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.

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