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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.