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Ethical Decision Making in Academic Advising



Authored By: Kate Fisher


Ethics is a concept that runs deep in the collective consciousness of modern society. Most believe that choosing the moral 'high road,' standing up for one's principles, and doing the right thing should form the foundation for the actions and decisions of today's leaders. Yet headlines depict graft, corruption and moral decay that cast shadows beyond government and business to the heart of college campuses. Scandals such as plagiarism, sexual misconduct and academic dishonesty serve as reminders of what happens when ethics are considered an option of convenience.

How do we define ethics? When do ethics apply? Do they really matter in the larger scheme of things? As academic advisors who strive to assist students along pathways of self-discovery, we know that ethics are essential.

Ethical behavior and decision-making are expected from those in a position of trust. The creditability of coaches, faculty members and academic advisors is closely tied to the ethical principles we demonstrate in our day-to-day interactions. While most would agree that these educational professionals should be models of ethical behavior, we struggle to agree on exactly what form this behavior should take. Before we can reach a consensus, we need to gain a better understanding of the concept of ethics.



Framing an Ethical Decision
Frank (2000) points to ethics as 'the process of determining what one considers right and wrong' (p. 45). This may sound easy, but in reality it's a complicated task. Right and wrong are subjective concepts that vary according to culture, moral climate, and individual circumstance. What may be the right action in a particular instance may be absolutely wrong in another. To help navigate through this ambiguity, we need some guidelines for decision-making and action.
The first of these guidelines involves trying to see an issue through the eyes of the community. In practice this translates into understanding local principles which are valued and respected, such as religious tenets and established customs. Issues of moral choice need to be weighed in light of their social context. Even as we grasp the community's larger beliefs, we need to recognize that there are smaller segments of the community which may hold different beliefs and attitudes, based upon its citizenry. For example, officials at a private, religiously affiliated college may view a hazing incident very differently from their counterparts at a military academy, even though both groups live in the same community.
Regardless of these variances, our goal is to consider the matter based on what the community believes is right. Often there is no clear-cut 'right' choice; instead there are dozens of viable options. We must weigh these options in light of their possible consequences and decide which option appears to cause the least amount of harm to all involved (Frank, 2000).
When the concept of ethics is applied to the educational community, it becomes clear that academic advisors often find themselves in the thick of such discussions. Buck, Moore, Schwartz, and Supon (2001) point out, 'there is no ethically neutral place from which to advise.' In short, advisors are often faced with ethical decisions that would bring even a 'Superman' to his knees! As such, it's essential that we develop a strong set of resources to guide us. A good starting point is through examining the basics - truth, justice and the American Way.







Return to the Basics
Webster's (1996) defines truth as 'the real state of affairs: fact' (p. 723). Advisors can make sound decisions only if we have good information and know the facts. We have to understand what programs are available, how policies are enforced, and where resources can be found. In short, we need to know how things really work if we're going to help guide students toward legitimate pathways. Advisors need to be forthcoming in disclosing the information a student needs, while being careful not to share unconfirmed assumptions (Buck, et al., 2001). Truth can be a subjective character: one man's truth may be different from another's but vital to both. Start with the truth.
Justice is about what's fair. Advisors must balance the needs of the institution against student needs and make decisions on the basis of what is fundamentally fair. Treating students, with their unique and diverse needs, equitably is part of this challenge. Although this may require different tools and very different skills, we must tackle each student's challenges with the same degree of energy, dedication, and enthusiasm.
The 'American Way' encompasses an equal opportunity to pursue lifelong dreams that include personal, academic and religious freedom. All of these seem like good philosophies to add to the advisor's toolkit. When those murky questions of right and wrong arise, revisiting these fundamental aspirations will help guide us to thoughtful decisions. Our culture respects the right of every individual to pursue their dreams and goals using their particular talents. The advisor acts as both a guide to light the students' paths along this journey and also as an anchor to remind them of the boundaries within which they must steer.






Applying the Concepts

Once we grasp the underlying concepts of making ethical decisions, we need to know how to apply them. This involves trying to achieve emotional objectivity that will help us avoid swaying a decision based upon our personal beliefs. When this sense of objectivity is in place, the next step is to define the problem. What is at the heart of the matter? What rules apply to this situation? Are there institutional policies that address it? Are there state or federal laws that come into play? As we gather information, we may want to consult with other colleagues whose opinion we value to lend clarity to a situation.
After laying out facts and opinions, it's time to consider possible solutions. As with other matters of human interaction, there's usually no 'one right option' but instead a range of possibilities. Weighing the consequences of each option helps guide the decision. In the final analysis, we must make a choice based upon which option appears to offer the best outcome with the least harm done to anyone.
Considering Possible Conflicts
Additional elements shape the process of ethical decision making. One of these is the conflict that may exist between an advisor's personal values and those of the educational institution. As advisors, we are institutional representatives and as such, must demonstrate loyalty and support for institutional policies. Yet some of these policies may come into conflict with our personal beliefs. A thorough understanding of the institution's mission is useful in clarifying issues. Discussion with colleagues and developmental workshops can help advisors decide how to act in good conscience given a disparity of values.


A similar conflict may arise between an advisor's preferred solution and the student's choice. We may feel torn between the desire to help a student avoid what is perceived as a bad decision, and our respect for student's right to choose. This balance is delicate and often requires soul -searching to arrive at the best action. While each situation is unique, there are some common threads that run through each that can provide guidance.

Another area ripe for conflict lies in issues between the institution and the student. NACADA Core Values of Academic Advising point out that advisors often play the role of mediator. 'When the needs of students and the institution are in conflict, advisors seek a resolution that is in the best interest of both parties' (NACADA, 2005). This, too, requires us to demonstrate a high degree of professionalism while walking a thin line.

Practice Along the Continuum

Additional nuances in making ethical decisions are described by Buck, (2001) as 'dialectic tensions'. These tensions represent points along a continuum which define an advisor's actions. These dialect continuums encompass the range from a neutral to a prescriptive approach; an encouraging to a discouraging style; and a judgmental to a nonjudgmental attitude in working with students. As academic professionals, we must examine where our practice falls on each continuum and consider if adjustments to our positions are warranted before making this ethical decision.


Enhancing Ethical Decision Making

Academic advisors work in challenging roles with demanding responsibilities. We must be strong student advocates, neutral mediators, moral role models, and conscientious staff representatives. These roles require us to develop and practice ethical decision making skills. Institutions must provide advisors with the resources necessary to enhance and update our ethical decision making skills if we are to build and maintain student trust.



Kate Fisher

Kansas State University graduate student in the Adult & Continuing Education

Annotated Bibliography of References

Buck, J., Moore, J., Schwartz, M., and Supon, S. (2001) What is ethical behavior for an academic adviser? Published in The Mentor, Jan. 9, 2001. Retrieved from the World Wide Web 04/13/05at


Their premise is 'there is no ethically neutral place from which to advise.' The authors review the legal and moral responsibilities of advisors, and define the continuum of behavior they describe as the dialectic tensions.


Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. Illinois Institute of Technology. Code of Conduct Statements online retrieved from the world wide web on 04/13/05 at


The Center offers a comprehensive site for codes of conduct for a variety of organizations, such as the National Council on Education, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


An eclectic site under the auspices of the Philosophy and Religion department that offers a unique sampling of related links and musings.


Frank, K.S. (2000). Ethical considerations and obligations. In V.N.Gordon, W.R. Habley & Associates, Academic advising, a comprehensive handbook. (p. 44-57).San Francisco,CA: Jossey Bass.


The author discusses the ambiguity of defining the cultural value and determining the best course of action. She offers solid guidelines for best practice.


Josephson Institute of Ethics. The ethics of American youth. Retrieved on the world wide web on 04/13/05 at


The Institute conducts and publishes research on various aspects of ethics, offering a thorough and quantitative view of the subject



NACADA. (2005). NACADA Core Values of Academic Advising, Exposition statement. Retrieved from 


 The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) summarizes expected roles, responsibilities and behavior standards for those working in the field of advising.


Santa Clara University. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Retrieved from


This site offers a wealth of articles and a springboard to related links discussing ethics from many perspectives.


Webster's II(1996). Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary, revised edition. Boston, MA: Hougton-Mifflin Company.




Cite the above resource using APA style as:

Fisher, K. (2005).Ethical decision making in academic advising. Retrieved -insert today's date- from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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