Ethical Decision Making: A Teaching and Learning Model for Graduate Students and New Professionals

By McDonald, William M.; Ebelhar, Marcus Walker et al. | College Student Affairs Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Ethical Decision Making: A Teaching and Learning Model for Graduate Students and New Professionals


McDonald, William M., Ebelhar, Marcus Walker, Orehovec, Elizabeth R., Sanderson, Robyn H., College Student Affairs Journal


Student affairs practitioners are inundated with a variety of ethical considerations when making day-to-day decisions regarding the welfare of students and colleagues. There is every reason to believe that confronting ethical issues will be an increasingly difficult issue for student affairs professionals in the future. This article provides a model for ethical decision making that is designed particularly for graduate students and new professionals.

Student affairs practitioners are inundated with a variety of ethical considerations when making day-to-day decisions regarding the welfare of students and colleagues. Indeed, Kitchener (1985) stated that "college student personnel work has ethical choices at its very core" (p. 17). Robert Brown (1985) agreed and stated, "The common mission of the student services profession is being the moral conscience of the campus. Staff responsibility is to promote and support ethical behavior on campus and to recognize and confront unethical behavior" (p. 68).

Yet new student affairs practitioners and graduate students may view themselves as ill-prepared to address ethical decision making. The first time new professionals face an ethical decision is when it revolves around a crisis. At such times, the staff member may have to support a campus policy or a supervisor's decision with which they do not agree; or the new professional may have to make a decision that is in conflict with his or her own personal set of values and standards.

Although ethical considerations have existed among student affairs practitioners for almost 70 years (Saunders & Cooper, 1999), the recent national trend of ethical lapses in business has brought this issue to the forefront. Carroll (2003) stated "today, after ... [the] numbing experience of watching one business executive after another fall victim to corruption and fraud, everyone seems to be calling on colleges and universities to do something about the ethics of organizations and leaders" (p. 1). Higher education has not been insulated from this "numbing experience"; recent examples include former University of Tennessee president's excessive spending habits and the University of Colorado at Boulder's scandal-ridden athletic program. It may be difficult to instill a sense of ethical behavior among our greater student population. Dalton (2002) voiced this concern when he wrote,

Student cynicism about the shallowness and hypocrisy of leaders and popular culture combined with students' privatism and concern for wealth and status to create a powerful college student culture of detachment in much of higher education. Colleges and universities often promote this culture of detachment by forcing a separation between intellectual and moral reasons and reflection. To the extent that issues of conscience, citizenship, character, civility, social responsibility are treated in academe as matters of personal discretion and peripheral to higher learning the more the culture of detachment is fixed in the minds and hearts of college students, (p. 1)

Many new student affairs practitioners may feel anxious when address ethical decision making due to their lack of training and experience. They may be wrestling with integrating their personal set of core values that will guide their work. Two of the biggest challenges student affairs professionals face when trying to implement ethical decision making are "How can I know whether I'm being ethical or not?" and "Why should I care if I make the ethical decision? I can't win for losing!"

Carroll (2003) provided insights for new practitioners wrestling with these issues. He wrote,

Maybe the appropriate question is not whether ethics can be taught, but whether they can be learned. In considering my own personal experiences and the experiences of many others I know and have observed, it is clear that ethics can be learned. As an experiment, think about what you believed was right and acceptable back when you were a teenager and then think about how you believe today.

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