Practical Ethics: Using ACPA’s New Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards

Practical Ethics: Using ACPA’s New Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards

When it is time to solve a problem, theory and practice are often seen as leading to different courses of action. A comment such as, “That’s all well and good in theory, but let’s be practical about it,” is the standard way to frame this conflict. A different approach, attributed to Kurt Lewin, is “There’s nothing as practical as a good theory”. I subscribe to the Lewinian approach and believe that a good theory can provide guidelines for practice that are both strong and flexible. The newly revised Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards provides us with an updated set of guidelines to support us in ethical decision-making and behavior as student affairs professionals. This approach is grounded in several theories that are shaped into an integrated model for decision making. As our roles and responsibilities have become more complex, we have needed an updated ethical framework that incorporates the changing cultural, personal and technological dimensions of the work we do with students, parents, colleagues, donors, vendors and members of governing agencies. The governing bodies of the Association should be justifiably pleased with adopting this framework since it contributes to the ongoing ethical development and practice of our profession.

Now that we have the revised statement, how do we use it? The new statement has two overarching purposes: 1) to help members in making their own decisions about ethical practice and 2) to give guidance to members who observe external conditions that seem to challenge the ethical standards we have adopted. Monitoring one’s own professional behavior is a daunting task. Rising to the challenge of addressing ethical dilemmas in our work environments, particularly issues presented by the behavior and decisions of others, is also extremely difficult.

When an ethical challenge arises, the first question to be faced is who will potentially be harmed. Consider the following examples:

  • A supervisor becomes intimately and sexually involved with one of his or her subordinates. Who is likely to be harmed by this relationship? The possibilities include the subordinate staff member if the relationship ends, the other staff members who assume or observe preferential treatment on the job, and the students served by this office if they have any concerns about that staff member’s work and realize that any complaints may not receive a fair hearing.
  • An academic advisor accepts a student’s desire to continue re-enrolling in courses that the student has repeatedly failed without doing a thorough review of that student’s preparation for those courses. Is the student harmed by this behavior?
  • A hall director suspects that a student has been cutting herself, but doesn’t take time to speak with the student because she has had an argument with her. Is that behavior potentially harmful to the student or her friends?
  • A program advisor allows a group to hire one of its own members to act as DJ at a party without discussing with the group the potential conflict of interests implied in that decision.

In the course of a day, dozens of situations may arise which have ethical implications and of which we may be unaware. When we become aware of ethical challenges, the ethical response is often not the easiest response or even the first response that comes to mind. An ethical practitioner must be a reflective practitioner as well.

It is important to take time when uncomfortable situations arise, or when we have a sense that the reaction chosen was not the best one, to rethink that reaction or decision at the end of the day. “Was anybody likely to be harmed by what I did?” is a very good question for reflection. If the answer to that question is yes, the rest of the statement provides guidelines for methods of addressing the issue or reviewing the decision. Any harm that may have occurred because of a lack of awareness, thoughtlessness or the simple pressure of too many things to do can then be remedied.

Noticing behavior or decisions in the work environment and deciding what to do about them, if anything, is usually more difficult than monitoring your own behavior. A decision to confront a colleague or to raise uncomfortable questions about a policy always has political as well as ethical consequences. The first step in the Association guidelines for addressing ethical issues is to speak with the person or persons about the situation of concern. How do you decide when to speak? Rion (1996) suggests that we ask ourselves why the situation is bothering us, who else might be involved and whether or not we are personally responsible for causing or resolving this problem.  Before we decide to speak, we should also examine our professional ethical guidelines, the norms of the campus community and our personal beliefs about fairness and justice, right and wrong. Buddhist practice suggests that these conversations should be initiated when the initiator is fairly sure that good will result. If the initiator is troubled by the situation or behavior, believes that others may be hurt and thinks that the person to be confronted has an open mind, then the initiator should raise the concerns. If initiating such a conversation might cause more harm than good, the concerned person should find another approach to raise the issue in the community. In any case, serious reflection is an important part of a decision about whether to raise an ethical question with a colleague

These conversations can be conducted most skillfully and respectfully when the community is used to talking about ethical issues. Brown has called for the creation of ethical communities on our campuses in order to create contexts for dialogue (1985). Anyone who speaks out about ethics (or any other difficult topic) as a solitary voice may be heard as a blamer, a person who considers her or himself as more virtuous than others. When ethical issues are raised in a community where such conversations are the norm, dialogue is more likely to proceed effectively and without blame. The community is committed to ethical practices and to dialogue as a method of discerning ethical responses to difficult situations. Therefore a person who asks for a conversation about an ethical dilemma is one who is helping the community live up to its own standards.

Creating an ethical community is not simple or easy. It is fraught with conflict and characterized by the tension between theory and practice. Avoiding conflict is not the goal in ethical discourse. Engaging conflict gracefully and respectfully is the goal. One aspect of the new ACPA statement is that conflict is an inevitable part of the conversation. The complexity of our campuses and the broad range of cultures that shape the perspectives of people in our campus communities makes conflict inevitable. I believe that the most effective approach to enliven ACPA’s Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards is discuss ethical standards as a framework for our practice before we have specific ethical conflicts to consider. We need to train ourselves to engage in discourse about differences of value and opinion in a respectful manner in much the same way that we train our students to manage their emotions or respect cultural differences. I hope that ACPA members will examine the new statement and take some time to think about the ethical standards and practices on their own campuses. You may wish to organize professional development seminars and discussions on your own campus where people can talk about the content of our new statement or create case study events for staff members, including student staff.  Another potential use of the new statement is to open conversations with faculty colleagues so that they understand what ethical approaches are used by our profession. Bring the issue of ethics to the table – the lunch table, the committee table, and the tables where policies are constructed.

Several years ago, Margaret Wheatley addressed a session of the ACPA Convention and made a suggestion for provoking change and conversation on our campuses. She said that we should use what we have learned, not to lecture people about our new wisdom, but rather to raise questions about the status quo and engage in conversation about current conditions and our hopes for the future. That approach involves everyone in the creation of a dialogue about our shared professional lives. I urge members of this Association to read the new statement and use it to raise questions about our common work on campus, not because we are doing things wrong, but because we always have the opportunity to improve ourselves for the benefit of our profession and our students.


  • Brown, R. (1985). Creating an ethical community. In H. Canon & R. Brown (Eds.), Applied ethics in student services. (New Directions for Student Services No. 30, pp.67-79). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Rion, M. (1996). The responsible manager. Amherst, MA: Human Resources Press.

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