How Universities Can Foster Ethical Awareness Among Students

Ethics training doesn't need to be complicated to make an impact at colleges

Posted Oct 01, 2016

used with permission from
Source: used with permission from

Universities possess both enormous influence and weighty responsibility in the education of their 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 of Santa Clara University includes an emphasis on developing future leaders of “conscience, competence, and compassion”. Most colleges at least advocate a similar goal, but differentiating lip service from genuine educational programming separates the schools that truly make ethical formation a priority.

There are a variety of levels at which colleges can implement programming. The more comprehensive and integrated the value on ethical formation, the more influential such programs can be. These include:

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. Even prior to setting foot on campus, pre-orientation materials can spell out the programming and value on ethical development. Having a common model, be it the RRICC model (i.e., respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and concern for others), the three C’s of conscience, compassion, and competence, or a variety of other ethically charged visions, students can be exposed early on to the language and culture of their university.

Freshman orientation (or new transfer student orientation) is an ideal time to reach enthusiastic and open new students, eager to learn about the campus culture and values. Introducing real programming in ethical decision-making can alert students to the expectation and emphasis placed by their college on this educational goal.

Curricular and Co-Curricular Education in Ethics: If a college does not require and offer educational instruction emphasizing ethical concepts and decision making, it is in many ways unfair for them to expect their students to behave and strive in ethical modes. Teaching by example involves dedicated coursework and co-curricular programming. Colleges can offer ethics course ranging from moral philosophy, business ethics, medical ethics, science ethics, sports ethics, religious ethics, professional ethics, to name a mere few. Similarly, offering forums and lectures where ethical principles are discussed further underscores their importance. Bringing in noted speakers, offering a weekly college-wide ethics discussion group led by a faculty member, having ethics reflection groups in dorms focusing on issues in residential life, and designating ethical leaders and committees for assistance in school governance and adjudication procedures, are a few examples of co-curricular offerings. Similarly, athletic programs can formally discuss sportsmanship and ethics in collegiate sports. Through a relatively small dedication of funds and staff time, tremendous inroads can be achieved.

Ethical Student Leaders and Models: On campuses, the star athletes, musicians, politicians, artists, scholars, 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 and moral leadership and inspiration on campus. Yet, these individuals abound, and quietly pursue their beliefs and activities. By rewarding and highlighting students who model and fight for ethical pursuits, students perceive that the college, and society at large, values these less visible “champions” or moral leadership.  Developing university awards and grants for such individuals, and publicizing their achievements and examples, visibly demonstrates that ethically-inspired pursuits are valued by their college right along with football stars and outstanding scholars. This form of modeling and strong support of ethical student leaders speaks volumes.

Faculty and Staff Leadership: Faculty sometimes complain that they are rewarded and valued for their scholarship in particular, and their teaching and service only to a secondary degree. 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 it’s worth and respect within the administration. Therefore, in order to develop faculty who can serve as ethical instructors, mentors, and models, colleges need to prioritize and incentivize ethical education.

Staff employed in student life can also be highlighted to students through similar means. Carving out clear ethical development roles and recognizing outstanding individuals and programs further illustrates the value of ethics. By embedding these leaders and models throughout the university, and paying more than lip service to their importance, demonstrates through actions the value placed on ethics.

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, are set in attractive venues, receive publicity, and welcome attendees with warmth and enthusiasm all enjoy popularity and good attendance. Lectures, discussion groups, awards ceremonies and workshops held in drab classrooms without food or fanfare, lack a sense of hospitality and importance. A small but visible investment in amenities 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 participating, engaged students.

Given the state of the world and the deteriorating level of public discourse there is never a better time than now to do all that we can to instill ethical decision making in college students. 

So, what do you think?

Copyright 2016 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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Check out our new book project on this topic entitled, Graduating with Honor