they are a critical element in sustaining the credibility of our profession and the partnerships we cultivate with students, faculty, and administrators. Supervisors and graduate faculty are key to the formative evaluation of foundational dispositions in new practitioners.

In my graduate program, for example, advancement to candidacy is an academic milestone that prompts an individual discussion with each of our candidates about their dispositions, academic progress, and professional development. In a candid and affirming way, we discuss dispositions using multiple sources of data, including classroom observations and feedback from practicum supervisors. It takes time to do this and a few discussions can get tense, particularly around a student’s espoused priorities and work ethic. We conclude with a personalized plan of action and resources to help the student to be successful. After six years of doing this, I am convinced that the investment in our students’ development is rewarded by increased levels of confidence and professionalism in field placements and subsequent employment.

Before moving to the next topic, I will note that our colleagues in teacher education have grappled for decades with how to teach and develop dispositions in their candidates (Katz & Raths, 1985). In fact, some reject the concept of dispositions outright, viewing it as a distraction from what matters most: explicitly discussing the moral conduct of individual educators and their obligation to improve the lives of all students (Burant, Chubbuck, & Whipp, 2007). This is a good segue into the Task Force’s decision to merge ethical practice and personal foundations into a single competency.

Ethics is an Inside Job

The new Personal and Ethical Foundations (PEF) competency calls on practitioners “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” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 12). While I support the new competency, I feel that scant justification was provided to support the “apparent interdependence” (p. 5) between personal foundations and ethical practice. Most certainly there is a connection. I would just like to be clear about why we are doing this.

I reached out to a few Task Force members who graciously explained that the intent is to illustrate the strong link between our inner lives as practitioners and the ethical codes, principles, and theories in our field. The Task Force seems to be saying that ethics is an inside job, that our obligation runs deeper than merely learning a set of ethical codes to avoid mistakes or getting caught. Student Affairs, like every other profession, needs ethically competent practitioners who can apply its codes and principles in real life situations with the courage of their convictions, despite what critics may say. I completely agree.

Are We There Yet?

In reviewing the list of new PEF outcomes, I noted that a half-dozen or more amount to “healthy habits for better living” (ACPA/NASPA, 2015, p. 16), such as work/life balance and maintaining supportive relationships. It seems like the outcomes from the former competencies were juxtaposed rather than synthesized. Given that the Task Force found little evidence to support keeping Personal Foundations as a stand-alone competency, the merger of these outcomes feels like an attempt to retain the (important) idea that we should take care of ourselves. While I wholeheartedly support wellness as a lifestyle, I’m not sure how precisely this fits with ethical professional practice.

Conflating ethical competence with healthy behaviors is problematic for me. Sure, ethics and self-care have been discussed together before, by none other than Michel Foucault (1987); however, he wasn’t talking about eating a balanced diet, exercise, and time for family. He was referring to the ancient Greek practice of unflinching self-criticism and restraint that ethical persons did in order to liberate themselves from petty distractions and worldly temptations. Obviously, self-care is absolutely necessary in our field, but it deserves a singular emphasis and its own place in the competencies or elsewhere. Forcing them together in a single competency muddies the importance of both.

In my opinion, there is still some work to do to synthesize the PEF outcomes. To be sure, many outcomes from the old personal foundations competency should remain, like those related to self-awareness, passion, excellence, self-direction, curiosity, and tolerance for ambiguity. In a subsequent revision, I suggest revising the healthy lifestyle outcomes so that they reflect the moral dimension of practice.

A Moral Turn for Student Affairs?

Taken together, the move to dispositions and creation of a new competency focused on the role of self in ethical practice is a noteworthy moral turn for our profession. I’m aware that moral has a lot baggage for many of us, evoking oppression, religious hegemony, or cultural biases. Although we may be loath to name it, my hope is that we can reclaim both the word and the meaning so that we may distinguish among our profession’s need for ethical competency and our moral character as expressed through our dispositions.

All of this mirrors the on-going debate in teacher education concerned with the moral conduct of individual practitioners and how that impacts the quality of service to students and colleagues. Even if this moral turn in Student Affairs amounts to a bump in the road, it is worth pausing to reflect on the important role that character plays in being a competent professional.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some key dispositions related to the competencies in your work?
  • To what extent are wellness and ethical practice connected? How and why?
  • Is there a “moral turn” in student affairs? Should there be? Why or why not?

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.


American College Personnel Association, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Washington, DC: Author.

Brown, R. D. (1985). Creating an ethical community. In H. J. Cannon and R. D. Brown (Eds.), Applied ethics in student services, New Directions for Student Services, No. 30 (pp. 67-79). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burant, T. J., Chubbuck, S. M., & Whipp, J. L. (2007). Reclaiming the moral in the dispositions debate. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 397-411.

Council for the Advancement of Standards (2006). CAS characteristics of individual excellence for professional practice in higher education. In Council for the Advancement of Higher Education (Ed.), CAS professional standards for higher education (6th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Foucault, M. (1987). The ethic of care for the self as a practice of freedom: An interview with Michel Foucault on January 20, 1984. In J. W. Bernauer & D. M. Rasmussen (Eds.), The Final Foucault (pp. 1-22). Boston: MIT Press.

Katz, L. G. & Raths, J. D. (1985). Dispositions as goals for teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 1(4), 301-307.

O’Brien, J. J. (2015, Spring). A model for ethical professional practice and leadership. Developments, 12(4). Retrieved from developments

A Conversation with Dr. Stan Carpenter

“I think that I can distill most of what I have just [reflected on] saying that being professional is being ethical and vice versa.  It is unethical to practice without knowledge, or worse, with it being ignored.”

Stan Carpenter

As I was thinking about writing my column for this issue of Developments, I decided to bring in someone I consider to be a strong ethical leader in the field of student affairs. Dr. Stan Carpenter has been a long standing ACPA – College Student Educators International member and advocate for the field of student affairs. In 2010 he was named Dean of the College of Education at Texas State University San Marcos. Prior to his deanship he served as a faculty member for 19 years at Texas A & M University, a department chair, program coordinator, and in many other student affairs administrative positions during his service to higher education.

Faculty, administrators, former students, and researchers in the field often seek out Dr. Carpenter’s knowledge and expertise as we grapple with the changes we are facing in higher education. Dr. Carpenter is a widely respected teacher and scholar; he has won major awards in teaching, research, and service. He has served as chair of the prestigious Senior Scholars group within ACPA and founded the Faculty Fellows within NASPA.  His consummate professionalism, high standards, and focus on students have made him a guiding voice in the profession.

I asked Dr. Carpenter if he would be willing to talk a bit about leadership and ethics during a time when it feels like we are faced with many ethical dilemmas within higher education. We have issues facing higher education and student affairs on a local, regional, national, and international level. Below is an edited transcript of the questions I posed to Dr. Carpenter and his responses.

The Interview

Tell me a little about your career and the choices you made in working toward a deanship.

I suppose the principal choice was getting a doctorate. However, I then resolved that I would get at least five years of experience as a practitioner before considering the faculty, based on my experience as a student.  So, I served for a while as a Dean of Students before answering the siren call home to Texas, even though the only job I could find was as a major gifts development officer for Texas A&M.

I made the choice to publish while I was a doctoral student so that when an opening came up for a faculty position I was well prepared. Three years later a position in higher education opened up and I was selected for the position. As a faculty member I wanted to attempt to mentor students as I had been mentored, but I knew very little else about the field and the tenure track, or at least it seems that way in retrospect.

I loved the role of professor immediately and before long was hip deep in teaching, research, and service.  Within two years, I was offered a position as Executive Director of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), where I served 10 years, for most of those with only a one-course release!  ASHE opened my eyes to quality scholarship and the broader higher education field, but my first and last love was student affairs.  I remained loyal to ACPA and NASPA and have to this day.

In 2003, dual career issues and a delayed mid-life examination led me to change to Texas State University as a department chair.  I wanted to find a place to make a real difference for the last 15 or so years of my career and it has been a terrific choice.  I loved facilitating productivity.  I was then hired as Interim Dean after our dean left suddenly.  I was officially hired as Dean the following year. Through it all, my ethical and professional values have been those of student affairs, seeking the best and most growth oriented solutions for all concerned in any situation.  It turns out that these values work perfectly well with the problems that I find myself dealing with as a Dean.

How do you think ethics in student affairs has changed over your career?

I am tempted to say they have not, but I suspect that they have become more legally constrained and less instinctual.  By that I mean [faculty and student affairs professionals] were mostly taught a counseling version of ethics in the old days, with an implication that we would try to keep our student interactions confidential.  That all changed with Tarasoff and a variety of statutory reporting requirements, as well as the vagaries of liability.  [The case of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976) imposed an affirmative duty on therapists to warn a potential victim of intended harm by the client, stating that the right to confidentiality ends when the public peril begins. This legal decision sets an affirmative duty precedent in cases of harm to others that is generally accepted within the social work profession (McWhinney, Haskins-Herkenham, & Hare, 1992)].

I hope that what has not changed, and what I teach my students, is an aversion to paternalism, to telling students what to do in their own personal development.  We should facilitate good choices, even visit consequences for poor ones when we must, but we must never take away a student’s responsibility for himself/herself.  In fact, we need to clarify that for students and to facilitate the growth necessary so they get better at making positive, productive choices.  Is that ethics or education?  Can we square that attitude with legalistic rules and an investigatory environment?  Those are our new ethical issues.

What do you see as the most pressing ethical issues facing new professionals today?

Building off the response above, consider sexual violence and harassment.  One can conceive of a situation that might call for a sort of waiting period to allow clarity before pursuing a ruinous course of investigation and prosecution.  However, that is no longer an option. We are all “responsible employees” and we have strict rules to follow and roles to play.  I am certainly not suggesting that this new climate is not appropriate—as higher education institutions and officers of it, we (writ large) were so neglectful, for many decades, with so many negative consequences, mostly for women that something had to be done.  The new environment is the result.

Our ethical response is to continue to do the best we can to facilitate the growth of students who are caught up in the new process, to educate through appropriate sanctions for poor choices, and to support in every possible way student victims.  My point here is that perhaps we were not loud enough in our complaints about the discriminatory and deadly environment of the past and we did not insist on better.

This leads us to ask what other issues are we ignoring right now? What comes to mind immediately are social justice issues with regard to race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression, handicapping conditions, and students who are underprepared as a consequence of where they were born, among others.  These are all exacerbated by the rising costs of colleges and universities and the attendant self-selection on criteria other than fit and quality of education.  Are we speaking out loudly enough?  Are we advocating?  As the student experts, we must make ourselves heard.  This is our ethical responsibility as much as helping individual students cope.

How have you seen our professional organizations respond to the ethical challenges we face today? Has this changed over time?

It would not surprise anyone who has read my work that one thing that I am happy about is the newish focus on research and data based, organized professional development.  One sees a variety of technical, ethical, and legal topics addressed in a variety of ways that are available through conferences, workshops, on-line and print based venues.  The field is coming to have a fairly broad consensus of most of the body of knowledge, practice, and attitudes needed to do our jobs properly.  It is a very large body of knowledge, to be sure, and difficult to master, but we seem to have made a start.

There are also advocacy attempts nationally and to a lesser extent in states to testify, suggest, educate, cajole, and persuade policy makers to avoid toxic legislation and rules and to promote better ways.  I am satisfied that our associations have grown in their understanding of their roles as educational voices crying in a policy wilderness.  We have grown over time to be more professional, more organized, and more united, even when we pretend we are not similar voices for one field.

What advice and insights would you give to colleges and university student affairs faculty in preparing student affairs professionals to respond appropriately?

Pay attention to ethics and base them on the values of the field, historically and currently (that is what foundations courses should be about). In our field, foundations courses should emphasize current and historical practice. Further, I have become more and more convinced of the power of student stories and of enhanced case studies as educational vehicles.  We should help our students first, to understand that every student has a story and it is sometimes up to us whether that story has a happy ending or not, whether it ends in triumph of tragedy.  We should collect some of those stories and use them as cautionary tales and as celebrations.

We faculty should help students understand that they are professionals, that there are ethical guidelines and boundaries and that they are not negotiable or avoidable.  There is a professional knowledge base, there are best practices, and one is ethically bound to learn and follow them.  We faculty can help with that by being ethical in our own dealing with one another and with our students.


Dr. Carpenter offers history, insights, and advice for those preparing new professionals and others working as administrators in the profession of student affairs and within higher education. As we work toward aspirational ethical practice, it befits us to think about how we mentor and lead with the careful care paid to “doing the right thing.”

We live in a litigious society and the temptation to not act can be tempting. Dr. Carpenter cautions us to think about how we impact our organizations in the choices we make to do right by our students and colleagues. Being an advocate for those who lack voice and agency is our ethical responsibility. I thank Dr. Carpenter for his contributions to the profession and our understanding of the role we play in educating and mentoring the future of this profession we all love so much.

Discussion Questions

  1. Dr. Carpenter talks about the changes in our understanding of limits of confidentially and student data. How has this changed the way you do your daily work? Reflect on the impact.
  2. How do you stay current in the ever-changing field of student affairs? Think about and reflect upon the influence your professional organizations have had on your own ethical development.


McWhinney, M., Haskins-Herkenham, D., & Hare, I. (1992). The school social worker and confidentiality (Position Statement of the National Association of Social Workers, Commission on Education). Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

About the Author

Anne M. Hornak is an Associate Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She teaches courses in student affairs and higher education administration, ethics, and social justice. Her research interests include ethical decision-making, transformational learning and international education, and community college students. She has been involved with ACPA as a Directorate member of the Professional Preparation Commission, where she coordinated with the ethics committee. Her most recent book is entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Student Affairs Educator: Competencies and Case Studies for Early Career Professionals” [Stylus, 2014] co-authored with Sarah Marshall.

Please e-mail inquiries to Anne M. Hornak.


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.

Expanding Access to Study Abroad for Disadvantaged Students

The United States has long been the largest receiver of international students, dominating about 20% of the global market.  However, the country has not been as successful in terms of sending students abroad.  According to data collected by the Open Doors report, only about 1% of all United States college students study abroad during their collegiate experience. Granted, the number of Americans studying abroad has increased nearly threefold in the last two decades, rising from fewer than 100,000 students in the early 1990s to nearly 300,000 today.  But, the number remains proportionally tiny and the opportunity to study abroad remains closed off to a vast majority of students, particularly those from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds.  Figure 1 shows the racial disparities that exist in the U.S. study abroad population, with significantly fewer African American/Black and Hispanic/Latino students studying abroad than represented in the larger student population.  Studying abroad can have many benefits for students and there are ways to expand access for those academically and economically disadvantaged.

Figure 1: Percent of U.S. Study Abroad Students by Race/Ethnicity, 2012-2013

Source: Data comes from NASFA

Why Study Abroad?

Many who participate in a study abroad experience often describe it as life changing.  The opportunity to experience a different culture, interact with individuals from other countries, and overcome the challenges of living and studying abroad can bring a wide range of benefits. Surveys of those who have studied abroad suggest that studying abroad can advance one’s intercultural understanding, improve self-confidence, and become more self-aware.

Research also shows that the opportunity to study abroad is about more than providing students with an opportunity to experience a different culture, it has direct positive results on a student’s success in college and beyond.  Data from UC San Diego, UT Austin, and the University System of Georgia suggests that students who study abroad graduate at higher rates than those who do not.  Moreover, the Georgia report, which is based on a carefully designed 10-year study, found that study abroad had a positive effect on student GPA, particularly those students who entered college with low SAT scores.

Survey data from the United States and the United Kingdom also suggest that study abroad alumni believe that study abroad prepared them well for the workforce.  The findings of both studies revealed that college graduates who studied abroad were more likely to be employed within six months of graduating; more likely to work in a foreign country; and, for most areas of study, most likely to earn a higher wage than those who did not study abroad.

Expanding Access: An Exemplar Program

Given the important benefits accrued through study abroad, many colleges have been working to expand access to a broad range of students; however, the success of such efforts remains inconsistent.  One program of note is a collaborative effort between the Center for International Programs (CIP) and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  The winner of the Institute for International Education’s (IIE) 2015 Heiskell Award for outstanding study abroad program, the SUNY New Paltz collaborative brings together staff from the two different units to expand access to study abroad for students who are academically and economically disadvantaged.

EOP is a state-funded initiative to expand access and provide academic support for students who do not meet general admission requirements, but show potential for success.  To increase the number of EOP students who study abroad, the CIP and EOP staff work together to make EOP students aware of study abroad opportunities early in their educational experience.  The staff collaborates to advise students about financial matters, expectations, cross-cultural adjustment, and scholarship opportunities for study abroad by providing tutoring and financial resource.

Of particular note is that study abroad is embedded in the support work provided to disadvantaged students, reinforced by peers, and supported through scholarships.  In their first year, students in the EOP program are provided with an extra set of supports to bolster their academic success. As reported in their application for the award:

First-year EOP student seminars devote class time to international education opportunities, with assignments such as developing a four-year academic plan to include a study abroad experience.  First-year students attend special workshops during which returned EOP study abroad students speak to students about their experiences. The EOP study abroad liaison surveys students to gather data related to students’ needs, and the international center provides a writing tutor for students who need assistance with their scholarship essays for study abroad.

Beyond the academic support that is provided, the institution has also worked to identify funding to support the EOP students.  Since 2009, 30 EOP students have received funding from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship fund, a national scholarship program supported by IIE to help students with financial constraints study in a foreign country.  Beyond the Gilman scholarship, 35 students have received funding from other national and institutional sources.

The results speak for themselves.  Since 2007, the CIP and EOP staff has collaborated to support more than 140 EOP students going abroad. Moreover, the six-year graduation rate for EOP study abroad participants is 96%, as compared to a 63% six-year graduation rate for EOP students who do not study abroad.  In fact, the six-year graduation rate of EOP students exceeds that of general admission study abroad students (89%).

Key Takeaways

The success of the efforts at SUNY New Paltz illustrate that it is possible to expand access to study abroad for underrepresented groups.  A key highlight about this program is that it is not a new program, per se; rather it was a new process that complemented the existing work of both offices.  Below is a distillation of some of the key takeaways that might help others replicate this success on their campuses.

Shared Vision

Having a shared vision or set of goals fosters shared commitment and helps focus and align activities.  A key component of the success of the New Paltz program is that there is a sense of a shared commitment to increasing the number of student from disadvantaged backgrounds studying abroad.  With the specific goal of increasing the number of EOP students who were studying abroad, all of the involved staff knew that their efforts needed to increase EOP student engagement.  In launching a similar initiative, there needs to be shared vision of what is to be accomplished and this vision needs to be communicated to all involved staff.

Expanding the Team

Complementary to having a shared vision is having a shared team.  One of the critical components of the success of this program is that there was a collective effort to achieve the vision.  Offices did not point fingers when it came to the responsibility for acting.  The directors and staff of both offices worked together and shared responsibility.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Because of the shared vision, the staffs at both CIP and EOP were able to create mutually reinforcing activities.  This did not require a great deal of additional effort; rather they had to think strategically about building in activities to their existing work that would drive forward the achievement of their goals.  This was about more than simply informing students of an opportunity.  This was about creating an entire set of activities that got them excited about studying abroad and provided supports to overcome the barriers (real and perceived) that might exist.

Measuring Outcomes 

Success builds success and the leadership at SUNY New Paltz wanted to ensure that the new efforts were actually producing the required outcomes.  As such, they developed mechanisms to track a variety of measures to determine not just whether they were achieving their immediate goal (i.e., increasing the number of EOP students studying abroad) as well as ancillary academic benefits such as improved GPAs and completion rates.  This demonstrated success makes it easier to justify additional resources for the program and the institution is now working to expand the model to develop collaborations with other offices that support disadvantaged students.

Tapping into Existing Funding

A common concern is that study abroad is financially out of reach for many students.  In response, there are a growing number of scholarships being made available to assist students with overcoming this hurdle.  The Gilman Scholarships, mentioned above, are just one example.  Others can be found here.  An important role of campus staff is to help students find the resources they need to make study abroad possible.

Discussion Questions

  1. How many students on your campus study abroad?  Are the demographics of the cohort of students studying abroad similar to the general campus population?
  2. What barriers exist on your campus for students to study abroad?  Do these barriers differ for different demographic groups?
  3. What data supports the existence of these barriers?  How might you obtain this data?
  4. Who should be responsible for expanding access to study abroad for underrepresented groups?
  5. Are there ways to leverage existing resources to support more students studying abroad, particularly those from underrepresented groups?
  6. What steps might you take tomorrow to initiate change?

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Senior Associate Vice Chancellor and Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Strategic Leadership for the State University of New York as well as associate professor of educational administration and policy studies, and Co-Director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) at the State University of New York, Albany.  He has been a member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. He is currently a member of the governing board of SUNY Korea. His most recent books include Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch Campuses (2010, Jossey-Bass); Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers (2012, SUNY Press) and Academic Governance and Leadership in Higher Education (2013, Stylus Press).  

Please e-mail inquires to Jason E. Lane.

Follow him on Twitter at @ProfJasonLane


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

Moral Positionality in Social Justice Advocacy and Leadership

When President Obama established the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January 2014, campus-based sexual violence was squarely in the national spotlight.  Although important, this attention came decades after countless students, faculty, and administrators began the fight on their campuses. We may be at a tipping point where pursuing justice for survivors of sexual violence is taken seriously; however, it is naïve to assume this momentum will continue without advocacy by individuals working with others to sustain the change begun on college campuses.

My focus here is on character in the context of social justice advocacy. I believe character is at the core of ethical professional practice, yet it is difficult to understand because it stems from personal desires that motivate our values into action. This deeply felt commitment to a cause could lead to intense conflict with others. We each have had colleagues who are gripped by their passion for a cause that seems marginally relevant to us. Even our most like-minded colleagues will view social justice from their respective positions with varying levels of intensity.

Drawing on findings from an on-going study of professional dispositions I show how working together as advocates for social change demands that we be explicit about our moral positions in dialogue with our colleagues. I conclude my comments with some questions for reflection.

Character in Ethical Professional Practice

Student affairs practitioners demonstrate character on a daily basis through conduct reflecting their best intentions (Humphrey, Janosik, & Creamer, 2004). Peterson and Seligman (2004) contend that an individual’s character is fluid rather than fixed, and that one’s traits are “stable and general but also shaped by the individual’s setting and thus capable of change” (p. 10). To place character in the context of ethical professional practice, I will briefly revisit the framework introduced in my last column.

The ethical leadership framework (Table 1) is intended to guide reflection and dialogue on issues with moral implications, like responding to sexual violence. It has three domains: (a) consciousness, the awareness of self and context; (b) capacity, the knowledge and skills to act; and, (c) character, the will and courage to act. These domains cut across three levels of practice: (a) practitioner, the intrapersonal realm of thoughts, emotions, desires; (b) profession, the interpersonal dimension of collaboration and practice; and (c) institution, collective social entities like universities, governments, and other organizations.  For each level of practice I offer a fundamental question to prompt reflection and dialogue on ethical practice: Who am I? Who are we? and, What is our influence?

My focus here is the character domain. Character permeates our profession, manifest in the practitioner who joins with colleagues to advocate for students in the institutions that regulate our work. The complete framework also reminds us that ethical practice requires more from practitioners than truth-telling and collaboration. We must also be aware of ethical issues and competent enough to respond authentically as individuals in a profession that has teaching, leading, and advocacy as its mission and contribution to higher education.

Level of Practice Critical Questions Consciousness Capacity Character
Practitioner Who am I? Aware Competent Authentic
Profession Who are we? Learners Servants Colleagues
Institution What is our influence? Teaching Leading Advocating

Advocacy: Benefits and Costs of Ethical Practice

Surprisingly, advocacy is not among the ten professional competencies in student affairs; social justice receives passing mention as one of several themes for professional development activities (ACPA & NASPA, 2010). These gaps are puzzling, for as Harrison (2010) argued, “if there is a core function within the student affairs field, it is advocating for students, securing their place at the table where decisions that affect them are made” (p. 167). Social justice advocacy is infused in our work; however, it cannot be fully realized without our colleagues.

Advocacy has benefits and costs. At its best, acting on behalf of others is reflected in this statement from the ACPA Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence in Higher Education (2015):

The development of the capacity and competency to lead in thought and action about the crisis of sexual violence will ensure we, as a profession, move beyond compliance and toward the creation of a holistic and coordinated approach to address sexual violence issues on campus. In this way all educators, from graduate students in student affairs preparation programs and new professionals, to faculty and Senior Student Affairs Officers, will become the champions of culture change regarding the problem of sexual violence on campus (p. 19)

This description of individuals working with colleagues to advocate for institutional change exemplifies the character domain outlined in the framework.  It is also very difficult to achieve. More often, we find ourselves in conflict with colleagues who may agree on the outcome (justice), but not the means to achieve it (advocacy, activism, or hedging).

Conflict weighs heavily on advocates. Some become martyrs, who end up socially and politically isolated, while sellouts eventually submit to the status quo (Harrison, 2010). More unfortunate are advocates who turn on their colleagues. The madvocate “tries to change minds through anger, righteous indignation, guilting, gossiping, and moral outrage” (Viray & Nash, 2014, p. 21). Ostensibly madvocates justify their tactics as truth-telling; ultimately, they “stumble on their own regrets when their actions are not in alignment with their moral values” (Viray & Nash, 2014, p. 26).

Beyond aligning values and behavior, I contend authentic advocates (and leaders of all kinds) must develop the character strength to respect what their colleagues, in good faith, bring to the table, especially if these positions run counter to their deeply held beliefs. Dialogue around touchy ethical issues can be more productive when we can articulate our moral positions.

Moral Positionality

In the search for principles or philosophies to justify our ethical actions, we would do well to acknowledge the fluidity of our moral positions. Research shows how our subconscious desires (Green, 2014), responses to perceived competition (Weeden & Kurzban, 2014), and implicit prejudices (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) motivate our ethical choices.

If we truly seek collaboration with our colleagues, then we should contextualize our views by disclosing what I refer to as our moral positionality: the location from which we are advocating our opinion on a given issue within a dynamic field of conflicting possibilities for ethical action. The progressive tense for the verb to advocate is intentional, signifying that we never occupy the exact same moral position on every issue. As professionals, we’re engaged in an endless moral performance, motivated by desires (for justice) and restrained by an institutional pressure to keep things as they are (i.e., “let’s wait to see if this goes away”).

Locating your moral position isn’t easy to do. Even in hindsight, we have a hard time describing our positions in a dilemma, much less doing it in the heat of the moment. My hope is that with repeated practice in a constructive setting, we can open the door of self-awareness a little wider and take a step toward understanding our colleagues’ positions as well. This can establish a foundation for collaborating on areas of mutual concern.

The Study: Conflict, Character, and Context in Ethical Practice

These ideas about ethical positionality originated from a study of ethical practice. Character was defined as a synthesis of a practitioner’s values and motives, as described by theories of moral maturity (Rest, 1994) and educator dispositions (Burant, Chubbuck, & Whipp, 2007; Sockett, 2009). Participants (n=50) recalled an ethical conflict from their professional practice, which they felt was resolved appropriately. I gathered narrative data on the content of their conflicts and the abilities, motivations, and values each used to respond ethically.

Analyzing each participant’s response, I looked for examples of motivation and values in response to the ethical conflict. Next, I looked for instances where these intersected. I presumed that these intersections captured a description of their character. I categorizing exemplars of character into four moral positions. Before I introduce the positions, I present some of the findings below.

The Stuff of Character: Motivation and Values

A participant’s motivation was situated along a continuum. At one end was the self (intrinsic), while situation (extrinsic) was on the other. An orientation to self is not self-interest or egoism; rather, it is the motivation to act in a way that demonstrates personal dignity and ethical integrity (Mennuti & Creamer, 1991). The participants spoke of intrinsic drives, such as honor and satisfaction:

•I had to tell someone. I don’t believe there was a law mandating me to do it, but there’s an unwritten ethical law that says you have to do it.

•I’m not really motivated by a check. I’m glad that I have a good-paying job, but what really drives me is helping others and seeing students and colleagues succeed.

At the other end of the continuum, motivation was influenced by the context of the situation. Those who exhibited orientation to situation, spoke of accountability or conflict avoidance:

•I was doing the job I was chosen to do in that particular situation. I’m held accountable to create an organizational culture and communicate expectations on institutional policies, regulations, codes, federal and state laws.

•I’m a people pleaser. I avoid conflict. I’m definitely a non-confrontational person. I think 90% of the time my flight response is the first to react.

Character is also comprised of values, which reveal how participants prioritize the issues at stake in the ethical conflict. As with the motivation data, values was arrayed on a continuum from means-based to ends-based (Kidder, 1995).

Means-based values prioritize laws or duties over relationships or the context of the conflict. Participants judged the “rightness” of their actions by how they lived up to principles they considered to be self-evident:

•I wasn’t going to be able to live with myself if I knew that I had willfully violated the law to satisfy the whims of my boss. I couldn’t live with the consequences of that.

•I believe people have to live up to their actions. If it means they lose benefits, then that’s the consequences. They have to deal with it.

Ends-based values are best expressed by the saying, “the ends justify the means.” Participants’ placed greater weight on the impact of their actions on people and situations than on fulfilling laws, principles or rules. Flexibility and outcomes were important considerations:

•I don’t like to call it policy. Policy is for HR issues or accounting problems. I prefer to say “office guidelines.” With guidelines you can be a little more flexible.

•I always ask, what is it that I want people to do? I want to know how I can deliver the message in a helpful, rather than confrontational way.

Moral Positions in Ethical Professional Practice

I now describe four moral positions, based on instances where the participants’ values and motives aligned in practice. All participants occupied one of these positions as they resolved their conflicts. Two caveats: I cannot generalize these beyond the participants in the study; also, it’s possible there are more positions than just these four.

Pragmatic idealist. These individuals believe that rules are important to know and to follow, but those in authority are not always in touch with what other people need. When making an ethical decision, the impact on people should be the most important consideration. One participant declared: “It is up to those of us who have some power to navigate the system and make it work for people.”

Principled realist. Consistency is the most important for these “by-the-book” people. Rules provide a common source of authority and they must be followed. Actions have consequences that apply regardless of the situation. People who break rules have a right to explain their behavior, but ultimately the rules will determine who is responsible and what will happen if the rules are broken.

Principled idealist. Conventional values and respect for institutional structure are very important to these people, who rely on enduring principles as a foundation for their actions. They are wary of radical views or those who would overturn the order of things in an arbitrary way. They respect others’ right to question authority, yet they tend to support the structure of the institution in most instances.

Pragmatic realist. These people choose their battles wisely. Ethical actions are strategic and can be paused for a time if it means living to fight another day. If they sense that those in authority are not ready to support their position they will reassess their plans rather than challenge authority directly. One participant said, “I’m not so quick to act if it will prove to be a wedge between me and my boss.”

To be clear, these are not fixed identities or stable personality types. Rather, they are sites, any of which individuals may occupy, more than once, as they discern the best approach to resolve a specific conflict or concern. As transitory sites, it should also be noted that there is no developmental progression or a “better way to be ethical” implied in these positions.

Based on peer debriefing in classes and presentations, these positions seem to resonate with practitioners. Most tend to gravitate toward the pragmatic idealist position. This makes sense: Our profession has pragmatic roots (Young, 2003) and attracts people with an idealistic desire to improve the lives of students. I will admit, however, that I’m happy to see there are usually one or two people who occupy the other positions in the context of their ethical conflict. I validate their positionality and honor their courage to take a position that may go against the grain in our profession. It isn’t easy to be in the moral minority!

Getting to We: Colleagues in the Profession

So, what does this mean for advocates and other leaders? Sometimes our moral positionality is not aligned with our colleagues’ views. This is not a character flaw. Each of us has varying degrees of ethical awareness, ability, and desire to advocate for change. It is unprofessional to slander those who hold views different from ours. This typology promotes collegiality by giving us language to make our desires less implicit and more authentic. In doing so, we can begin to address the next critical question: Who are we? As colleagues, we are both learners, who acquire new skills and ideas, and servants who support each other to achieve common goals like advocacy for social justice.

Reflection Questions

  1. Reflect on a recent ethical conflict. Where would you place your motivation and valuation on the scales?  How about colleagues who were involved in the conflict?
  2. When have you found yourself at odds with the prevailing moral positionality of your colleagues? Is there a pattern across the conflicts? How did you reconcile the conflict both internally and with others?
  3. How do the moral positions in the typology reflect your experience with colleagues? Would you add or revise the positions? Why?


ACPA Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence Prevention in Higher Education (2015). Beyond compliance: Sexual violence prevention report and recommendations for ACPA Governing Board. Author: ACPA: College Student Educators International.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte Press.

Burant, T. J., Chubbuck, S. M., & Whipp, J. L. (2007). Reclaiming the moral in the dispositions debate. Journal of Teacher Education58(5), 397-411.

Greene, J. (2014). Moral tribes: Emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. Atlantic Books.

Harrison, L. M. (2014). How student affairs professionals learn to advocate: A phenomenological study. Journal of College and Character, 15(3), 165-178.

Kidder, R. M. (1995). How good people make tough choices. New York: Morrow.

Mennuti, R. B., & Creamer, D. G. (1991). Role of orientation, gender, and dilemma content in moral reasoning. Journal of College Student Development, 32(3), 241- 248.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

Rest, J. R. (1994). Background: Theory and research. In J. R. Rest & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral development in the professions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sockett, H. (2009). Dispositions as virtues: The complexity of the construct. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(3), 291-303.

Viray, S. & Nash, R. J. (2014). Taming the madvocate within: Social justice meets social compassion. About Campus, 19(5), 20-27.

Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2014). The hidden agenda of the political mind: How self-interest shapes our opinions and why we won’t admit it. Princeton University Press.

Young, R. B. (2003). Philosophies and values guiding the student affairs profession. In S. R. Komives & D. B. Woodard, Jr (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 89-106). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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.

Becoming the Culturally Prepared Professional You Need to be: Preparing to Better Serve Your Students

Becoming a professional that is highly effective in the profession and specific role on campus is an ongoing challenge.  As many of us find responsibilities and tasks expanding in our professional roles, it is increasingly difficult to meet these needs while engaging in professional development activities.  An area often overlooked amongst the multitude of our professional responsibilities is developing one’s cultural preparedness or competency.  In an ever-evolving higher education environment that continues to see increased accountability measures, we as practitioners need to be sure we are prepared to engage the cultural challenges presenting on campus and in the surrounding communities.  This is ever apparent in the United States as the past year has seen headlines related to racial tension and sexual assault issues facing both campuses and the larger society.

While attending several professional conferences this past spring the issue of competence, preparedness, and how student affairs/services professionals best serve students from a cultural perspective was a consistent topic.  Developing a degree of cultural preparedness is not a universal or straightforward skill set, but is rather a collection of awareness, experiences, knowledge, open-mindedness, and adaptation.  I am reminded of this each year as I work with undergraduate and graduate interns in an overseas setting.  Becoming culturally competent is a never-ending lifelong process, and one that begins with having a realistic self-view, understanding of your personality, and an ability to interact with others within a social context.  Culture is understood, applied, and interpreted in a multitude of ways and can apply to a vast number of human attributes.  Culture is “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another” as defined by Dutch social psychologistGeert Hofstede, who did a pioneering study of cultures across modern nations.  The “category” mentioned can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or genders.

To illustrate the value of culture in higher education the Association of American Colleges & Universities, in an extensive project from 2007-2009, developed common core expectations to undergraduate learning within a basic framework of expectations.  This established a core set of values and means of assessment on campuses at various levels.  As a result, 16 value rubrics were created, including one on Intercultural Knowledge and Competence.  This rubric suggests a systematic way to measure how one identifies with their cultural influences, analyzes them with others, and adapts to new encounters.   It emphasizes the need of campus communities to meaningfully engage with others, consider historical and political contexts, and focus the impact of culture on learning.

As one academic year closes and you prepare for the next I challenge you to become a more culturally prepared professional.   The following sections offer some insights and items for consideration on how each of us, no matter our personal make-up and campus community, can work to become more culturally prepared professionals, allowing us to better serve our students and campuses.

As a note, the list below is a general list of key focus areas and potential opportunities.  Each person must develop an individual strategy based on ones personal make-up (self-awareness, knowledge, history, etc.), current campus and personal environment, perceived needs, and engagement opportunities.

Cultural Self-Awareness

Cultural experiences develop an individual’s preparedness and growth. Higher education is increasingly global, with an increase in the exchange of students and student affairs professionals domestically and internationally. Cultural experiences and exposure provide for both personal and professional growth, however, being aware and competent is increasingly becoming a necessary twenty-first century skill.  The key to cultural understanding and awareness begins first with an understanding and awareness of self.    We each have a keen sense of self-awareness, however this awareness may often not be fully explored.  Essential to this is the ability to accurately evaluate and see yourself as others see you.

Such self-exploration is not one size fits all and we each are unique persons, based on our knowledge and experiences.  Further, having a language fluency or knowledge is not enough.  To expand self-awareness engaging in interactions needs to take place in order to further allow for self-evaluation.

Possible Suggestions

  • Identify your heritage, personal attributes or identifiers, likes, dislikes, tastes, hobbies, etc.
  • Explore your cultural framework and determine experiences that you can undertake to expand your cross-cultural horizons.  Understand your present limits.
  • Change a pattern or routine and try something different or unfamiliar to expand beyond your current comfort zone (could be food, language, socialization, travel, etc.).
  • Practice exploring new topics related to diversity and culture by engaging in tactful and productive dialogues.
  • Converse with close friends and family on how others perceive you.
  • Consider completing an inventory or assessment on personality or self-perception to better understand how you see and interact with the world around you.

Understanding Local & Campus Culture

As with anything we must know where we are or where we came from in order to know where to go.  This is especially important in our professional roles on campus.  Every country of the world, state, in the union, city or town has a unique make-up comprised of numerous historical, social, economic and other influences.  Further, institutions of higher learning (as any company or corporation) have an institutional culture as well built on traditions, civic, and campus climates.   Each of these impact factors creates a context under which we work and our students learn, with our work still about serving students first and foremost. In order to embrace the cultural atmosphere seek to identify the major cultural features, the impacts on the campus and local communities, and how this information can support your efforts in better serving these communities.

Possible Suggestions

  • Participate in, volunteer to help with, or attend major activities or festivals in the local community.
  • Identify the local heritage and key cultural groups and activities that define your community.
  • Identify the international and domestic diversity populations on your campus and locally.
  • Participate in, volunteer to help with, or attend activities facilitated by the Office of International Student Services.
  • Identify the goals and objectives of your campus, and your division or department, towards internationalization, globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity.

Seeking Cultural Exchanges

The American Council on Education (ACE) in 2011 stated:

It is the obligation of colleges and universities to prepare people for a globalized world, including developing the ability to compete economically, to operate effectively in other cultures and settings, to use knowledge to improve their own lives and their communities, and to better comprehend the realities of the contemporary world so that they can better meet their responsibilities as citizens.

In preparing students for a globalized world ACE specifies the task of higher education institutions, and indirectly the professionals serving them, to promote personal and professional interests linked to knowledge and cultural preparedness.   Although study and work abroad opportunities are very rewarding, other opportunities exist that are less invasive.  Cultural exchanges exist in many forms and do not always require one to uproot and spend months or years in another part of the country or overseas.  These can be found on campus, in your local community, through entertainment, books, online, and many other mediums.

Once you are intentionally self-aware and have identified the cultural influences that impact your local environment, it is important to seek out opportunities for cultural exchange. Such exchanges can be formal and informal, part of your professional role or personal hobbies, and can be significant in time/commitment or single exchanges.  From campus international week activities, lecture series, and language dialogue programs, to off-campus cultural meals, foreign films, and ethnic festivals, a multitude of exchanges exist.  The important key is to intentionally and actively seek a meaningful exchange opportunity for you.

Possible Suggestions

  • Be sure to respect all the ways in which people differ, including personalities and preferences, for effective interactions and exchanges.
  • Get involved with the international community on your campus or locally, volunteer to help with the Office of International Student Services.
  • Network with colleagues who have studied or worked overseas.  Engage meaningful conversations with students or in student programs promoting culture or diversity.
  • Look into taking courses about different cultures, religions, international issues, or higher education courses that have a focus on international education or students.
  • Consider participating in service trips or personal travel to international locations or regions of interest.
  • Work, Intern or Study Abroad – requires serving/interacting with a unique local & institutional sub culture.

Gain Exposure to New Things

Understanding one’s self, the local/campus communities, and seeking cultural exchanges are each important steps in expanding cultural awareness and preparedness.  Another important aspect, inherent throughout, is the willingness to gain exposure to new things.  Be willing to go outside of your comfort zone; try different foods & customs, be immersed in an unfamiliar context, and challenge yourself to grow.  Don’t let your inhibitions and fears limit you. Exploring culture is a lifelong process, and one that no one individual can be masterful in all situations.  Embrace diversity, culture, and push yourself to grow through new experiences.

Several suggestions and ideas of how to gain exposure have already been stated in this piece. Below are further ideas for consideration.

Possible Suggestions

  • Enhance your awareness of diversity and culture. Each includes a wide spectrum of differences that may include innate characteristics, such as age, race, gender, ethnicity, mental and physical abilities, or other orientations.  Additionally, acquired characteristics such as education, income, religion, work experience, language skills, geographic location, or family status present some additional differences.
  • Seek culinary experiences at a restaurant that maintains the culture and cuisine of the nation it represents. Look for a restaurant with direct links to the represented country, or is using authentic recipes.
  • View films and listen to music from other countries or regions.
  • Join online communities, professional organizations, or other web-based resources to connect with people from different nations or cultures.
  • Consider a mentoring or exchange program with someone from a different background.
  • Visit a history or cultural museum nearby or when traveling elsewhere to understand the ethnicities of the people who settled in the locale.
  • Travel to a community outside your own to learn about their culture and history,

backgrounds, religious and cultural practices, languages, cuisine, etc.


Students represent even more diverse populations and are influenced by multinational and multi-cultural factors.  As student affairs/services professionals we need to prepare ourselves to embrace students at both an interpersonal and intercultural level.  Self-awareness is paramount to embracing cultural understanding and must begin with reflection, knowledge, and open-mindedness. Student bodies are expanding and more representative of the global population, bringing multiculturalism and diversity issues in unique ways to our classrooms, residence halls, and campus engagement efforts.  Exploring culture allows each of us to develop as competent professionals and individuals.  The process enables each of us to review our attitude, skills, and knowledge leading to more effective and appropriate behaviors and communications.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does your division, department, or office do to develop in team members’ cultural awareness and exposure?  What efforts do you do?
  2. What are key cultural factors and influences that impact your campus?
  3. Are you aware of resources and activities to expand ones cultural knowledge and exposure on campus?  In the local community?
  4. How do you actively expand your cultural awareness, exposure, and competency both professionally and personally?

About the Author

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK).  With fifteen years of higher education administrative experience and having worked at institutions in the US, UK, and in the Middle East, he has spent more than a decade working abroad. He has experience in international education on a variety of fronts including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs.

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.


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