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.

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.

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.

Moral Reasoning: Exploring the Complexities of Crisis

Anne M. Hornak

Moral Reasoning: Exploring the Complexities of Crisis

As ethical student affairs practitioners, we face competing interests as we navigate the complex terrain of our college campuses each day.   We are surrounded by ethical and moral dilemmas on a daily basis. As institutional leaders and educators we have a moral imperative to discuss and explore these issues as they arise around us. In this article I will examine the complex nature of moral reasoning and duties related to decision-making, leadership, and campus safety.

As a backdrop, I will utilize Title IX citations related to the handling of sexual assault on college campuses.  The May 2014 Office of Civil Rights (OCR) release of the 55 institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints on campuses across the United States has sparked conversation and debate about the role and responsibility of campus leaders.  Embedded within the Title IX investigations are myriad legal issues as well. This article will not explore those issues, but one should be mindful that ethical issues are often wrought with legal implications.

Using sexual violence and harassment as the emphasis of this column, it is important to focus on moral decisions. I would like to take some time to explore the competing entities and offer some considerations for practitioners in student affairs and higher education.

Ethic of Care

College students who have been victims of sexual violence and harassment require a heightened focus on the ethic of care (Vaughn, 2008). The ethic of care is an approach that emphasizes close personal relationships, with a focus on compassion, love, and sympathy. Operating from an ethic of care focuses on making decisions from a relational perspective. What student affairs professionals need to carefully balance is the legal process that may ensue with the mental and psychological needs of the victim. First and foremost professionals should acknowledge their professional limitations related to working with victims of sexual violence and harassment. Making referrals to trained mental health and psychology professionals and helping mobilize the response team early is critical. Most campuses offer care response teams that can quickly mobilize to offer support and make referrals. It is critical that all campus personnel work together to facilitate seamless responses across campus.

Trustworthy Information

Articulating and defining appropriate and timely responses to situations of sexual violence and harassment is the moral, ethical, and legal responsibility of the campus at large. Most campuses across this country have defined and continually review their policies and practices related to reporting and next steps. The more vexing ethical dilemma campuses find themselves in often relates to what occurs next. How to begin to handle the media, legal and campus based judicial process, and the other stakeholders involved, either directly or indirectly.

During a recent Title IX training that I attended, the facilitator stated, “Title IX investigations are so critical and we cannot get them wrong. There cannot be missteps anywhere in the process” (personal communication, November 2014). I was so struck by this statement and realized the comment was about so much more than the victim. While I am not focusing this column on the recent Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia, it is a rich controversy to use in analyzing an ethical, moral, and legal dilemma. As practitioners the moving target often seems to be trustworthy information. As ethical decision makers, it is important that decisions are made based on the best information we have at the time of the decision (Vaughn, 2008).

Information can be a powerful tool in helping make decisions that are in the best interest for all involved. It is also important to be conscious of the notion that not all stakeholders are directly involved in the incident. While not an exhaustive list, stakeholders often include all students – current and prospective – faculty, staff, alumni, community members, and friends of the institution. The safety and welfare of students should be the primary focus of all supporting officials. When making decisions that impact the campus environment and safety of students, the duty to warn and protect precedence is critical.


Communication is fundamental during a crisis situation. If we define sexual violence and harassment as a crisis, ethical communication principles must be used. When considering ethical communication, practitioners should consider the Credo for Ethical Communication that was prepared by the National Communication Association (2000). The principles include:

  • Truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason are essential to the integrity of communication.
  • Endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision-making fundamental to a civil society.
  • Strive to understand and respect other communicators before evaluating and responding to their messages.
  • Access to communication resources and opportunities are necessary to fulfill human potential and contribute to the well being of families, communities, and society.
  • Promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators.
  • Condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through distortion, intolerance, intimidation, coercion, hatred, and violence.
  • Commit to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.
  • Advocate sharing information, opinions, and feelings when facing significant choices while also respecting privacy and confidentiality.
  • Unethical communication threatens the quality of all communication and consequently the well being of individuals and the society in which we live.
  • Accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others.

These principles should not only be understood, but also discussed frequently.  By analyzing the headlines of complex campus situations through the lens of the Credo for Ethical Communication, practitioners will become comfortable with the courageous conversations that generally follow sensitive situations.  Preparation is paramount.

Ethical decision-making in student affairs is challenged by the complexities of actual situations and the various ways we respond to these situations. In cases of sexual violence and harassment, where multiple stakeholders are involved, the details can become complicated to navigate and difficult to traverse.  It is critical that campus officials and community constituents have a clear plan for communication and consultation.

University crisis teams can get caught up in working diligently to maintain institutional integrity and image in the face of sexual violence and harassment claims. As moral leaders, student affairs professionals need to be making sure the narrative coming out of the institution is accurate and does not further exploit victims of traumatic crimes.


In making ethical decisions, leaders must explore the consequences of each decision. Moral reasoning involves acting and making decisions in the best interest of others, promoting justice, and respecting autonomy. As ethical leaders who aspire to a higher standard for our students, we have a professional responsibility to promote fundamental fairness for all. The complex nature of ethical issues in academia merits honest consideration for the pursuit of care and justice.

As highly trained, ethical practitioners, one must remember that caring is a critical and inescapable part of the moral life. Caring must be a central tenet as we navigate these complex and ill-structured problems (King & Kitchener, 1994). We need to aspire to transparency of knowledge, while also controlling the narrative to be accurate and honest to our students and campuses.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about the moral and professional principles at stake during crisis situations on campuses. How do you balance the needs of the various stakeholders that may be in conflict with one another?
  2. Using the Credo for Ethical Communication as your frame of reference, how do your values shape the potential responses to sexual violence and harassment? How do you balance the needs of the institution in framing the narrative with your own values?
  3. Explore the various stakeholders involved with a crisis situation, like sexual violence and harassment. How do you work with various campus offices and units to create an environment where those involved and affected feel supported and heard?


King, P.M. & Kitchener, K.S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Communication Association (2000). Credo on ethical communication. Available at:…

Vaughn, L. (2007) Doing ethics: Moral reasoning and contemporary issues. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

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 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.

A Model for Ethical Professional Practice and Leadership

A Model for Ethical Professional Practice and Leadership

Jonathan O’Brien, California State University, Long Beach

As practitioners, we share values and principles that are the foundation of our profession. How we implement them is filtered through our family traditions, life experiences, and the preparation and training we received in formal education.  Once employed, we are also obliged to support the missions and goals of our institutions and functional areas (Hirt, 2006; Tull & Madrano, 2008). Although I have stated this rather straightforwardly, it’s not this simple. Anyone with time in our field knows that personal dilemmas and interpersonal conflicts about ethical issues are common.

In this column, I start with the assumption that ethical conflicts present us with opportunities to develop ethical competency. “Ethical Professional Practice” is the only competency area recognized by our largest professional associations as an “integral component of all the competency areas” (ACPA & NASPA, 2010, p. 12). An ethical practitioner is obligated to “explain how one’s professional practice also aligns with one’s personal code of ethics and ethical statements of professional student affairs associations” (p. 12). Although ethical practice is so central to our work, there are surprisingly few theoretical tools to guide reflection, dialogue, and leadership around this topic. I will offer a model for thinking about ethical professional practice and its integral role in promoting dialogue and leadership.

The Attitude Problem

As a former supervisor and now a faculty member in a student affairs preparation program, I find that professional conduct is very difficult to teach and evaluate. We have resources to describe the knowledge and skills required for practice (CAS, 2006; ACPA/NASPA, 2010). We also have conferences, training, and knowledge communities that increase our awareness of self and others. However, I have not yet found a concise and useful way to guide the exploration of moral conduct or to translate this behavior into ethical leadership that is reflective of the values and competencies of our field.

In reality, it can be difficult to articulate the conduct we are trying to evaluate and develop. We tend to focus on the extremes or our feedback is too vague or too selective. A constructively critical conversation about character lapses, if poorly facilitated, can insult those on the receiving end. Additionally, I am sensitive to the ways that the term ‘attitude’ has been abused by those from privileged groups to marginalize people, often from minority populations, who advocate for social change. It can be easy for those in power to dismiss persistent advocacy as a bad attitude. Instead, it might be more productive to discuss behavior and avoid the term ‘attitude,’ which is often offensive or confusing.

Many documents enumerate values and principles in student affairs; yet, universal agreement is elusive (Reason & Broido, 2011). As our campuses diversify, students and colleagues bring with them values and perspectives that challenge conventional notions of what is morally acceptable and ethically defensible. Every day we read about ethical issues, such as increases in internet-based plagiarism (Gabriel, 2010), secret video recordings of sexual encounters to avoid allegations of rape (Bazelon, 2009), male students who refuse to work with female peers on religious grounds (Slaughter, 2014), or objections to gender-neutral housing (Fowler, 2013).

Conflict as a Source for Reflective Practice

Kwame Appiah (2010) aptly noted that the most intense conflicts are between individuals who can agree on the definition of the values they share but quarrel bitterly over how best to implement them. Campus conflicts can arise from many sources, like feeling disrespected by our colleagues or the realization that we are complicit in institutional structures that suppress dissent (Holmes, Edwards, & DeBowes, 2009). Unfortunately, we can frustrate our efforts to support students when we are quick to vilify those who disagree with our positions and implementation strategies.

When viewed as critical incidents, conflicts with ethical implications become opportunities to explore our ethical professional practice.  A critical incident is an actual event, bounded in time and history, involving people, practices, and policies. Try this exercise to identify a critical incident:

Take a moment to identify a specific incident in which you were most proud of what you did, although others advised you not to do it or they questioned your motives. Instead, you took action and you were right!

Identify the incident:

  • The facts: when, where, who was involved?
  • What was your role/title/position?
  • What were your goals and intentions in the situation?
  • What was the outcome?

C3 Model of Ethical Professional Practice

The model I propose here is intended to facilitate reflection and promote dialogue on ethical practice. I refer to it as the C3 model, as it constructs ethical professional practice across three domains: (a) consciousness, the awareness of self and situation; (b) capacity, appropriate knowledge and skills required to act responsibly; and, (c) character, the motives and values that drive our response to a critical incident. Each of these domains combines in varying degrees in order to produce the observable behaviors that others recognize as our ethical conduct. This process is subjective and, although it often occurs without much thought, I contend that we are able to choose how we respond to a critical incident, especially if we commit to reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses in each domain.

C3 Ethics Model

The model is a synthesis of two theories that describe moral conduct. The first theory, on the origins of moral behavior (Rest & Narvaez, 1994), posits that ethical behavior is the result of an interaction of four subjective functions, including an individual’s sensitivity to an ethical dilemma, judgment to select the best course of action, motivation to prioritize values, and the character to act ethically, even in the face of resistance from others. The second theory describes the character of professional educators as dispositions, an individual’s motivation to act with awareness and intention in a given context (Splitter, 2010).  The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (n.d.) defined them as the “habits of professional action and moral commitments that underlie an educator’s performance.”

Although the concept of dispositions is relatively new to student affairs literature, I prefer it to attitudes when describing moral conduct in professional practice; the former has a long tradition in virtue ethics. It describes the relatively stable patterns of thought and emotion that produce behaviors that we tend to display consistently over time (Timpe, n.d.). The term attitudes is problematic for me, since its common usage describes moods or temporary states. Dispositions are the enduring influences on our behavior that others come to perceive as our character.

Since they emanate from the personal values and beliefs of individuals, dispositions are difficult to teach; yet, they are essential for ethical professional practice and can be brought to light. O’Shea (2011) described how dispositions are best learned by “a synthesis of traditional classroom instruction in the intellectual virtues with experiential influences and critical self-reflection” (p. 4). Employers expect positive dispositions from candidates as well. In a content analysis of more than 1,700 job descriptions for administrative positions in student affairs, Hoffman and Bresciani (2012) found the dispositions most highly sought after by employers included diversity and social justice, creativity, enthusiasm, flexibility, and positive attitude.

Who am I? Professional Dispositions and the C3 Model

If we accept that dispositions are underlying patterns of thought and emotion that produce our ethical conduct, then it helps us to know and articulate them to others. The C3 model provides a means to do this, through its framework of consciousness, capacity, and character. When we can define the components of our dispositions, share these realizations with others, and learn about theirs, we are inevitably more aware, competent, and authentic practitioners who lead ethically.

How can we identify our dispositions?  One way is to examine our responses to critical incidents. Using the critical incident identified above, reflect on it using this protocol based on the C3 model:

  • What drew your attention to this situation as an ethical concern?
  • What skills and knowledge did you use in this situation?
  • What values and beliefs motivated you to do something?

The answers to these questions form the basis of a description of the professional dispositions an individual uses in response to a critical incident. In the same way that we learn to articulate our skills and academic degrees to employers and colleagues, we can also concisely convey who we are as a practitioner and ethical leader. Here’s an example, from a new professional:

My passion for students and commitment to open access education, diversity, and student success aligns well with the mission of the institution and will guide me as I engage with students and colleagues as an outreach and recruitment advisor.

When we communicate our ethical conduct as professional dispositions, we engage colleagues, potential employers, and supervisors authentically and from a position of strength about the unique contributions we make as leaders in the profession and our institutions.

Levels of Ethical Professional Practice

Ethical professional practice is aligned with standards and performed in an institutional context; yet, what we believe to be ethical may, in fact, be contrary to the perceptions held by supervisors and colleagues in the exact same contexts. In the table below, I apply the C3 model to three levels of practice, informed by the social change model of leadership (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996). The levels are practitioner (person), profession (group), and institution (society).  There is a critical question at each level to prompt deliberation on the roles and conduct we accept as we strive to be ethical leaders in the profession and in our institutions.

Level of Practice Critical Question C3 Domains and Leadership Roles
    Consciousness Capacity Character
Practitioner Who am I? Aware Competent Authentic
Profession Who are we? Learners Servants Colleagues


What is our influence? Teaching Leading Advocating

I don’t claim that the roles I present here are the only ones; rather, I suggest how the C3 model can be implemented at each level of practice. For example, at the professional level, we need ethical leaders who are learners, open to acquiring new skills, ideas, and values. Leaders also ought to be servants, who share skills and knowledge with each other to achieve common goals for the greater good (Greenleaf, 2002). Authenticity at the practitioner level facilitates mutual regard for our colleagues, as individuals worthy of respect and grace.

Ethical Dialogue

At the professional level, we use dialogue to engage colleagues in discussions about ethical standards and moral conduct that is acceptable in our work environments. Dialogue is an exchange of perspectives that transcends mere conversation (Sundberg & Fried, 1997). It can get contentious when we must make ethical decisions involving people or practices that we support, yet we disagree about how to take action. If properly facilitated, the open and authentic exploration of others’ perspectives in dialogue expands our individual consciousness (Schoem & Hurtado, 2001).

We do not have to agree with another’s perspective in order to engage in dialogue and we may retain our positions. However, we cannot escape dialogue and become ethical relativists either. Although we may be tempted to roll our eyes to the skies and say “whatever!” with a sigh, we must resist the temptation. Sometimes the best we can do is engage in dialogue to understand another’s viewpoint. The real challenge is to remain open to the possibility that we are wrong and to take the opportunity to learn about ourselves.

The NASPA Ethics Statement (2012) provides a useful guide to “ethical decision making that is based on context and dialogue” (p. 2). It is motivated by two key questions:

  • How can we act ethically to maintain the integrity of everyone involved in contested situations?
  • How can we appreciate the diversity of ethical beliefs across cultures without enforcing a single ethical belief system?

These questions guide the process of discernment for ethical action. Although they are primarily directed to individuals, the questions focus on important ethical considerations that must be incorporated into dialogue about critical incidents.

What is our influence?

In the C3 model, the institutional level refers both to our educational institutions and to those organized entities in society with which our particular educational institution interacts (e.g., governments, religious communities, regulatory agencies). As ethical practitioners, we work through professional networks on campus and across the field of student affairs to influence positive social and political change. Accordingly, the C3 model suggests that teaching is a role of ethical leaders, who impart knowledge or skill related to the concerns of students and campuses. We are also leading others ethically toward worthy goals that advance broad interests. And, as ethical leaders, we commit to advocating on behalf of others who are not at the table or cannot speak for themselves.

Where do we go from here?

In this column I proposed a framework for looking at the ethical conduct of individuals across three domains: consciousness, capacity, and character. Through dialogue with colleagues we can explore and define the roles and tasks that characterize our leadership. I have also suggested how the same domains can be applied to our interactions with colleagues; and, in turn, these same domains describe our collective efforts as a profession to take the lead in making ethical social change.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe your practice using the C3 model? Where are your strengths? Where do you have room to grow? How will you do this?
  2. Are the roles and tasks identified in the table relevant to your experience at the professional and institutional levels? How would you and your colleagues revise it?
  3. What are some critical incidents that you and your colleagues share? How might you engage in dialogue to explore your perspectives on ethical leadership at your institution?


American College Personnel Association & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2010). ACPA/NASPA professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Washington, DC: Authors.

Appiah, K. A. (2010). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. WW Norton & Company.

Bazelon, E. (2009, September 21). Smeary lines: The lesson we’re not learning from the Hofstra date rape that wasn’t. Slate. Retrieved from…

Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (n.d.). CAEP Glossary. Retrieved from

Council for the Advancement of Standards (2006). CAS professional standards for higher education (6th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Fowler, H. (2013, September 11). Students to protest Board of Governors over gender-neutral decision.  Daily Tarheel. Retrieved from

Gabriel, T. (2010, October 25). ‘Generation Plagiarism’? Copying and pasting from the web is just like copying from a book. But too many students either don’t know that it’s cheating—or don’t care. New York Times Upfront, 143(4), 6-7.

Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.

Higher Education Research Institute (1996). A social change model of leadership development: Guidebook: Version III. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.

Hirt, J. B. (2006). Where you work matters: Student affairs administration at different types of institutions. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Hoffman, J. L., & Bresciani, M. J. (2012). Identifying what student affairs professionals value: A mixed methods analysis of professional competencies listed in job descriptions. Research & Practice in Assessment, 7, 26-40.

Holmes, R. C., Edwards, K., & DeBowes, M. M. (2009). Why objectivity is not enough. In J. M. Schrage & N. G. Giacomini (Eds.) Reframing campus conflict: Student conduct practice through a social justice lens (pp. 50-64). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

National Association for Student Personnel Administrators. (2012). NASPA Ethics Statement. Washington, DC: Author.

O’Shea, J. (2011). A disposition for benevolence. Journal of College and Character, 12(3), 1-4. doi: 10.2202/1940-1639.1811

Reason, R. D., & Broido, E. M. (2011). Philosophies and values. In J. H. Schuh, S. R. Jones, &

S. R. Harper (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession, (pp. 80-95). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rest, J. R. (Ed.). (1994). Moral development in the professions: Psychology and applied ethics. New York: Psychology Press.

Schoem, D. L., & Hurtado, S. (Eds.). (2001). Intergroup dialogue: Deliberative democracy in school, college, community, and workplace. University of Michigan Press.

Slaughter, G. (2014, January 18) York U student’s refusal to work with women sparks rights debate.  Toronto Star.  Retrieved from…

Splitter, L. J. (2010). Dispositions in education: Nonentities worth talking about. Educational Theory, 60(2), 203-230.

Sundberg, D. C., & Fried, J. (1997). Ethical dialogues on campus. New Directions for Student Services1997(77), 67-79.

Timpe, K. (n.d.). Moral Character. Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from

Tull, A., & Medrano, C. I. (2008). Character values congruence and person-organization fit in student affairs: Compatibility between administrators and the institutions that employ them. Journal of College and Character, 9(3). doi: 10.2202/1940-1639.1118

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.

The National Labor Relations Board set to Review Decision Involving Northwestern University Football Players

In an action that could alter the landscape of intercollegiate athletics—and with potential implications well beyond sports—a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in March 2014 that football players at Northwestern University could hold a union election.  Specifically, the regional director determined that football players at the university qualified as employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  This designation entitled the players to vote on whether to form a collective bargaining unit and be represented by a union.  For now, the status of unionization rights for student-athletes is on hold, as the full NLRB has decided to review the decision.  This column discusses the Northwestern decision and more generally looks at the legal status of collective bargaining rights for higher education students, specifically in regards to graduate student workers.

Overview of Collective Bargaining Rights in Higher Education for Students

In discussing collective bargaining rights in higher education, an important distinction to keep in mind deals with legal standards that apply to public colleges and universities and those for private institutions.  For public colleges and universities, the availability or lack of collective bargaining rights for particular classes of students (e.g., graduate students or student-athletes) is subject to state law.  That is, collective bargaining rights at public colleges and universities are a matter of state law.  Private higher education institutions are subject to federal law, specifically the provisions of the NLRA.

States differ in their treatment of student employees in relation to collective bargaining rights and for letting public employees in general engage in union activities (or prohibiting them from doing so).  A select number of states (e.g., California and Florida) grant collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees at public colleges and universities.  Other states do not permit the formation of collective bargaining units by student workers at public colleges and universities.

For states that consider students workers at public colleges and universities as employees for purposes of collective bargaining, students working in various graduate employment contexts are eligible to negotiate collectively with the institution on such items as wages and benefits (e.g., healthcare coverage).  The availability of such rights does not mean that a collective bargaining group must exist.  Instead, the student employees vote on whether to form a collective bargaining unit to negotiate on their behalf.  In addition, which particular groups of students (e.g., graduate workers or student-athletes) are eligible to engage in such activity is a matter of state law.

At private colleges and universities, such as Northwestern University, federal law, through the NLRA, governs collective bargaining rights.  While the Northwestern case deals with the emerging issue of collective bargaining rights for student-athletes, questions over the collective bargaining rights for various groups in higher education under the NLRA is not a novel issue.  A key legal determination under the law involves whether a group of employees is eligible to engage in collective bargaining activities.  For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 1980 decision (NLRB v. Yeshiva University) that full-time faculty members at private colleges and universities typically held managerial responsibilities that made them ineligible to engage in collective bargaining activities protected by the NLRA.

In the student context, an ongoing issue of dispute has involved the status of graduate workers under the NLRA.  In a 2004 decision (Brown University), the NLRB ruled that graduate student assistants were not covered under the NLRA.  This determination reversed a 2000 decision where the NLRB had determined that graduate student workers qualify as employees under the NLRA (New York University).  In 2013, the NLRB appeared ready to revisit the status of graduate workers under the NLRA in a case involving New York University, but the parties in the case agreed to withdraw the action after reaching an agreement to permit graduate students at the university to vote on forming a collective bargaining unit (Jaschik, 2013).  When the NLRB reviews the decision involving Northwestern University, it might take the opportunity to revisit the Brown decision and to consider if graduate workers should be eligible to engage in collective bargaining activities protected by the NLRA.

The Northwestern University Decision

In the decision pending for review by the NLRB, a regional director determined that scholarship football players at Northwestern University constituted employees for purposes of the NLRA.  This ruling meant that football players at the institution could vote on whether to form a collective bargaining unit.  In determining that scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees for purposes of the NLRA, the regional director considered the responsibilities and conditions placed on football players at the university.

The regional director discussed in the opinion that conditions imposed on football players and not on the regular student population included a requirement for first and second year scholarship football players to live on campus.  All scholarship football players were required to satisfy rules that included gaining permission to hold outside employment, providing information to the coaching staff about the vehicle they drive, and prohibiting players from swearing in public.  Football players also had to agree to rules related to travel and to their academic performance.  Players had to agree not to make money off their image or reputation during their time as a student-athlete at Northwestern, while also agreeing to permit the university and the Big Ten Conference to use their name, likeness, or image for any purpose.  Scholarship football players also had to abide by social media regulations.  These included restrictions on information and content the student-athletes could post on social media.  Football players also were required to “friend” designated coaches on their social media pages as part of the monitoring of players’ social media activities.  The regional director also discussed the substantial time commitment made by the players to team activities.  In sum, the decision provides an overview of the heavily regulated life of football players at Northwestern University.

The kinds of requirements and conditions placed on football players at Northwestern are not unusual in the context of intercollegiate athletics.  A prime reason for such rules is that Northwestern, along with a number of other colleges and universities, must make sure to adhere to the rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).  The NCAA represents a major force in intercollegiate athletics, comprising a voluntary membership organization that, among its activities, sets standards for participation in intercollegiate athletics for its member schools.  The outcome of the Northwestern case may have important ramifications for how the NCAA regulates the institutions and athletic conferences under its supervision.  One of the complicating factors with the Northwestern case, mentioned previously, is that collective bargaining at private higher education institutions is subject to the NLRA but public colleges and universities fall under state law.  Thus, depending on what the NLRB decides, the NCAA could face an intercollegiate athletics landscape where some athletes are able to engage in collective bargaining and others are not.

While the regional director determined that Northwestern’s scholarship football players should be considered employees under the NLRA, the full NLRB has decided to review the decision.  This means that a vote already taken by football players on whether to form a collective bargaining unit has not been released.  The NLRB could decide to uphold the initial decision, which would open the possibility for other collective bargaining efforts by student-athletes at other institutions.  As pointed out, the NLRB might also decide to revisit the 2004 decision involving Brown University and recognize graduate student workers as employees under the NLRA.  Alternatively, the NLRB could decide to exclude student-athletes as workers under the NLRA and to continue the legal status quo with graduate student workers announced in Brown (2004).


The outcome of the NLRB’s review of the Northwestern University decision is important for intercollegiate athletics and for higher education in general.  If the decision is upheld, other intercollegiate athletics programs, at least at private institutions, will have to navigate issues related to collective bargaining and student-athletes.  As a result, the NCAA might need to revisit its standards and rules related to such issues as compensation for student-athletes.  Beyond athletics, the NLRB decision could also signal new movement regarding the status of collective bargaining rights for student workers in higher education, notably in the context of graduate student assistants.  Given that numerous private colleges and universities employ graduate student assistants in their student affairs divisions, the outcome in the Northwestern case may have direct implications for student affairs.  The collective bargaining story unfolding at Northwestern University highlights important issues related to the role of intercollegiate athletics in higher education and the treatment of student-athletes.  More broadly, the case touches upon matters dealing with the equitable treatment of student employees, including those working in student affairs offices.

Discussion Questions

1. What is the status of collective bargaining rights for graduate student employees at your institution?  In your state?  Should graduate student workers be able to join unions?

2. What might be some of the possible implications for intercollegiate athletics and for higher education if the Northwestern University decision is upheld by the NLRB?

3. Apart from the outcome of the NLRB’s review of the Northwestern decision, should the NCAA amend its policies to allow colleges and universities to compensate student-athletes?  What about placing limits over the ways in which institutions exert control over student-athletes in such areas as social media policies?


Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004).

Jaschik, S. (2013, November 27). NYU and UAW agree to terms of election for teaching assistant union. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from – sthash.FJDgjjbO.dpbs

NLRB v. Yeshiva University, 444 U.S. 672 (1980).

Northwestern University v. College Athletes Players Association, No. 13-RC-121359, 2014 WL 1922054 (N.L.R.B) (March 26, 2014).

About the Author

Neal H. Hutchens is an associate professor in the Higher Education Program in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State.

Please e-mail inquiries to Neal H. Hutchens.


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.

Unpacking the Ethics of Dual and Multiple Relationships Across the Student Affairs Profession

In student affairs it is not difficult to find college personnel navigating dual or multiple relationships: as faculty, professionals, and students in graduate preparation programs. These relationships are complex and require a higher level of moral reasoning to navigate and manage. Student affairs literature has offered general guidance regarding appropriate relationships. However, the field of counseling offers more depth in exploring these complex issues.  Although the student affairs literature delves into this issue on the surface, it lacks the depth found in the mental health fields.

Much of the literature for this column and the decision-making model used to frame the questions are grounded in the counseling literature. This column will explore the multiple relationships we find ourselves in depending on our role at our institution. I will focus on non-sexual relationships, as I feel that ethical and professional codes offer more clarity regarding the unethical nature of those relationships. I will explore dual relationships through an ethical lens and offer some ideas for resolution and management. The intent of the column is to develop strategies that identify when a relationship has crossed ethical boundaries and how to develop solutions to manage and renegotiate boundaries.

Make it Cool to Care – Relationships in Student Affairs

The role of education at the ground level is about building relationships to facilitate student success. These relationships are critical to the success of each student. As professionals we often need to consult with students or refer students to offices across campus. The relationships we have across our campuses are cultivated by establishing partnerships generated out of trust and respect. The professional responsibility that student affairs professionals have varies greatly depending on the role and position on campus, however few would argue against developing a collaborative campus culture where professionals trust one another and often consult across units to support students.

Complex Faculty Relationships

The number one role of faculty on campus is to execute the academic mission of the institution. Within student affairs and higher education programs, graduate students tend to be in direct contact with the faculty. The complexity of working primarily with adult learners changes the nature of the relationship from the onset. Students who are of similar age or older may feel more of a connection and lose sight of the power differential that is part of this dynamic. Faculty who work with both master and doctoral level students must set expectations and learn to negotiate boundaries early in the socialization process.

Working with master level students as a faculty member offers a bit more clarity in regards to setting the boundaries. In many student affairs and higher education programs, but not all, the master level students tend to be more traditionally aged, entering programs shortly after graduation from their undergraduate programs. Age difference is often cited as a major catalyst in unhealthy dual relationships (Kitchener, 1986). Working with students tends to be collaborative in nature and from time to time seems casual and is often misinterpreted.  In such referenced cases, oftentimes students view the relationship as a friendship and do not understand clear work-personal boundaries (Pope & Vasquez, 2011). It is important for faculty to set these boundaries and be clear about expectations and behavior.

The relationship faculty have with doctoral students is generally much more complex than at the master level. Doctoral students work very closely with faculty and developing a friendship outside a supervisory relationship is not uncommon. The complexity is grounded in the fact that doctoral students become colleagues and peers upon graduation.  The faculty member to doctoral student role is also complex because it transcends a supervisory role and is grounded in mentoring, teaching, and role modeling. There are inherent expectations when the roles change (Kitchener, 1986) and for some faculty it is difficult to move beyond the faculty student role, yet it is essentially important for the vitality and growth of the profession. Departments are often reluctant to hire doctoral graduates as faculty members because some faculty members can never elevate the professional to a peer: once a student, always a student.

Complex Student Affairs Professional Relationships

Student affairs professional relationships are also wrought with unclear boundaries and potentially harmful dual relationships. Examples often found on campuses are social friendships between supervisors and supervisees. This situation can exist with no issues. However, the friendship can become problematic if the supervisor ever shows any hint of favoritism as a result of the friendship. Even worse is if the supervisee begins to question the authority of the supervisor because of the friendship. This can become even more complex when roles change, as they often do, in this line of work. When individuals in student affairs positions are promoted into supervisory positions or are promoted to a management level, pre-existing dual relationships are difficult to navigate.  Student affairs professionals are often promoted within, creating even more multifaceted, dual relationships.  The existing relationship now needs to be renegotiated and boundaries made very clear.

The other questionable relationships often found in student affairs work are classroom environments where supervisees are in class with supervisors. Many student affairs offices will employ graduate assistants that are pursuing degrees in student affairs or higher education. Additionally, there are professional staff members that are students in master or doctoral programs on the same campus where they are employed. It is not uncommon to have a supervisor and a supervisee in the same course together. As a faculty member, I once had a director level professional in a class as a doctoral student with four master’s level students who directly reported to her. I had to work on the front end to establish confidentiality, build rapport among the group, and ensure that what was spoken in the context of the class remained part of the class. I also checked in with the students periodically to make sure they felt safe and that they had a voice in the class discussions. From my perspective, establishing group rules early in the course mitigated the power differential and encouraged full participation.

Decision-Making Model

ACPA – College Student Educators International offers a Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards (2006) providing general guidelines about professional behavior related to appropriate relationships. Unfortunately these standards and many others are not adequate for practical decision-making. Most professionals understand and honor inappropriate sexual relationships when there is a power differential. What is most unclear to many professionals is when a dual relationship is unhealthy and crossing the ethical line.  Here, I offer a decision-making framework (Younggren, 2002) that could be used as a guide in determining when a dual relationship may cause more harm than benefit. The model is grounded in the counseling literature so it is based on a therapeutic relationship and does not fully fit all the situations faced in student affairs, but offers a great starting point for analysis. The language embedded in this model has been changed to reflect the field of student affairs and higher education as opposed to counseling and psychology.

The questions are complex and involve higher order moral and ethical scrutiny.

Is the Dual Relationship Necessary?

This is an important question to ask. It is difficult enough to be a good mentor. Adding other factors that challenge the power differential can be confusing and compromise the working relationship. For example, friendships that involve social settings where alcohol is involved can be difficult to manage. It is not uncommon for faculty and students to interact socially outside the work environment. Additionally, student affairs professionals oftentimes live where they work and work where they live. This can make having a social life difficult. It is important to weigh out the pros and cons of the dual relationship and make a judgment based on that. These relationships can be fraught with unnecessary risk to the healthy work relationship. The best interests of your students, peers, and supervisees need to be considered. Ultimately, is the relationship necessary?

Is the Dual Relationship Exploitative?

When faculty members collaborate with doctoral students and fail to give credit to the graduate student, the faculty member exploits the relationship.  In this case, this should be an easy question to answer. If in fact a faculty member fails to acknowledge significant work on the part of a graduate student, the relationship is unacceptable and needs to be ended. Avoiding exploitative dual relationships is an ethical principle that is non-negotiable for professionals.

Who Does the Dual Relationship Benefit?

This is often a more problematic dilemma for faculty and student affairs professionals at small institutions where individuals serve in multiple roles and relationships cross personal and professional boundaries. For example, having your graduate student take care of your children outside of their work at the institution is not unethical as a practice. This arrangement works if the student is being paid a fair wage and the work does not interfere with what the student does on campus. The arrangement could quickly become problematic if the faculty member begins to assume that the graduate assistant is always available to do childcare.  What needs to be discussed between the faculty member and the graduate assistant is that the care of the children is in addition to their role on campus and that it will not influence their work on campus. When identifying who is benefitting, it is important to ask: is one person benefitting more than the other? If the answer is yes, and the individual benefitting has more power in the relationship, you may want to consider terminating the relationship, or at least that part of the relationship. Renegotiating the terms of the relationship can be a proactive solution to avoid unhealthy dual relationships.

Is There a Risk That the Dual Relationship Could Cause Damage to One Member?

This can be a difficult question to address because it calls for an objective assessment of the relationship and oftentimes those involved lack that ability. In an aspirational world we would always avoid dual relationships; however, as stated before, many in higher education work where we live and live where we work. Separating work time from personal time can be quite challenging. Within this question, the dimensions that should be evaluated are risk of harm and how a power differential (if applicable) influences the relationship. These need to be minimized and every attempt to prevent risk needs to be taken. Where damage to one or more stakeholders is possible, terminating the relationship may be an appropriate option.

Is There a Risk That the Dual Relationship Could Disrupt the Working Relationship?

This question should be seriously considered prior to entering into the secondary dual relationship. If you have an existing relationship with an individual and the roles are changing where it cannot be managed, serious consideration should be taken to avoid the change. An example that addresses this dimension is, you are a supervisor and find that you are developing romantic feelings for one of your supervisees. You are contemplating asking this individual out for coffee.  You need to seriously weigh out the consequences of that question, along with the costs to the working relationship. Failing to take a proactive approach to working collaboratively with someone where romantic feelings could develop jeopardizes more than the two individuals involved in the relationship, but could impact the chemistry across several departments.  Do not do it!

Am I Being Objective in my Evaluation of this Matter?

This question is extremely difficult to answer as we could argue that no one is really objective. The most ethical course of action in determining objectivity in evaluating a dual relationship is consulting with a trusted colleague. It is difficult to assess objectively personal needs versus professional needs. Yet it is important in assessing the risk of the relationship and potentially unintended consequences. If you need to ask the trusted colleague, you are likely struggling internally with an unhealthy dual relationship.

Have I Adequately Documented the Decision-Making Process in my Notes?

Documentation is an extremely important task.  This task is more challenging for student affairs professionals because they are not required to keep case notes, as is the case in a therapeutic relationship. However, it is a good professional practice to keep documentation regarding performance and evaluation as a supervisor. Additionally, it is important as a faculty supervisor to keep documentation regarding student performance as part of the mentoring relationship.  Without good notes the past can be manipulated and could meld into a case where harmful distortions of a minor issue could surface.

Was the Risk of the Dual Relationship Fully Discussed?

This is an important conversation to have prior to entering into the relationship. Some relationships develop slowly over time and it is important that the individual with more power be aware of the changes in the relationship. The most important way to manage dual relationships is through open discussions. It is also the responsibility of the individual with more power to recognize and renegotiate the terms and boundaries of the relationship.


Dual relationships are a normal part of professional relationships. A dual relationship exists when an individual simultaneously participates in two role categories (Kitchener, 1986). It is important to critically explore the risks and unintended consequences to participants. The decision-making framework offered here is a good place to begin exploring the relationship and impact of risk, if any.  Keep in mind that open communication and a willingness to renegotiate the terms of the relationship are critical.

Discussion Questions

1. Identify two or three dual relationships that you are involved in. Are there power differences in the relationships? Do any of the relationships pose a risk to those involved? If so, how can you renegotiate the boundaries?

2.  Discuss and define strategies to manage dual relationships in your work. Identify whose responsibility it is for management and care of these relationships.

3. How do you develop strategies to avoid dual relationships? Is that realistic in your work?


ACPA. (2006). Statement of ethical principles and standards. Retrieved May 15, 2014 from

Kitchener, K. S. (1986), Teaching applied ethics in counselor education: An integration of psychological processes and philosophical analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development, 64, 306–310.

Pope K. S., & Vasquez, M. J. T. (2011). Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide. (4th Ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley.

Younggren, J. N. (2002). Ethical decision-making and dual relationships. Retrieved May 15, 2014 from

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 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.