Developing an Ethical Framework for Student Affairs

Developing an Ethical Framework for Student Affairs

Danielle Klein
Louisiana State University
Maylen Aldana
Louisiana State University
William Mattera
Louisiana State University

New Student Affairs professionals enter the field with excitement about serving students, making an impact, and experiencing new opportunities. The thought of ethical decision-making may not be at the forefront of their day-to-day agendas. However, new Student Affairs professionals are often faced with personal and challenging decisions. It is not uncommon for new professionals to be given tasks and assignments that may cause dissonance with their core beliefs and thoughts, and we often label those challenges as ethical quandaries. In reality, many ethical dilemmas new professionals encounter emerge from a gap in learning how to work through issues that challenge them on a personal level. When working to develop a framework for critical decision-making, it is helpful to start by examining how individuals in Student Affairs craft their own set of personal values. One’s values are shaped through influences and experiences that come from a variety of places.

Through their professional preparation, new professionals are taught elements of ethical frameworks by mentors, preparation program faculty, undergraduate and graduate involvement experiences, previous supervisors, and peers. Often times professionals will consider personal values as a guide in the ethical decision making process. In reality personal values are simply new professionals’ own views on what is important and meaningful, which often causes conflict when it comes to decision-making. This article will explore five necessary components for supervisors of new professionals to consider as a new professional begins to develop an ethical framework. Components include: (a) understanding clear definitions; (b) moral development theory; (c) professional standards; (d) mentorship; and (e) individual personal philosophy. These all serve as a foundation for supervisors to help new professionals negotiate the construction of their ethical decision making framework.

Ethics has been called the study of moral reasoning (Noddings, 1992), and in Student Affairs, theories of both ethical and moral development and decision-making have been of primary importance when designing interventions to assist students in navigating their collegiate worlds. How does our understanding of ethics and morals assist new professionals in navigating the challenging and complex world of supervision and professional development? Because “determining the appropriate course to take when faced with a difficult ethical dilemma can be a challenge” (Miller and Davis, 1996, p. 1), understanding where individual values originate is helpful in determining moral responses and thus creating ethical frameworks. To study this concept, we will explore the definitions and origins of values and morals in order to distinguish the overlap each have in creating an ethical framework.

A value is a broad idea or understanding, and it is from values that both morals and ethics spring. A value, from the Latin valere, means worth and refers to the underlying dimensions of importance we assign to our measurement of thoughts, behaviors, and actions. Moral, from the Latin moralis, is the idea behind what is good or bad, right or wrong. Morality assists individuals in distinguishing between actions and behaviors that fall into good-equals-right and bad-equals-wrong dualities. Ethics, on the other hand, is a framework that guides individuals in acting moral. Ethics, from the Greek ethos, means character and ethics define for an individual specifically what actions or thoughts can be categorized as right or wrong.

Morals and ethics are often used interchangeably by the general public; however it is important to differentiate between the two terms because actions for ethical behavior emerge from philosophies about morality. Morality itself emerges from personal or professional values, and it is these values that ultimately direct a new professional towards constructing the ethical approach they apply to their practice and decision-making. As new professionals work to determine a set of ethics they choose to use in their practice, it is useful to determine what ethics are not. Ethics are not feelings, and while it is often easy to confuse the two, it is important for new professionals to understand that personal feelings can often cloud decision making in a way that guides them away from the context in which they are making decisions. Ethics is also not religion, law, or science. While these governing principles are often looked to during the decision making process, these principles are not always the appropriate code of reference at any given time and do not constitute a code of ethics.

A number of theories are useful to new professionals when constructing their framework in ethical decisions. Kitchener’s (1984) critical evaluation model encourages individuals to reflect upon their decision-making processes. The four moral principles that Kitchener (1984) bases her theory on are: autonomy, beneficence, nonmalificence, and justice/fairness. When making decisions, Kitchener (1984) encourages individuals to identify problems and potential issues, to review ethical guidelines and obtain consultation, then to consider possible consequences of decisions. Supervisors of new professionals could use Kitchener’s (1984) decision-making process as a reflection tool for their new supervisees when they are confronted with difficult issues in a new environment.

Kitchener also works with King (1981, 1990) to offer a model of reflective judgment. Kitchener & King (1981, 1990) proposed that reflective judgment is different than critical thinking because it is needed to deal with issues that do not have a right or wrong solution. In fact, this model is best used in situations where there are multiple solutions. Kitchener and King’s model of reflective judgment has seven stages, and each stage is based on an assumption of knowledge and how individuals acquire that knowledge. Stages 1 through 3 (Prereflective Thinking) is when “the link between evidence and beliefs is unclear” (King & Kitchener, 1994, p. 14), or when learners become aware that all problems do not have solutions. Individuals move into stages 4 to 5 (Quasi Reflective Thinking) when individuals begin to recognize and quote that knowledge is sometimes uncertain and the increasing need to justify beliefs, reflect a growing ability to differentiate categories of thought “and move towards more complex thinking (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005). Stages 6 and 7 (Reflective Thinking) is when the learner comes to understand that knowledge is relational, contextual, and constructed. Knowing where knowledge comes from and the value placed on that knowledge allows new professionals to become critically reflective about the choices they are making in their day-to-day practice.

A third reflective model that would be useful for new professionals is Baxter Magolda’s (1992) epistemological reflection model. Epistemology is our way of knowing or how we come to know, and Baxter Magolda identifies four stages in this process. These include absolute knowing, transitional knowing, independent knowing and contextual knowing. As a new professional comes to learn that knowledge can take on many meanings, he or she can begin to make decisions based on multiple contexts and perspectives.

The many places where new professionals have formed their values and morals all play a part in building a new professional’s ethical framework. New professionals are supported by professional principles and standards. When working with new professionals, it is important to guide them to documents such as the NASPA Standards of Professional Practice (1990) and ACPA Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards (2006). Helping them understand that professional principles are constant may help them not feel pressured to reinvent the wheel. So the question then becomes, how do we assist new professionals in understanding these principles are more than words on a document? How do we help new professionals internalize these principles? It is important in our everyday work for new professionals to recognize where these principles appear in their everyday practice.

Because “student affairs [professionals], particularly entry-level professionals, expect to be involved with and provide services to individual and groups of students on a daily basis” (Burkard, Cole, Ott, and Stoflet, 2004, p. 306), some of the best support supervisors can provide is to assist new professionals in the construction of an ethical framework to guide them in everyday decision making and growth. This will, in turn, enable new professionals to develop within their own moral capacity while at the same time understand the ways in which competing frameworks work to guide and assist them in their professional development. When assisting a new professional in developing his or her personal philosophy, we recommend having them identify their values and how those values manifest in their daily decision-making. It is not uncommon when making tough decisions to have multiple competing values and perspectives. However, having a defined ethical framework is the first step is to determine which values are most important in the situation at hand and therefore need to be most reflected in the outcome.

Discussion Questions

  • How do we help new professionals move the locus of control for decision-making internal while at the same time working within a set professional structure?
  • What models are best practices for training new professionals to navigate crisis situations that call for moral and ethical responses?
  • How do new professionals reconcile the two frameworks that they encounter when making decisions: their own and that of their institution?


American College Personnel Association. (2006). Statement of ethical principles and standards. Retrieved from,

Baxter Magolda, M. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burkard, A. W., Cole, D. C., Ott, M., & Stoflet, T. (2005). Entry-level competencies of new student affairs professionals: A Delphi study. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 42(3), 545-571.

Forester-Miller, H., & Davis, T. E. (1996). A practitioner’s guide to ethical decision making. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation and ethical principles: The foundation for ethical decisions in counseling psychology. Counseling Psychologist, 12(3), 43-55.

Kitchener, K. S., & King, P. M. (1981). Reflective judgment: Concepts of justification and their relationship to age and education. Journal of applied developmental psychology, 2(2), 89-116.

Kitchener, K. S., & King, P. M. (1990). The reflective judgment model: Transforming assumptions about knowing. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning (pp. 159-176). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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 Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (1990). Standards of professional practice. Retrieved from

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. Advances in Contemporary Educational Thought, Volume 8. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Pascarella, E.T., & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Danielle J. Klein is a doctoral student in the College of Education at Louisiana State University. She currently holds a Graduate Assistantship in LSU’s Department of Residential Life, where she works on the department’s student success and assessment initiatives. A former high school English teacher and student affairs professional, Ms. Klein has reentered the classroom as a student to pursue her interests in understanding the knowledge gaps that students possess when entering into post-secondary education. Her research focuses on curriculum theory, curriculum design, and curriculum development within non-traditional educative structures. Ms. Klein currently serves as the Vice President for Professional Development of LSU’s Curriculum Theory Graduate Collaborative.

Please e-mail inquiries to Danielle Klein.

Maylen L. Aldana currently serves as the Assistant Director for Student Success and Assessment in the Department of Residential Life at Louisiana State University. Prior to this position, she gained experience at Tulane University, Mississippi State University, Appalachian State University, Auburn University, and Eastern Washington University. She is currently serves as the state representative for the Latino Knowledge Community for National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and served as the Human Relations chair for Southeastern Association for Housing Officers (SEAHO) during 2011-2012 and was Co-Chair for the Latino/a Network for the American College Personnel Association(ACPA) during 2005-2007.

Please e-mail inquiries to Maylen L. Aldana.

William Mattera serves as the Assistant Director for Staffing and Organizational Development in the Department of Residential Life at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Please e-mail inquiries to William Mattera.


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.

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