On the Ethical Implications of Being The Man

On the Ethical Implications of Being The Man

Z Nicolazzo
Developments Editorial Board Member
Miami University (OH)

Somehow, everyone engaged in student affairs work has become “the man” at one time or another. The term the man has nothing to do with gender. The man is an authority figure, an adversary, someone not normally considered by those in opposition to be an ally or to be trusted. The man is someone who will likely impose seemingly irrelevant and arbitrary regulations to hinder efforts to achieve some perceived good and possibly someone who has to decide whether to be professionally responsible or sometimes instead, to act in ways more representative of their own personal beliefs. Being the man, the administration or the Establishment is not an enviable position for most people in student affairs. For some, it is so unpleasant a term that the phrase the administration will be substituted from now on. It is also discomforting how quickly the transformation occurs from having a positive and comfortable relationship with students as an educator and practitioner under normal circumstances to being transformed into the administration when a cause of one sort or another emerges. Perhaps this transformative experience happened to you this past fall with the Occupy movements or other protest concerns such as the increasing costs of education or changes in institutional policy, programs, or procedures.

There are different aspects of becoming the administration that are cause for introspection. For many, there is an unpleasant emotional impact, as becoming the administration is not something that is desired or possibly even anticipated. The transformation can be personally hurtful, as students with whom you have a positive professional relationship might levy the accusations of having become the administration in ways that are potentially disrespectful and confrontational. It can be annoying. After all, being accused of being the administration usually coincides with having done something such as imposing a conduct sanction, supporting a controversial decision, or describing possible unpopular consequences, which seem in one’s own mind professionally, reasonably, and ethically justifiable. Finally, becoming the administration can be personally confusing, and sometimes the accusation engenders for the need for guidance and assurance that the right decision was made.

For the purposes of this discussion, it is useful to consider whether or not an event is considered to be disruptive. As an example, many student affairs staff became the administration this fall when they sought to preserve the normal functioning of their institutions in the face of a national Occupy movement, protests over the cost of higher education, or the treatment of undocumented students, etc. They worked hard to keep their campuses safe, which sometimes meant being involved in discussions or making decisions about limiting the right of entry of homeless people, political activists, or others who were not the customary students, faculty, or staff. Sometimes student affairs staff had to grapple with freedom of speech issues when access to classroom buildings or activities spaces were impeded by protestors or the volume of chants and speeches interfered with lectures and other curricular and co-curricular activities.

These difficult decisions and topics are intensified if the administration is personally sympathetic to the overarching protest goals such as world peace, social justice, animal rights, or economic equality to name a few. But decisions like these, if they are implemented in humane and respectful ways, seem justifiable and are even addressed in the ACPA Statement of Ethical Standards and Principles (2006)(the statement). The statement offers four standards by which to make ethical decisions regarding numerous types of ethical matters. The extensive variety of ethical matters is not specifically identified within the statement. The third standard “Responsibility to the Institution” (p. 4) describes elements of professional decision making:

Institutions of higher education provide the context for student affairs practice. Institutional mission, goals, policies, organizational structure, and culture, combined with individual judgment and professional standards, define and delimit the nature and extent of practice. Student affairs professionals share responsibility with other members of the academic community for fulfilling the institutional mission. Responsibility to promote the development of students and to support the institution’s policies and interests require that professionals balance competing demands.

In standards 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3 of the statement student affairs staff are reminded to support the mission, goals, and policies and to follow the procedures of their institutions; to seek resolution when conflicts occur between professional and personal values, recognizing that these might necessitate protracted and respectful effort; and when resolution is not possible, to voluntarily leave the institution.

If guidance along these lines does not seem complete, then perhaps more utilitarian types of perspectives that strive to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number might be helpful. In the conflicts which cause student affairs staff to be accused of having become the administration, rarely is there a sense the confrontational students represent the opinions of the majority. It seems most students have no opinion on a topic or event, have an opinion but do not wish to get involved, or consider the issue to be somewhat irrelevant to their desire to complete their educational goals as quickly and inexpensively as possible. For instance, in their report, Student Debt and the Class of 2010 (Reed, 2011), The Project on Student Debt (n.d.) states grimly, “Two-thirds of college seniors graduated with loans in 2010, and they carried an average of $25,250 in debt. They also faced the highest unemployment rate for young college graduates in recent history at 9.1%” (para. 4. ). This is a sobering reminder of the responsibility of student affairs staff to provide not only the best and most complete developmental experience for students but also the most efficient and relevant.

On the other hand, to realize a perspective might not be representative of the majority should never be confused with the Nixon era “silent majority” argument used to attempt to diminish the efforts of protestors against the Vietnam War; student affairs staff must always attempt to assess and appreciate the perspectives of students regardless of how widespread. Student affairs staff, the administration, must provide the leadership to identify ways to limit disruption while still providing opportunities for the expression of conflicting perspectives.

Another source for discomfort for student affairs staff might be the intuited contradiction between being advocates for social justice while upholding the policies and procedures of their institutions. The fourth standard, “Responsibility to Society,” advocates that student affairs professionals take active stance towards social justice:

Student affairs professionals, both as citizens and practitioners, have a responsibility to contribute to the improvement of the communities in which they live and work and to act as advocates for social justice for members of those communities. They respect individuality and individual differences. They recognize that our communities are enhanced by social and individual diversity manifested by characteristics such as age, culture, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, gender identity, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Student affairs professionals work to protect human rights and promote respect for human diversity in higher education (p. 5).

Standard 4.1 encourages student affairs staff to assist students to become “ethical and responsible citizens” (p. 5). It is not surprising that some student affairs staff may feel conflicted in performing their ethical duties to serve their institutions on the one hand, and to assist students in exploring their social responsibilities on the other.


So what does this mean in the days ahead for student affairs practitioners? Is there a contradiction between our obligations to our institutions and to be advocates for social justice? If the current economic crisis continues, will questions about class and our responsibilities to acknowledge class contradictions on our campuses and to address the needs of less economically privileged students cause us to be uncomfortable with how exactly we are serving in our role as social justice advocates? Can we educate enough beforehand so our decisions will not always seem to be unnecessarily limiting and arbitrary? Can we protect free speech, individual rights, and personal safety simultaneously? Are we individually forever destined to be the administration?

The following suggestions might be helpful:

  1. Be visible and be accessible. If students get to know you at least a little as a person, it will be more difficult for them to arbitrarily assign a label to you. Also, having a sense for who the students are, whether student leaders or not, helps you to have more appreciation for them as individuals and enhances opportunities for communication.
  2. Know your students. Review the information from the admissions or institutional research office about where your students come from, their average age, how many are transfers, how many are nontraditional, their ethnicity, their gender, and their economic status. This knowledge is very important and will help you to address stereotypes that might affect decision-making.
  3. Become a predictable colleague. If you have not already, spend some time with people you are likely to work with in those circumstances when you are accused of being the administration. Although this might be repeating something obvious, it is very important to be someone whose opinion your chief of police or director of public safety respects, not to mention legal counsel.
  4. Plan ahead. In division-wide meetings, talk about potential controversial situations, who will take the lead, and what the expectations are. These are confusing times and, as has been described in this essay, our ethical obligations might be confusing too. These are better discussed under calmer circumstances.

In previous essays, I have asked the question of whether the current the statement still reflects the perspectives of ACPA members and the student affairs profession. The feedback by some Developments editorial members to first drafts of this essay further underscores the question. In response to concerns by them and in order to encourage dialogue among readers, I changed phrases like “the man” which are now considered to be so objectionable by some. I also changed other points to be more inclusive and more respectful so no one felt relegated to the subaltern. Still, the editorial feedback made me wonder again whether the contrasts between serving our institutions as well as being agents for social justice are depicted accurately. Also, does the ACPA Statement of Ethical Principles still accurately describe, for as many of us as possible, the conflict between individual values, characteristics, and perspectives and those of a community such as an institution of higher education?

I look forward to hearing from you about your perspectives and experiences.


ACPA Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards. (2006). Washington, DC: American College Personnel Association. Retrieved from: http://www2.myacpa.org/ethics/statement.php

Reed, M. (2011, November). Student Debt and the Class of 2010. Retrieved from http://projectonstudentdebt.org/files/pub/classof2010.pdf

“The Project on Student Debt: An Initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success.” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://projectonstudentdebt.org/index.php

About the Author

Paul Shang is the current chair of the ACPA Ethics Committee and a past president of ACPA. He also serves as the Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students at the University of Oregon. Please e-mail inquiries to Paul Shang.


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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