Resolving Ethical Dilemmas in Academic Advising through Core Values and Aspirational Principles

David J. Lutz, Missouri State University
Austin T. Boon, Missouri State University
Xiafei Xue, Missouri State University

Abstract

Academic advising has many goals and typically is assumed to operate in the best interests of students. However, the personal goals of advisers along with departmental and institutional priorities may compromise this focus, often without the awareness or certainly the intention of advisers. Scenarios demonstrating such ethical dilemmas are provided. Incorporating NACADA’s The Statement of Core Values of Academic Advising (2005) along with other ethics codes can help to clarify advisers’ roles. Several processes are provided to address these ethical dilemmas.

A Scenario

Imagine you are a faculty adviser in a low-enrolled program. The number of majors has been declining during the past fifteen years to the point that the university is threatening to dissolve the department and incorporate current faculty into other disciplines if the trend is not reversed. You do not want this to happen. This morning, a sophomore student is in your office for general advising. She has not yet declared her major and is considering three possible choices, one of which is in your department. She is bright, articulate, and motivated—exactly the kind of student every professor wants in the classroom. As you start to discuss her choices, you laud the advantages of majoring in your discipline in the hopes she will declare her major in your department. Although hesitant at first, she becomes increasingly enthusiastic about the possibilities of your major, and decides she will declare her major that afternoon. Good work, or maybe not.

This scenario was presented at a university forum of faculty and staff advisers discussing ethical issues related to advising. We posed the question, “Are you comfortable with how the adviser acted in this situation?” Many advisers were perplexed by the question, apparently not recognizing this scenario might actually represent an ethical dilemma. Those who did respond generally agreed the adviser’s actions were reasonable and appropriate. They perceived the student as a mature person who could make her own decisions. We took this a step further to ask, “Is there anything wrong with ‘selling’ your majors to students?” While this question overstates the dilemma in the scenario, the idea that advisers have the right to encourage, push, or even cajole students into certain academic disciplines brought the dilemma into stark relief.

This scenario represents an adviser acting in a manner that may be considered reasonable and appropriate but which may overlook ethical issues that could go unrecognized and are less frequently discussed. Adviser training is often dedicated to understanding changes in academic requirements, making good use of online curriculum tools, helping students achieve their educational goals, and even tackling hot issues such as working with underrepresented and non-traditional students. This informational background is one component of the three main competencies necessary for effective academic advising (Brown, 2008). In addition to information, adviser training can also focus on relational competence, such as the ability to relate to students, and conceptual understanding, such as an understanding of the importance of advising along with larger decisions such as the use of college in moving toward broad life goals. We might expect the role or position an adviser takes in working with students has been clearly established, resulting in a commonly accepted understanding shared among academic advisers. However, ethical concerns related to that role or position do not appear to have been considered sufficiently, leaving some advisers unaware how such concerns need to be incorporated into advising.

Advocating for Adviser and Institutional Goals

The specific issue here is to what extent should an adviser advocate for personal, departmental, or institutional goals in advising students. What factors should the adviser consider when these goals impact the advising of students? What safeguards should be incorporated? While such considerations are not explicitly addressed in the advising literature, it is easy to come across fine illustrations of what a model adviser should do. Greenleaf (1977) emphasized the importance of aspirational goals, including increased autonomy, a greater willingness to become public servants, and serving the highest needs of those whom we serve, in this case, students. McClellan (2007) suggested methods of achieving such goals and stressed the importance of awareness, listening, and empathy. Paul, Smith, and Dochney (2012) emphasized the importance of wisdom in providing servant leadership. Allen and Smith (2008) demonstrated how advisers, faculty, and staff alike perceive their advising work as important and valuable. These advisers regard many functions of advising as important, especially providing accurate information; helping students connect their academic, career, and life goals; choosing among courses in the major that relates to those goals; and making appropriate referrals to campus resources. In contrast to these aspirational goals and illustrations of best practices, descriptions of less positive advising behaviors or attitudes have been overlooked. This is particularly true of ethical issues in advising, as few articles have focused on the importance of incorporating ethical principles within advising practices.

Lowenstein (2008) described the inherently ethical nature of advising and ways in which advisers might incorporate moral ideals, such as care and respect for students, into their behavior. The dilemma presented here challenges some of those assumptions, not because academic advisers are unethical, but because they may not be aware of the ethical issues inherent in their roles. Within this context, what exactly is meant by “selling” in advising? Broadly defined, this could mean any adviser behavior in which the adviser advocates for personal or institutional priorities rather than holding the best interests of the student as the highest or even the only priority. This may result in a student experiencing undesirable pressure despite an adviser’s good intentions, but it could and may often occur without the student’s awareness at all. Examples of this type of behavior may include providing information that attracts students (e.g., salary figures and benefits), reassuring a student that he or she will obtain employment, or predicting that a student will be successful in the program without fully explaining the potential downsides or disadvantages of such choices. When first considered, this behavior may seem fairly benign, especially if the statements are factual in nature. It may even be perceived as desirable or necessary, given that departments need to have sufficient enrollment to exist and function. From a larger perspective, universities often place considerable emphasis on retaining students for the good of the institution but also for the good of the student. Although less likely, such behavior could also include attempting to compel a student to commit to a certain degree program or make a specific decision, possibly by offering incentives or even asking leading questions that limit the choices a student perceives are available. Most advisers try hard to do what is best for students, but attitudes and even the best of intentions may not lead to specific behaviors (Chaiklin, 2011; Glasman & Albarracín, 2006; Wicker, 1969). Advisers may believe they are acting in students’ best interests. Yet there are competing attitudes and intentions, such as those involving the adviser’s personal and institutional goals that may contribute to less than optimal experiences for students.

Consider the following examples:

An undeclared sophomore who loves her introductory psychology course is intrigued by the work of a clinical psychologist. She has no prior exposure to this field other than what she has learned from her course and possibly some media exposure. She decides to ask her adviser about the work of a clinical psychologist, as well as what she can do to become one. The adviser, perceiving the student has just expressed her career goals, discusses the various work clinical psychologists do and tells her that if she desires to engage in professional practice, she needs to complete the psychology bachelor’s degree, continue on to a doctoral program, and become licensed as a psychologist. In another situation, while visiting the campus, a prospective student and her parent meet with an adviser in psychology to learn about the degree. He asks the adviser if he will be able to obtain a job with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The adviser says, “Of course! There are plenty of jobs you can get with this degree.” The adviser continues by providing some specific examples of jobs that students may obtain.

In both of these examples, consider what is going through the minds of these students after hearing the advisers’ responses. Are they thinking about the validity of the advisers’ statements? Are they planning to research this information on their own to learn about the details and credibility of these statements? Do they have a sense of the advantages and disadvantages of these choices along with alternative paths to work in the field? The answer to these questions is quite often, no. Rather, students often accept the information they are given as valid and appropriate to their situations and rely on the adviser as a primary, credible source acting only in their interests. These questions were examined in a lower division course that serves as an introduction to the psychology major. Students over several semesters were tested on their understanding of their degree program as a learning outcome. Exams included the following question: “What are the primary purposes for having an academic adviser?” Not surprisingly, the most common themes that emerged were (a) make sure you graduate on time, (b) help you choose the right classes suited for you, (c) help you make the right decision on a career path, (d) answer any questions you may have, (e) answer questions about classes or different majors, (f) keep you on the right track, and (g) help you succeed and graduate. Not one answer in those over 200 responses mentioned anything about expecting advisers to provide anything less than complete, unbiased information tailored to the interests and success of the students. There also was no suggestion of professor, departmental, or institutional goals, likely because students do not have any understanding of those goals.

Unfortunately, a significant disconnect often exists between what a student perceives is the function of an adviser and what may be the adviser’s perception. Crookston (1972) initially discussed this disconnect when emphasizing the distinction between prescriptive and developmental advising and stating advisers and students too often assume they have the same idea of what their roles are in the advising relationship. He stressed the importance of clarifying this ambiguity to avoid a result that is “often counterproductive, if not total disaster” (p. 17). This same principle holds true when clarifying the ethical nature of the advising relationship. Expressed interest in a major or profession is not the same as an informed, comprehensive, and confident decision. Advisers may unwittingly encourage a student toward a certain degree or undergraduate plan when a student has a premature understanding of such a decision. As described in the scenarios presented above, the advisers believe they are being helpful by providing useful and accurate information. Yet the information is incomplete and potentially biased, resulting in students making sometimes erroneous or at least ill-informed decisions.

Ethical Principles and Core Values

Course selections, academic major choices, and career decisions present substantial consequences for students. In a meta-analysis of studies on regret, Roese and Summerville (2005) found romance, friends, and education, in descending order, to be the domains of greatest regret for college students. However, for adults, education, career, and romance, again in descending order, were the domains of highest regret. For adults, education and career accounted for more than half of all regret responses. Among the factors affecting these rankings, increased opportunity was seen as the primary determinant of these rankings. Areas in which the participants had the most opportunity to develop skills or to modify circumstances were the areas in which they later had the most regrets. If we hope students will be satisfied with education and advising experiences, advisers need to have a clear sense of the roles they play and the ethical decisions that need to be made.

Professional disciplines in which expert practitioners are entrusted to provide special services to the public typically publish aspirational principles and mandatory standards that guide ethical decision making and behavior. For example, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (APA, 2014) includes five general aspirational principles. Beneficence and nonmaleficence emphasize the idea of doing no harm. Fidelity and responsibility emphasize establishing trust with those with whom psychologists work in an effort to serve the best interests of these persons. Integrity emphasizes the importance of accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness. Justice emphasizes fairness along with the caution that psychologists should take steps to ensure their potential biases and the limitations of their expertise do not lead to unjust practices. Respect for people’s rights and dignity emphasizes the right to self-determination. Similar principles have been established by other organizations. The National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW, 2014) Code of Ethics identifies six guiding values, including service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. The initial ethical standards emphasize the importance of promoting the well-being of clients, the right of clients to self-determination, and the importance of valid, informed consent. Similarly, the American Medical Association (AMA) describes the importance of ethical principles within the patient-physician relationship in Opinion 10.00–Opinions on the Patient-Physician Relationship of the AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics, which emphasizes the patient’s right to receive adequate information, to discuss appropriate treatment alternatives, and to make decisions within this knowledge base (AMA; 2014). AMA further states that the relationship between patient and physician is based on trust and requires physicians to place patients’ welfare and self-interest above their own (2014).

In 2004 the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) developed The Statement of Core Values of Academic Advising (NACADA, 2005), which is similar in content and spirit to various other ethical guidelines (see Table 1 below). NACADA’s statement consists of three sections: Introduction, Declaration, and Exposition. Although NACADA’s core values have not been incorporated into state laws as has been done for various other professions, NACADA clearly states that the core values are intended to guide the behavior of advisers while not imposing such values or any certain process or structure. However, it is not clear to what extent advisers, especially faculty advisers as contrasted with staff advisers, are aware of the existence of the core values statement, and, if they are, to what extent it guides their behavior, especially with regard to ethical dilemmas such as those presented here.

Table 1  Core Values Compared with Other Ethical Codes

Core values of NACADA

Practical applications in academic advising

Ethical values of other professions

Practical applications in other professional contexts

Advisers are responsible to the individuals they advise.

Advisers create conditions for students to make informed, reasoned choices.

Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of clients.

Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals.

Advisers are responsible for involving others, when appropriate, in the advising process.

Advisers share knowledge of other resources and departments to help students explore academic opportunities.

Psychologists cooperate with other professionals in order to serve their clients/patients effectively and appropriately.

Psychologists consult with, refer to, or cooperate with other professionals and institutions to the extent needed to serve the best interests of those with whom they work.

Advisers are responsible to their institutions.

Advisers emphasize the importance of advising and do not impose their personal agendas on students.

Psychologists are aware of their professional and scientific responsibilities to society and to the specific communities in which they work.

Psychologists do not exploit persons over whom they have supervisory, evaluative or other authority such as clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants and employees.

Advisers are responsible to higher education and to their educational community.

Advisers simultaneously advocate for their students and for the mission of their educational institutions

Social workers are ethically responsible to the broader society.

Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments.

Advisers are responsible for their professional practices and for themselves personally.

Advisers regularly examine their own motivations and seek feedback on their performance.

A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism.

Physicians should strive to further their medical education throughout their careers, to ensure that they serve patients to the best of their abilities and live up to professional standards of excellence.

The first core value addressed within the Declaration affirms advisers “are responsible to the individuals they advise” (NACADA, 2005, Declaration page). Professionals’ responsibility and care for those to whom they provide services is a clear theme across many disciplines, and this is recognized by NACADA as well. This value emphasizes the importance of beneficence, meaning advisers should have the welfare of students as a goal and look out for the interests of the student. It also emphasizes the importance of autonomy, meaning advisers should respect students’ choices but also create the conditions necessary for students to make informed, reasoned choices. It is not enough to allow students to make a choice. Instead, it is important to give students the tools to understand the various alternatives available and the ramifications of those alternatives so they can make independent choices.

The first core value within the Declaration calls on advisers to “encourage, respect, and assist students in establishing their goals and objectives” (NACADA, 2005, Declaration page). When advisers neglect to ask about and discuss the interests of students or prematurely provide information about a department or educational or career path, they take away students’ opportunities to express and develop a sense of direction. In the long run, such behavior may stunt a student’s ability to develop goals. Instead, advisers need to learn to be comfortable letting students articulate and even struggle to articulate what their professional goals might be. It may be tempting to jump in and save them by providing attractive options, especially options that are favorable to the adviser and the institution, but this limits the extent to which students examine their own motivations, desires, and skills, characteristics that are important in the advising and educational process (Henning, 2009). Assisting students in achieving their potential may mean less talking and more listening from an adviser.

The Exposition of the first core value states advisers “are encouraged to investigate all avenues to help students explore their academic opportunities” (NACADA, 2005, Exposition page).  This is consistent with the second core value that declares advisers “are responsible for involving others, when appropriate, in the advising process” (NACADA, 2005, Exposition page). Interestingly, our students also put similar statements on the exam described above. They believed an adviser serves as a guide to provide information about various undergraduate majors and courses, trusting and relying on the adviser to be responsible to them as well as their institutions. However, in our experience, some advisers, especially faculty advisers, rarely talk to any great extent about any department other than their own. We speculate this is because, first and foremost, advisers are simply not knowledgeable about other department programs, especially in larger universities. The information they have is based on their primary experience, which usually reflects their work within one or, possibly, two or three departments. Another reason for this may be that advisers typically seek information about other departments only when required or specifically asked to do so. It is less common for those who do not advise as their primary duty or who are not involved within advising centers proactively gather information about other departments.

Consider an example of a student who wants to work as an individual and family therapist. There are multiple undergraduate and graduate programs that could serve as a path toward such a profession, but how often do advisers highlight the various avenues? Perhaps a student would find an undergraduate degree in social work or communication more fitting than psychology, but the student does not fully consider the options because of limited knowledge and understanding of them. Advisers need to be knowledgeable about the possibilities or at least have a sense of the resources that students can access to explore such options. They then need to be willing to share this knowledge with their students even when it may not immediately benefit the adviser’s department. However, with better collaboration among advisers across departments, some of these students may commit to and graduate from programs earlier and, by doing so, spend less time and money within departments where they do not obtain degrees.

The third core value states advisers “are responsible to their institutions” (NACADA, 2005, Declaration page). This means advisers are aware of the policies and procedures of their institutions and advocate for the importance of advising. The Exposition of this value includes the statement that advisers “… do not impose their personal agendas on students” (NACADA, 2005, Exposition page). A directly related statement can be found in the Declaration of the first core value, affirming that advisers “… strive to honor students’ expectations of academic advising” (NACADA, 2005, Declaration page). These two statements provide a central focus in addressing the original question, “Is there anything wrong with selling your majors to students?” The core values leave no doubt advisers are not to misuse their power by manipulating students and the decisions they make. Advisees are to rely on the integrity of the advisers and should be able to rely on the truthfulness and accuracy of the advisers’ statements. If a student expects an adviser to give unbiased information about a major, a discipline, or a career, the adviser needs to be aware of his/her motives.

The fourth and fifth core values proclaim advisers “… are responsible to higher education” in general and “… are responsible to their educational community,” respectively (NACADA, 2005, Declaration page), and are not as directly related to the specific scenarios described here. Still, they continue to emphasize the importance of advisers advocating for students, not for the institutions. They emphasize a partnership between advisers and students, one in which advisers support student rather than institutional goals while upholding the educational mission of the institution. They emphasize the importance of appropriate referrals for study abroad and community service learning programs, meaning advisers need to be aware of campus resources and willing to make referrals.

Solutions

The sixth core value states advisers “… are responsible for their professional practices and for themselves personally” (NACADA, 2005, Declaration page). This value emphasizes the importance of advisers’ competence, and, similar to many ethical codes, focuses on the importance of continued education and learning. This continued learning provides the path to solve ethical dilemmas such as the ones presented here.

Examining our own motives. We all consider ourselves ethical individuals. We can be quick to critique the intentions of others, yet slow to see our own issues. The “selling” dilemma and the other dilemmas presented here seem rather benign on first inspection. Being an adviser requires a great deal of introspection and self-monitoring to evaluate how one’s thoughts and behaviors are working for or against the advising relationship. Advisers need to examine the rationale underlying their discussions with students. They need to focus on why they advise one student differently than another or possibly why they are advising many students to focus on similar goals.

Recognizing our conflicting demands. Having conflicting goals from several sources is not the exception. It is the norm. For example, when faced with challenges between organizational demands and personal moralities, some athletic administrators use compliance rules to excuse themselves from moral responsibilities (Kihl, 2007). Engineering ethics have been criticized for focusing too much on individual decision making and not enough on social context, such as organizational demands (Davis, 2006). There are even considerable differences in the ways in which ethics are viewed across disciplines, as business tends to focus on a foundational approach that emphasizes more static, stable structures while liberal arts are more likely to focus on dynamic processes of ethics (Barnes & Keleher, 2006). This means stakeholders from different positions but even from different disciplines are likely to perceive ethical dilemmas differently. It is important to recognize these conflicting demands exist for all advisers and other professionals have likely found ways to address those demands.

Talking to others. For the new adviser, formal and regular supervision can be a useful way to receive constructive feedback. Asking a more experienced adviser or an adviser with specific expertise to sit in on an advising session provides an apprentice or mentorship model. For the more experienced adviser, attending forums and having contact with individuals in other disciplines can helpful. However, as demonstrated in the initial scenario presented above, the depth of ethical dilemmas may not be recognized.

Obtaining feedback from students. Feedback is an effective learning tool in many settings, such as psychotherapy (Duncan, Miller, Wampold, & Hubble, 2010) and higher education (Tee & Ahmed, 2014). Feedback also can be useful in advising but may rarely be obtained. Feedback could be as simple as asking the student for direct feedback. However, given the power differential between adviser and advisee, a less direct approach might be more useful. Aggregating student responses on a monthly or semester basis through a formal feedback method, such as a questionnaire given after advising appointments, may give the adviser needed information while not compromising student identity.

Presenting pros and cons. Advisers can objectively inform students about the potential or anticipated pros and cons of decisions. A student who makes a decision after recognizing both sides of a complex decision will be more satisfied with the decision making than a student who only later is exposed to different views and possibly unexpected difficulties.

Engaging in self-disclosure. Use honest disclosure if you are going to try to draw students toward the program. A professor and adviser informed us that if a student indicates interest in his area, he often asks, “So, do you want to hear my sales pitch?” (R.G. Jones, personal communication, April 16, 2014). This explicit statement allows students to reframe how the adviser is communicating. This permits students to process given information in a way that is not misleading. The key is, within this enthusiasm, to take care to underscore when the adviser is speaking from the adviser’s experience and from the adviser’s own agenda. It is important not to mislead a student into predicting that he or she will have the same or similar experience. This is another example of the importance that trust plays in the student/adviser relationship, as trust is essential to fostering such positive relationships (McClellan, 2014).

Reviewing the literature. The Statement of Core Values of Academic Advising provides a starting point for a thorough application of ethical principles to advising. Unfortunately, the literature on ethical advising is rather sparse. Advisers can examine this literature (Compton, 2014; Lowenstein, 2008; Lowenstein & Grites, 1993) but also can look outside of advising for potential guidelines, such as in their own disciplines. Physicians, psychologists, and social workers are cited above, but many professions have codes or standards containing aspirational principles that can be applied to advising.

Conclusion

The advising atmosphere can contain conflicting forces fighting for influence. Advisers may be expected to bring more numbers to their department and at the same time be impartial sources of guidance. While these expectations are seemingly at odds, we encourage advisers to think of themselves as both ambassadors of their programs and servants, of a kind, to their students. There is no need to persuade students to make uncertain or uninformed decisions. They may come to further appreciate and respect the advising process when respect is first given. In the end, the qualities of honesty, integrity, and genuine concern for students’ well-being may be what attracts and keeps students committed to a program.

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About the Author(s)

David J. Lutz, Missouri State University

David J. Lutz, Ph.D., is coordinator of the clinical track of the psychology graduate program for the Department of Psychology at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. He can be reached at DavidLutz@missouristate.edu.

Austin T. Boon, Missouri State University

Austin T. Boon, M.S., is an academic adviser and retention specialist for the College of Health and Human Services at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. He can be reached at Boon373@live.missouristate.edu.

Xiafei Xue, Missouri State University

Xiafei Xue, B.A., is a student in the clinical psychology graduate program at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. She can be reached at Xue226@live.missouristate.edu.

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