Ethical Dialogue and Responsible Stewardship

This has been a very busy conference season for me, having had the opportunity to attend three student affairs conferences in a three-week period. In addition to NASPA and ACPA, I was also privileged to speak at the Caribbean Tertiary Level Personnel Association (CTLPA) meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. Participating in these meetings gave me the opportunity to compare the culture, values, and purposes of all of the groups and also to observe the similarities in our collective mission in higher education. Our common goal seems to be the preparation of students for their future as citizens of the global community, contributing members of their local community, responsible and caring family members and individuals with a sense of their own vocation and value in the world. Although the emphasis may vary from place to place, the purposes are consistent. Our profession contributes to student learning within a larger context of post-secondary education. Students in our institutions are expected to acquire academic knowledge, technical knowledge and skill as well as interpersonal and meaning making skills. All of this skill and knowledge must be balanced in student lives for any of us to consider our work successful.

It is clear that we in student affairs and services have created a profession that makes significant contributions to the education of college students as they prepare for their place in the world. This common purpose for all of us, regardless of specialty, type of institution or geographical area raises a key question for the ethics of our profession — Where is our common set of ethical standards? Why do we have several different and overlapping statements issued by the different associations to which we belong? Do our colleagues and students, people with whom we work on a daily basis, care what professional association we belong to or are they more concerned with the quality of our work and service, our ability to meet the needs of students, faculty and our institutions in our areas of expertise? It is time to deepen our dialogue on this topic.

Yankelovich (1999) identified dialogue as a missing skill in most problem solving conversations. A true dialogue has these elements: collaboration, active listening, re-examining all positions and assumptions, searching for strengths and values in others’ positions and exploring new options. It does not include voting, searching for weaknesses in other’s ideas competition or self-defense (pp. 39-40). Dialogue has three distinctive features; Equality and the absence of coercive influences, listening with empathy, and bringing assumptions into the open (pp. 42-44).

One of the key ethical concerns that all student affairs professionals must address is of responsible stewardship of resources (Fried, 2003). In a climate of fiscal constraint we are ethically obligated to use our limited resources efficiently and effectively in order to maintain the trust of all of our stakeholders. At the association level, we have a similar question — How much duplication of services and functions among associations can we afford? Does the current structure of two different umbrella associations for our profession continue to make sense or is there a possibility that a new kind of structure and relationship might improve our ability to function effectively? In informal conversations I have had with new professionals, there is a continuing question- why do we have two associations and what are the differences between them? After graduation from our preparation programs when membership costs are relatively low, few new or mid-level professionals feel able to spend the money to belong to both. In financially constrained circumstances they believe that they must choose and they are not clear about the criteria on which to make the choice. Common purposes are more obvious than historical differences. We are in a new era. As we forge a vision for the 21st century similarities are more important than differences although careful analysis will allow for consideration of both and dynamic interplay between them.

The concept of merging our two national associations is very complex and requires a great deal of dialogue. One good place to begin examining the idea of responsible stewardship and knitting our associations together might be in dialogue about ethics. We face many common ethical concerns ranging from issues of professional preparation standards and competence to questions about editorial policy and publication processes in both journals. There are debates about access, professional roles, freedom of speech and student behavior going on throughout the country. Much of our recent national discourse has been confined to dualistic ways of framing issues, particularly in the political domain. We are concerned about drawing lines between friends and enemies, knowing which side people are on. On our campuses, we should be able to conduct more sophisticated and nuanced conversations about complexity, particularly in discussion of ethics. The first step in the process of opening dialogue might be to ask what ethical issues need to be discussed within our own profession and how well do our ethical statements address them? Another step would be to raise the topic of creating communities of ethical discourse on our own campuses so that we can include our colleagues and students in the conversation and in the process of thinking about ethical dilemmas.

All of us need to be reminded that dialogues for purposes of mutual understanding are very valuable and certainly can co-exist with the occasional search for the right answer in any area from mathematics, to religion, to the definition of plagiarism. Those who have achieved higher levels of cognitive complexity as described by Kegan’s 4th position (1994) or Baxter Magolda’s level 4 (1992), should serve as role models to those who still see the world from level 2 in either of those schemes. The problems that face us as professionals, individuals, family members and global citizens certainly demand complex thinking. We can learn this level of skill and perception in conversation with each other and use it to address all kinds of ethical issues including the question about the appropriate arrangement of professional associations for the 21st century. Adversarial debates will not advance our understanding of the many issues we face including unprecedented ethical dilemmas. It is time to continue our dialogue and follow the evolving process toward increased collaboration in our profession and on our campuses.

Most dichotomies are fundamentally misleading. Simplicities are reassuring but complexities are usually more accurate. Chickens and eggs are mutually interactive. (Fried handout for student development theory course, 2003)


  • Baxter Magolda, M. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fried, J. (2003). Ethical standards and principles. In S. R. Komives, D. B. Woodard, Jr. & Associates (Eds.),Student services: A handbook for the profession. (pp. 107-127). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue: Transforming conflict into cooperation. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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