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Erica R. Compton, College of Western Idaho

Erica ComptonEthics in academic advising has been widely addressed in the higher education field, with authors arguing that all advisors should behave in an ethical manner.  However, most literature does not explicitly address issues of integrity as related to the academic advisor.

This article will explore the meanings behind ethics, morals, and integrity and will illuminate the responsibilities of academic advisors as they relate to integrity. A set of boundaries in decision-making will be introduced that will enable readers to cognitively evaluate their own decisions within the parameters of integrity.

Advisor Responsibilities and Roles

As advisors, we carry an immense amount of responsibility on our shoulders. Not only do we have a responsibility for ourselves, but according to NACADA’s statement of core values (NACADA, 2005), we also have a responsibility to our institutions, advisees, and peers.  In addition, we have a responsibility to our profession, our educational community, and higher education in general.

This burden of responsibility is carried through the different roles that we, as advisors, assume as we tend to wear many hats. First, we are educators; expected to create and foster learning opportunities for students. We may also be a confidant, a safe place for a student. Through the role of cheerleader, we encourage confidence and are advocates. We act as facilitators between institutional departments and community services, as gatekeepers of knowledge, and as enforcers of policy and procedures. Trust in our professional judgment is also given to us as we assume the roles of institutional spokespersons, appointed stewards, and public servants. Lastly, one of the most important roles that we assume is that of role model and leader.

As we assume roles and transition between them, who is watching what we do, and how  we behave, conduct business, and interact with others? Advisees are privy to our counsel but peers, faculty, staff, administration, and community members all witness our behavior.  Part of being trusted as an institutional representative and spokesperson is that every action is being observed.

This is a tall order because individuals do not rely on advice from people they do not trust, “as such, ethical behavior and ethical decision-making are expected” (Landon, 2007) of us as academic advisors. Regardless of the situation, we must be able to conduct our professional duties and roles with integrity. 

As a role model, a person with integrity receives the highest regard. However, what is integrity? Is it more than just doing what is right when no one is looking? How does it differ from ethics and morals? Although these three terms have varying degrees of similarity, a better understanding will assist us in ensuring integrity is a component of the many roles we assume.


Morals are traits that can be considered either inappropriate or appropriate; what is it that people aspire to? Morals have tended to be time-honored principles such as valor, honesty, justice, compassion, peace, responsibility, respect, wisdom, and generosity (Ianinska, 2013, p. 7). In recent research conducted by Rushworth Kidder (2006), honesty, respect, responsibility, compassion, and fairness have been the most common traits associated with the most respected and admired moral values (p. 43).


Although the word ethics has been used interchangeably with morals, ethics is more or less the study of, or theories of, moral principles (Ianinska, 2013, p. 8).  If morals are the traits that one aspires to, then ethics are the guiding philosophy behind them. Ethics are not static and may adapt and change over time. For instance, Aristotle held reason in the highest regard, whereas contemporary ethics may be more concerned with good habits (Ianinska, 2013, p.  9). 

Ethics is the guiding light which assists individuals in the decision-making process. It is important to note that “acting (doing) does not always require thinking about the act, but ethics always involves thinking about and evaluating how to act to achieve the best possible outcome” (Frank, 2000, p. 45). If an individual were driving a car, morals would be the components of the car and ethics would be the actual thinking about the choices that come along on the road... to go left, to go right, how to maneuver, and so on.


Not unrelated to either morals or ethics is integrity. According to Merriam-Webster (2013), integrity is the “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.”  It may be easier to identify someone with integrity than to define the word itself.

The definition provided by Merriam-Webster is an intimidating one to dissect, but the firm adherence mentioned refers to consistency. Regardless of the situation, a person’s decisions and actions are consistent and are embedded within a moral code of conduct and ethical obligations. Integrity can be taken even further than just consistency.  As Steven Carter (2000, p. 7) asserts, integrity encompasses these three components:

  • Discern. To have integrity one must be able to think for oneself.
  • Act on it. Although it is fairly easy to know what is right or wrong, it is harder to act upon it.
  • Own it.  Beyond being able to do the unpopular thing, it is also being able to explain and defend the actions and reason behind those actions.


Even with the understanding of ethics, morals, and integrity, we as advisors are still confronted with dilemmas and uncertainty that come with making decisions. Conflicts occur when competing roles clash; this may be between our personal morals and beliefs, or between the different roles we assume as professionals. Making the best decisions in these dilemmas is critical as “leadership is a moral act infused with a vision and commitment to action. Every action taken – or not taken – conveys information about the values of the leadership” (Wilcox & Ebbs, 1992, p. 29).

For instance, if the institution has an unwritten policy regarding the deadline of accepting a Withdrawal Form by the close of business, we have an obligation in our role as enforcer to uphold this unwritten policy. However, our role of cheerleader may come into conflict with the enforcer roll if we receive this form from a student we regularly work with as we make our way to the car at the end of the day. What role trumps in the situation... enforcer or cheerleader?

As noted in the example, dilemmas make it hard for decisions to be made and there is uncertainty about what to do. How do we know when to do the right thing, versus just doing things right? In the big scheme of things, “the rest of what we think matters very little if we lack essential integrity, the courage of convictions, the willingness to act and speak in behalf of what we know to be right” (Carter, 2007, p. 7).


Although not a cut-and-dried process, ethical decision-making should be a cognitive and conscious effort, especially when the right decision is not easily evident. These steps may allow enough reflection in which the best course of action should emerge.

  • Identify personal morals. Identify what is important and what aspirations are being sought.  To know where to go, we must first know where we are. Find the motto that will act as an orientations (Something that my father taught me; Do the right thing, not just do things right).
  • Attempt to minimize harm; do no harm. When looking at the options in the dilemma, is one particular decision going to cause more harm than the other? What is the potential for injury in any given path?
  • Practice altruistic behavior. As advisors, we should adopt an unselfish desire to serve others, including respecting others’ privacy, practicing fairness, and attempting to be consistent.
  • Look to the mission statement.  What are the values and vision that our institutions strive to uphold? Do these institutions or departments have mission statements that we can refer to in aligning the situation for a better orientation?
  • S-O-S. Know when to bring others into the dilemma while maintaining the confidentiality of the situation. Collaborating with others and asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of leadership.
  • Attempt to find balance. For everything that we do, or do not do, there is a ripple effect. You can’t do just one thing.
  • Stand by the decision. Once we have acted upon the decision, we must be able to stand by our choice and know that we did the right thing and acted with integrity.

Integrity begins with us. As role models, “there is no better model than for students to see their advisors acting in principled ways, solving problems and basing decision on values. In this way, students can learn how to think and solve problems ethically as well” (Frank, 2000, p. 49). As everyone is a work in progress, being cognizant of the decisions that we routinely face and knowing that what we do, or fail to do, is a reflection of the roles we assume, it is essential to make decisions with integrity. 

Erica R. Compton
Advisor, Student Enrichment
College of Western Idaho
[email protected]


Carter, S. (2007). Integrity.  New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Covey, S. R.  (1989, December).  Moral compassing.  Franklin Covey.  Retrieved from https://resources.franklincovey.com/blog/moral-compassing

Frank, K.S. (2000).  Ethical considerations and obligations. In V.N. Gordon & W.R. Habley (Eds.), Academic Advising, A Comprehensive Handbook (44-57). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ianinska, S. & Garcia-Zamor, J. (2006). Morals, ethics, and integrity: How codes of conduct contribute to ethical adult education practice. Springer Science 6, 3-20.

Kidder, R.M.  (2006). Moral Courage. New York, NY: Harper.

Landon, P.A. (2007). Advising ethics and decisions.  Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Website:  http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Ethics-and-decisions.aspx

Merriam-Webster (2013).  Integrity. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/integrity

NACADA. (2005). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Website: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Core-values-of-academic-advising.aspx   

Wilcox, J.R. & Ebbs, S.L. (1992). The Leadership Compass: Values and Ethics in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.


Cite this article using APA style as: Compton, E.R. (2014, March). Doing the right thing: Integrity in advising. Academic Advising Today, 37(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2014 March 37:1


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