Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP

Do the Right Thing

Six Ways Universities Can Foster Better Ethics on Campus

Thoughtfully attending to campus ethics can be in everyone's best interest.

Posted Sep 08, 2015

used with permission from
Source: used with permission from

With students heading off to college this time of year many nervous parents, as well as university administrators and students themselves, may wonder about problematic behavior on campus that includes campus safety issues. After all, there has been so much press attention in recent months devoted to college student misbehavior involving sexual assaults, binge drinking, cheating scandals, racism, sexism and so forth.  

Universities possess both enormous influence and responsibility in the education of students. Many schools embrace the dual opportunity and responsibility of value-based education, actively integrating educational paths toward graduating ethical, socially-conscious students. For example, the mission statement here at Santa Clara University includes an emphasis on developing future leaders of “conscience, competence, and compassion.” Many colleges promote a similar goal, but differentiating lip service from genuine educational programming separates the schools that truly make ethical formation a top priority. While students enter college as products of their family values and larger social influences, universities can make an enormous impact by doing what they do best: educate!

Here are six ways that colleges can do this well.

1. Pre-Orientation and Orientation of New Students: Entering students are eager to learn about the culture and values of their college. They want to know what is valued, rewarded and deemed critical for success. By emphasizing the role of ethical thinking throughout their college education, colleges can orient new students to their expectations and opportunities.

New student orientation is an ideal time to reach enthusiastic new students eager to learn about the campus culture and values. Introducing quality programming in ethical decision-making can alert students to the expectations placed by their college on this important educational goal.

2. Curricular and Co-Curricular Education in Ethics: If a college does not offer educational instruction emphasizing ethical concepts and decision making, it might be unfair to expect their students to strive toward ethical behavior. Teaching ethics involves dedicated course work and co-curricular programming. Colleges can offer ethics courses ranging from moral philosophy, business ethics, medical ethics, science ethics, sports ethics, religious ethics, professional ethics, to name a few. Similarly, offering forums, panels, and lectures where ethical principles are discussed further underscores their importance.

3. Ethical Student Leaders and Models: On campuses, the star athletes and other “winners” are often celebrated and rewarded. Awards, contests and publicity all convey our society’s admiration of such high achieving individuals. Rarely is the same respect and attention afforded those individuals who dedicate themselves to providing ethical leadership and inspiration on campus. Yet, these individuals abound. By rewarding and highlighting students who model and work for ethical pursuits, students perceive that the college, and society at large, values these less visible “champions” of moral leadership. Developing university awards and grants for such individuals, and publicizing their achievements, visibly demonstrates that ethically-inspired pursuits are valued by their college right along with football stars and outstanding scholars.

4. Faculty Leadership: Faculty members often complain that they are rewarded and valued only for their scholarship, and less so for their teaching and service. In order to attract quality faculty to ethical leadership, mentoring and reflection, colleges need to provide incentives. When faculty feel appreciated, recognized and rewarded for their contribution to the ethical development of students, they perceive its worth and respect within the university community. Therefore, in order to develop faculty who can serve as ethical instructors, mentors and models, colleges need to prioritize and incentivize ethical education.

5. Enhancing the Fun and Status of Ethics Events: Everyone on a college campus knows which events are the most fun and that receive the most investment and attention. Events that feature generous offerings of food and beverages and are set in attractive venues, receive publicity, and welcome attendees with warmth and enthusiasm, all enjoy popularity and good attendance. A small but visible investment in hospitality that can add enjoyment and status to ethics-oriented events can make an enormous impact on the message the university sends and the response from engaged students.

6. Student Governance and Adjudication: Student government exists to influence policy, procedures, resource allocation and program development, all representing the interests of the student body. The priorities and values of the student leadership are reflected in their support for certain decisions, and in their words and actions. Student leaders can help make decisions of moral and ethical consequence, and articulating these as important helps to further model and support ethical thinking on campus.

Many colleges have active student senates that weigh in on issues large and small. From divestment to tuition fees to planning a spring concert, student leadership places its fingerprints throughout the school. Again, by propping up and highlighting student leaders who embody ethical awareness, colleges can underscore the value placed on ethical decision-making.

Used with permission from
Source: Used with permission from

When a student violates a campus rule or code of conduct, an adjudication process begins. Typically, a student panel or representative, in addition to faculty and administrative representatives weigh in on deciding the appropriate consequence for misbehavior. Punishment in the form of fines, suspension, probation and even outright banishment can be determined. But helping to educate and remediate transgressors, along with providing opportunities for restoration and reconciliation with victims, is far more effective and ethical.

If colleges make ethical development a priority and infuse campus life with ethical decision making we would likely see far fewer headlines about college students behaving badly. And we’d likely also have fewer anxious parents and administrators too!

So, what do you think?

Copyright 2015, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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