Ethical issues during academic advising

In the course of advising students, Academic Advisers often have to make decision on whether they should take some actions or give out some advice which is controversial. For example,

  1. If an academically weak student tells his / her Adviser that he / she wish to take a course taught by a professor whom the Adviser knows to be very critical and demanding, should the Adviser disclose his / her view about the Professor to the student?
  2. If a final year student, at the middle of his / her last semester, discovers that he / she has not taken a core course of the graduation requirements, which his / her Adviser deems very important academically and should not be missed, should the Adviser tell the student that he / she can apply for an exception from the Faculty Dean (whom the Adviser knows would very likely grant the exception to the student)?
  3. If a student discloses to his / her Adviser that some information he / she submitted in his / her admission application was misleading, should the Adviser turn the student in?

There are, of course, no standard answers to these questions. Advisers must exercise their own judgment. However, Adviser may wish to take reference to the following ethical principles for academic advising proposed by Marc Lowenstein (2008), which may provide good guidance for decision.

9 Ethical principles for academic advising

The Adviser should maximize students’ wellbeing and minimize harm. In the context of advising, it means that it is the adviser’s ethical duty to maximize students’ learning as far as possible.

This principle mandates that advisers should not play favourites among students, nor exert more effort to those students they like better or whose values are more compatible with their own.

This principle is derived from the ideal of respect for persons. Treat other people (including students) as rational, autonomous agents.

Even though advisers should build students’ autonomy, it is a fact of life that very often students will not get all the services or benefits they need without a little help. E.g., a teacher may not be willing to add a student to a full class unless the Adviser of the student gives his / her supports with good reason.

This principle includes (i) telling the truth to advisee to make informed decision and maximize educational benefit; and (ii) telling the truth to colleagues who are entitled to accurate information to make decisions regarding the advisee.

Fidelity dictates that Advisers have an obligation to keep their commitment to maintain the confidentiality of their interactions with their students.

By accepting employment with an institution a staff undertakes an implicit commitment to abide by and to respect its rules. That means, for example, that it is wrong for an Adviser to tell a student that he / she disagrees with the graduation requirements of a particular curriculum.

Any behavior that undercuts the credibility of the advising programme runs a risk of harming students’ education, since they may make worse decisions if they do not respect advice they receive from advisers, or cease consulting advisers at all.

This is not merely an exhortation to observe good manners, but an admonition not to express to students any negative opinions you may harbour about faculty or staff at the institution. Advisers should not contribute to a culture of character assassination and backstabbing that will only harm the institution in the long run.

It is worth noting that in reality, these ethical principles can conflict with each other. For example, in the situations described, if an Adviser does not inform the student his / her view, it may be a failure to tell the truth (Principle 5), but to inform the student his / her view may contradict with Principle 9. The conflict of principles, or ethical dilemma, is not uncommon and comes with the nature of the work.

Strategies for Handling Ethical Dilemma

In facing ethical dilemma, Marc Lowenstein (2008) suggested three possible strategies:

  1. When confronted with conflicting principles, do the best you can to follow all of them to the extent possible.
  2. Compare the situation to similar, real or hypothetical, situations to see whether any element in it is crucial to evaluating it.
  3. In considering two solutions, each of which would violate an ethical principle, try to identify the choice that leads to a less substantial violation.

These strategies may not always yield satisfactory resolutions for all ethical dilemmas, but it often can provide assistance for Advisers to consider what is the action that he / she should take.

    Marc Lowenstein (2008). “Ethical Foundations of Academic Advising” in Chapter Three of “Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook”, second edition, ed. Virginia N. Gordon, Wesley R. Habley, Thomas J. Grites, and Associates. (copyright by National Academic Advising Association, 2008 and published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint), p.40-47.