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Ethical Principles of the Student Affairs Profession Statement

Melissa K. Recht

Wright State University


Ethical Principles of the Student Affairs Profession Statement

First, Do No Harm

The student affairs profession has evolved into a broad-based, multi-layered community.

Caring individuals take on the duty of helping students navigate the often rocky shores of college

life, from roommate problems and homework stresses to sexual assault and health crises. One

need only look at the values and principles of our guiding professional organizations to see that

we are charged with protecting and advancing our students through ethical, just, and

compassionate efforts to “enhance the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of each

individual student.” (DuVivier, n.d.) Ethics are critical to this endeavor—and a set of standards to

guide and inform professionals in this field helps provide a safer place for our students and for

those working in the profession. We welcome young students in the throes of increasingly

complex developmental stages into an environment that is filled with opportunities, challenges,

and complicated experiences. We must be armed with our own guiding principles, values, and

integrity to deal fairly, openly, and carefully with our students—because we are modeling for

them how to deal with the challenges they will face in college and in the next phase of their lives.

We can look to the framework crafted by working student affairs professionals to further bolster

our commitment to ethics.

One ethical framework student affairs professionals can refer to has five principles that,

when applied to any life situation, seem logical and useful. This framework by Kitchner as

discussed in Schuh, Jones, Harper & associates (2011), outlines these five integral principles:

respecting autonomy, doing no harm, being faithful, and being just. When applied to our

profession, one can clearly see the value of thinking deeply about each principle when

approaching difficult situations involving students and colleagues. Most stirring to me is the idea

of “doing no harm.” We must start from a solid foundation of wanting the best for those in our

charge (our students), those we interact with daily (our colleagues), and even those we interact

with less often, like our community members and stakeholders. It should be a starting point for

all of our actions, because if we move forward without malice or ill intent, with the idea that

those we work for and with deserve our best efforts to be kind, compassionate, and helpful, other

good intentions can take root. “Do no harm” includes our efforts to keep others safe physically

and emotionally, and relates closely to the shared ideals of the medical profession’s Hippocratic

Oath, “Above all, hurt no one.” (Schuh et al., 2011, p, 100.) I have worked with many students

who are already hurting. They come to college with some trauma from their past, or perhaps a

mental or physical issue that hampers their ability to study, live with others, and thrive in a

college environment. These students deserved and needed a safe space to heal and learn, and that

safe space can only be found in a community that adheres to the belief that in all of our dealings

with each other we must first consider whether or words or actions will cause irreparable harm.

We know that we must sometimes have difficult conversations or make difficult decisions about

a student’s future, but if we recognize that these decisions are made to help prevent further harm,

we are at the least starting from a place of compassion.

The other principles detailed in our textbook (Schuh et al., 2011), autonomy, doing good,

being faithful, being just, and practicing veracity, are also key to our success as student affairs

professionals. Doing good, or benefiting others, is at the heart of our profession. We are the

helpers—the counselors, the advisors, the ones on the other end of the phone line when a student

is desperate or distressed. The small steps we take to try to ease a student’s pain or address an

issue that others have passed on, or even if it just offering an ear, a warm smile, or a shoulder to

cry on, make a world of difference in that student’s college experience.

Being faithful and just are every bit as important, and tie in closely to the idea that our

students and colleagues deserve fair and honest treatment. Schuh et al. (2011) describe justice as

“fairness, impartiality, quality, and reciprocity (p. 100).” Each student we encounter is worthy of

this important principle. No matter the socioeconomic background, culture, race, creed, religion,

country of origin, or attitude, our student deserve our impartial, respectful assistance. NASPA

articulates this principle in the document listing the standards of practice for the profession as

well (1990). We are all enculturated with biases and prejudices. But we must combat that with an

unbending commitment to acting justly and fairly. This involves a deep examination of our own

beliefs and reactions. For me, my own undergraduate experiences and my subsequent

employment in academia have given me many opportunities to see things through the viewpoint

of others. The realization that my suburban Ohio childhood was vastly different from the

experiences of people who grew up only 10 miles away from me in urban neighborhoods in

Akron was eye-opening and life-changing. I try to use a different lens than my own experiences

when considering what fairness is and how to best employ it. For example: do you fire the

student employee who is late multiple times because the bus he takes to campus doesn’t arrive?

Or do you employ a sense of deeper justice and fairness when comparing his situation to that of

another student who may live on campus or have reliable personal transportation? Fairness is

complex. If we take into account that we all have different life circumstances, does ethics ask us

to consider giving additional chances to someone who has had more than his or her share of

life’s struggles? I believe that it does.


Faithfulness, or the keeping of promises we make to each other, is also extremely

important in our dealings with students, colleagues, and community members. The promises we

make to them are more than just a construction based on our mutual need for each other. They

are the heart of our relationship (Schuh, et al., 2011, p.100). Without some commitment to live

up to these promises, our good intentions seem to vanish. Anyone who has ever had a promise or

commitment broken (or has broken one!) knows that trust is hard to regain. We know that acting

with fidelity is ethically-sound. We also know, at a deeper level, that the emotional component of

fidelity is priceless. When we trust those who are responsible for us, who aid us, who love us, we

can create deeper bonds and establish our own sense of place in the world. Again, when we

model being faithful mentors, advisors, friends, or colleagues, we give our students an example

of how to treat others. We also, of course, are practicing the important principle of doing no


Veracity. Honesty. Truthfulness. We seek these values in our friends, our partners, our

politicians, and our coworkers. We don’t often find it. The truth is hard, and we are always trying

to discover our own truth—our own version of events. How do we model and live up to this

ethical principle when taking into account emotions, different viewpoints, and even societal

implications of telling the “whole” truth and nothing but the truth? Our textbook takes the tthat

approach there isn’t even always a “truth” to be told, and that the many perspectives held by

different groups and people make it difficult to find a common understanding of truth in a

situation (Schuh, et al., 2011, p. 101). The book spells out a possible solution, “…operational

understandings of the truth can usually be agreed upon in the context of respectful listening,

honest speaking, and nondefensive understanding.” (Schuh, et al., 2011, p. 101) This elegantly-

stated concept can be used in any situation, from dealing with a student/student conflict to

working through a disagreement with a coworker. I’m intimately familiar with the “he said, she

said” dynamics of student versus faculty member, having fielded many calls from upset students.

Every student has a version of the truth that they tell, and their stories are often clouded with

deep emotion. I’ve practiced the art of respectful listening as I try to help them. I’m aware that

along with the facts of the situation come the misunderstandings and lack of resources to deal

with disappointment or rules they don’t understand. With regard to my own veracity and honesty,

I’ve had to confront situations with coworkers where I had to speak openly (but respectfully)

about a conflict we needed to resolve. As a woman, I’ve had to consciously unlearn the practice

of holding back my own truth so as not to ruffle feathers. Simply being honest enough to say,

“That was hurtful” has been a way to create more openness and communication with peers. I’ve

also had to find the strength to offer up my own mistakes and errors, even when it was difficult

or embarrassing. The true test of our ethical learnings is when we admit to our mistake and try to

make amends. We can’t always correct a situation, but we can certainly learn from it.

Autonomy is the first moral principle our book discusses, but I close with it because I see

autonomy as a final refocusing of the other principles discussed. When we allow students to

make their own decisions, create their own pathways, and become independent adults involved

in a community, we expect and assume that ethical practices will be a part of that growth of

autonomy. We meet the need for the growth of their own values system with examples of ours—

we give them the opportunity to see that if they act ethically they will establish a moral stance

that can inform their lives, their decisions, and their reactions to others’ decisions. If we don’t

allow our students to make these decisions (and occasionally, mistakes) by their own volition, we

may be setting the stage for them to fail. As a parent, a professional in academia, and a member

of many different communities, I know that letting someone make a decision and take

responsibility for it is the best way for them to understand the ramifications of that decision. The

NASPA Student Affairs organization described this clearly in one of their standards of

professional practice, “Members foster conditions designed to ensure a student’s acceptance of

responsibility for his/her own behavior (1990).” The Council for the Advancement of Standards

in Higher Education (CAS) also promotes autonomy as an important ethical principle for our

profession (2006). It is ethically correct to allow our students the freedom of choice.

Summarizing the importance of ethical behavior in our profession and in our lives is

simple. We are responsible for our students and for each other. Our daily interactions have to be

guided by our desire to be ethical, virtuous, and compassionate. Following the guiding ethical

philosophy and the standards of professional practice of our professional organizations is vital to

creating sound relationships with our students, coworkers, and employers.



Council for the Advancement of Standards. (2006). CAS professional standards for higher

education (6th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

DuVivier, R. (n.d.). Introduction to Student Affairs [Class handout on ACPA-College Student

Educators International]. Dayton, OH: Wright State University.

NASPA Standards of Professional Practice. (1990). Retrieved from

Schuh, J.H., Jones, S.R., Harper, S.R. & Associates. (2011). Student Services: A Handbook for

the Profession. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.