Academic Advising Resources


Advising Ethics and Decisions

Authored By: Paula A. Landon

Advisors often face situations with students and colleagues that require making ethical decisions. There are many factors that must be considered when seeking a best solution for all involved, including:

  • What standards and values should influence the decision?
  • Is this a decision an advisor has to make alone?
  • When ethical decisions impact students, which advocacy role should carry the most influence?

Ethics is always an issue for advisors as they have a dichotomous role at the university: they are advocates for the student as well as the institutional representative. In other words, advisors have “no ethically neutral place from which to advise” (Buck, et al., 2001).

An advisor’s code of ethics is based on many standards and values. Although advisors’ own values and ethical beliefs ground their ethical decisions, two professional documents provide guidance to advisors. The Council for Academic Standards guidelines for academic advising require that advisors:

  • maintain confidentiality (compliance with FERPA)
  • serve students on a fair and equitable basis
  • avoid any personal conflict of interest to advisors can deal objectively and impartially with issues
  • handle funds responsibly
  • refrain from any form of harassment
  • recognize their advising expertise and refer students when necessary
  • impart accurate information while complying with institutional policies and rules (CAS Standards 2005).

The NACADA Core Values challenge advisors to:

  • treat students and colleagues with respect
  • honor the concept of academic freedom
  • learn about and understand the institutional mission, culture, and expectations and interpret the institution's values, mission, and goals to the community
  • obtain education and training (NACADA Core Values, 2004 and Nutt, 2007, Legal and Ethical Issues).

Academic advisors hold a position of trust. As such, ethical behavior and ethical decision-making are expected. Ethics is reflected by the “caliber with which faculty and professional advisors render service” (Fisher, 2006). To be ethical, advisors must: provide the best advice to each student; present students with all options; get students to take responsibility in advising and curricular matters; and not cast aspersions on a colleague, class, or student. In addition, advisors owe advisees their recommendations and admonitions, their counsel and the moral responsibility of standing by that counsel, and the obligation to make things right if the advisor is wrong (Buck, et al., 2001).
Advisors especially have the ethical responsibility to never harass or discriminate against a student in any area: gender, race, culture, age, sexual orientation, disability, or intellectual ability (Buck, et al., 2001). Advisees should be treated with respect and equality. Advisors must not make assumptions nor be judgmental about a student and should always maintain an appropriate role with advisees.

By “acting in principled ways, making decisions which are appropriate and fair, and solving problems based on ethical beliefs and values,” advisors model ethical behavior for their colleagues and students (Nutt, 2007, Ethics in Advising). Advisors must be honest, fair, loyal, and committed to excellence and decency. They must respect and care for others, keep promises, be principled and faithful, and be responsible citizens as well as being responsible to everyone they serve. Modeling these ideals teaches students not only to act in principled ways but to solve problems and base decisions on their own core values (Frank, p. 48). In Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook, Frank states that academic advising deals in the language of ethical philosophy: advisors help students with their choices, their beliefs and values, the “shoulds” and “oughts,” helping students accept responsibility for their actions, be accountable for those actions, and respect another’s autonomy (Frank, p. 56).
In advising, there are three “dialectic ethical tensions” that advisors need to be aware of: the first is neutral vs. prescriptive (Buck, et al., 2001). Neutral advisors are reluctant to make recommendations or tell a student what to do; rather, they try to guide the student to discover the appropriate action to take. Prescriptive advisors give their opinions freely and sometimes use their position of authority to make it happen. Advisors need to determine where they are comfortable along this continuum and must be careful of both extremes.
The second tension is encouraging vs. discouraging. Encouraging advisors are optimistic and only want to give the advisee positive messages. Discouraging advisors look for negative consequences. Advisors usually choose their place on the continuum based on their own outlook on life; however, advisors should strive to be encouraging as well as truthful.
The third tension is judgmental vs. nonjudgmental. This is not a way of advising but a basic attitude held by the advisor. Buck (2001) tells us that advisors with judgmental tendencies should keep those attitudes to themselves and not convey their judgment to the student.

Ethical dilemmas or problems arise from many situations such as:
  • the difference between an advisor's personal values and the moral belief system and goals of the institution
  • the disparity between institutional values and rules and the student's set of values and expectations
  • the defining of roles and boundaries of advisor/advisee or advisor/colleague
  • the issue of competency
  • issues of confidentiality in the parameters of the advising relationship, appropriateness and need for referrals, and the duty to warn
  • conflict between the actions of staff and the institution's policies (Fisher, 2005 and Nutt, 2007, Ethics in Advising).

The goal is to make ethical decisions that will help solve these dilemmas or problems. Advisors face complex ethical issues serving the dual roles of advocate for both the student and the institution. Advisors must also make ethical choices as interpreters of institutional goals, policies and procedures, and in assisting students with career, course, and academic choices (Frank, p. 49).
Ethical decisions should be guided by an advisor’s core values of honesty and integrity, respect and fairness, responsibility, and the pursuit of excellence. Putting one’s self in the other person’s situation is critical when making ethical decisions. Advisors must consider not only who will be affected but how they will be affected. The resulting decision should meet the reasonable needs of all affected persons (Arizona State University Handbook, 2000). The foundation of ethical decision-making involves choice and balance. Good choices should be made in light of what a reasonable person would do in the situation (Chmielewski, 2004).
The goal in solving ethical dilemmas is to find a balance that causes the least harm to everyone involved (Nutt, 2007, Ethics in Advising). To solve ethical problems, advisors must gather facts and determine what is at the “heart” of the problem, ascertain relevant policies and know what rules and laws apply, use guiding principles of personal and advising values as well as the values of the institution, weigh principles and facts, and determine what is ethical or unethical. Cultural differences or expectations that could compound the problem need to be considered. Advisors should then examine what solution is best for the student or situation that is allowable within institutional rules. There may not be one “right” answer; rather, the best decision will lead to an outcome where the least harm is done to all involved (Frank, p. 54). Ethical decision-making strives to reduce “complexity by introducing general principles that apply across the board” (Frank, p. 55).

The most effective problem-solving happens in a neutral climate; so the advisor should try to stay emotionally objective, strive to choose the best answer, and seek support from others. Making ethical decisions is a process that takes time. The answer will usually not be a clear choice between black and white; rather, ethical decisions are made “in a wide range of grays” (Frank, p. 54). Even so, the decision must be morally defensible.

Once an ethical decision is made, those involved may not agree with the decision and need to be informed of the chain of command for a grievance process. If the involved parties do not agree with the decision, the line of authority should be in place for an appeal.
To be “strong student advocates, neutral mediators, moral role models, and conscientious staff representatives,” advisors need training in ethical decision-making (Fisher, 2005). All advisors, whether faculty, professional, or peer, must be adequately trained about legal and ethical issues as well as institutional policies and procedures. Training videos about federal laws and regulations (FERPA,ADA, immigration, etc.) and institutional handbooks that give direction and list policies and guidelines are valuable assets.
Comprehensive advisor development programs must address ethics and the role cultures and values play in ethical decision-making. Values and perspective need to be examined as they influence decisions about ethical dilemmas (Chmielewski, 2004).

One way to train for ethical decision-making is to think of ethical situations that have been addressed or that might occur and encourage discussion of these situations at a staff or advisement meeting. Each person should work at solving the dilemma by:

  • considering what is at the heart of the matter
  • applying relevant policies, rules, or laws
  • weighing guiding principles and values
  • determining what is ethical and unethical.

Participants should strive to put themselves in the situation but still maintain emotional objectivity. Best ethical solutions will uphold principles and cause the least harm to all involved.

Understanding ethical issues, being aware of guidelines and standards, modeling ethical behaviors, and becoming trained and prepared to make ethical decisions will increase an advisor’s confidence and help them maintain objectivity as they carefully consider the principles involved in determining best solutions for ethical dilemmas.

Paula A. Landon

Humanities Advisement Center

Brigham Young University



ArizonaStateUniversity, (2000). The Academic Advisors Handbook, Section II. Retrievedfrom

Buck, J., Moore, J., Schwartz, M., Supan, S., (2001). “What is Ethical Behavior for an Academic Advisor?” The Mentor, January 2001. Retrieved from
Chmielewski, C., (2004). The Importance of Values and Culture in Ethical Decision-Making. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:
Council for the Advancement of Standards, (2005). Academic Advising: CAS Standards and Guidelines. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources
Frank, K. S., (2005). “Ethical Considerations and Obligations,” in Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook,San Francisco,CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fisher, K., (2005). Ethical Decision Making in Academic Advising. Retrievedfrom the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources
NACADA, (2004). NACADA Statement of Core Values of Academic Advising, Introduction. Retrievedfrom the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources
Nutt, C. L., (2007). Ethics in Advising Power Point. (Working paper, EDCEP 835 Foundations of Academic Advising, College of Education, Kansas State University.) Retrieved from Kansas State University course Web site.
Nutt, C. L., (2007). Legal and Ethical Issues in Advising Power Point. (Working paper, EDCEP 835 Foundations of Academic Advising, College of Education, Kansas State University.) Retrieved from the Kansas State University course Web site.



Cite this resource using APA style as:

Landon, P. A. (2007). Advising Ethics and Decisions. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site

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