The importance of ethics in student affairs and services

Ethical considerations and obligations in policies, procedures, rules, regulations, programmes and activities abound. Ethics govern the actions and activities of professions and organisations. Without an ethical framework, student services professionals are vulnerable to charges of unethical or unprofessional behavior.

The following article is an abbreviated overview of Section III on ethics in the book Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices,3rd ededition published in July 2020 (pp 52-55).

Student Services professionals, practitioners, and organisations (hereinafter, professional/s) should consider six underlying issues with regards to ethical conduct and standards:

1. Law: Consider the laws of the land in which they are governed.

2. Spirituality and religion: Consider the multi-faith presence on- and off-campus or absence of faith as long as such considerations are congruent with institutional mission.

3. Culture: Consider cultural issues of an institution, community, country or region.

4. Institution: Abide by the mission and goals of the institution.

5. Ethical codes: Codes are universally valid and may specifically exist for some professional certification or licensures.

6. Students: Obligations with regards to the students served.

Law: Laws of the land are the basic tenets with which all other rules and regulations are deemed to align to guide the behaviour, programmes and activities of the individual or agencies of government in a specific community or country.

Members clearly distinguish between statements and actions which represent their own personal views and those which represent their employing institution when important to do so.

Even if professionals do not agree with those laws, it is not their place to willfully and intentionally violate the laws within the context of their role as professionals. Professionals should also “clearly distinguish between statements and actions that represent their personal views and those which represent their employing institution” (NASPA Programs and Initiatives Standards of Professional Practice. December 1990) and government.

Spirituality and religion: It is the ethical responsibility of the professional not to judge a student’s development, to support the student’s spiritual journey, and to facilitate different spiritual beliefs or lack of beliefs within the context of the institutional mission.

Students may have spiritual and religious beliefs that are contrary to the beliefs of the professional or the institution. However, students must be allowed to explore their own spiritual journey. For religious institutions, the curriculum or co-curriculum may be more prescribed, and the student’s journey must be respected within the context of the institutional mission.

Culture: It is imperative that professionals understand the ways of life, the patterns of behavior, and the different values that exist in the workplace or an organisation. To a certain degree, culture affects and influences one’s views about everything, including ideas, goods, services, other people and the world.

It should be noted, though, that cultural standards vary from community to community and country to country. What is an acceptable practice in one locality could be taboo in another.

Professionals must understand the culture of the country, region and community in which they are working. This is particularly important for those who are working in countries or cultures other than their own.

Institution: It is significant for student services professionals to realise that an institution will have its own ethical standards by which it is expected that all employees (and in many instances, students) must abide. These ethical standards are to a large extent aligned with or drawn from the vision-mission, goals and core values of the institution. The mission statements explain the existence and future direction of the institution.

The Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education or NASPA organisation states that it is the obligation of the student affairs professional to support the rights of students “in accordance with the mission of the employing institution”.

It is a key obligation that the student affairs professional recognises what the ethical standards are of the employing institution before undertaking employment. The professional has a responsibility to either not accept employment at an institution whose ethical standards are in conflict with his or her own, or to abide by the ethical standards of that institution.

Ethical codes: Professionals must be well aware of some existing codes of ethics that are universally valid and others that are applicable to specific organisations, professions or programmes.

In an educational setting, some areas of student affairs require professional licensure or certifications, which may involve their own ethical standards and principles. Practitioners in areas such as health and psychological services may need to abide by professional, ethical practices. In such instances, professionals should follow those specific guidelines when engaging in that professional role.

Students: It is paramount that professionals see the students they serve as the key reason for their position, presence and functions on campus. They must have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the students they serve, as individuals who come from different milieus, family backgrounds, religions (or no religion), cultures, and values and needs. They go to school to be taught, formed and prepared for work and life. Professionals have an obligation to facilitate student learning in all its forms.

Some common principles

A review of various ethical statements and guidelines from a variety of organisations, as well as basic principles set forth by Karen Strohm Kitchener in Ethical Principles and Ethical Decisions in Student Affairs (1985), provide some common principles that can guide professionals when servicing students. They are:

• Be respectful.
• Respect the dignity of the student.
• Act to benefit the student.
• Facilitate student learning.
• Provide a safe environment.
• Maintain the highest level of professional behaviour.
• Do not cause harm.

Although each of these principles may have different meanings and subtleties from culture to culture, the guiding principle is professional, respectful and ethical service to the student.


Ethical considerations are essential in any analysis of student services. In order to maintain a model of appropriate behaviour, actions and direction, ethical standards should be developed and codified within any student services organisation based on the institutional mission and culture.

Michael C Sachs is Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students at City University of New York in the United States. Email: