Ethical Advising

Op3.26-5 Ethical Advising

Conforming to accepted professional standards of conduct

Ethical behavior and ethical decision making is expected of individuals in positions of trust (Fisher, 2005). Academic advisors repeatedly confront dilemmas where there is not one obvious answer, but many. As advisors we can benefit from being able to draw on a system of ethical principles. These principles, to be credible, should be philosophically defensible and not merely reflective of individual tastes. It is important to note that no list of ethical principles will envelop all situations (Buck, Moore, Schwartz & Supon, 2001).

Four Fundamental Ethical Ideals


Utility engages the ideal of balance of benefit over harm for the greatest number. This has been simplistically summarized in the slogan "the greatest good for the greatest number."  Utilitarians use the likely results or consequences of actions as the basis of ethical decision making.  They select from the likely consequences the one solution that results in the best solution for the greatest number of individuals. (Lowenstein & Grites, 1993)


Justice is the principle that all people should be treated equally, with no one receiving privileges or benefits that are not granted to all. Fairness resonates with most individuals and is therefore inherently desirable. (Lowenstein & Grites, 1993) As advisors each student’s challenges should be faced with the same degree of dedication and energy (Fisher, 2005).

Respect for persons

Respect for persons directs us to treat individuals as ends in themselves. "Some rules that follow from these abstractions are (a) to tell people the truth, which they need if they are to make decisions; (b) to respect their privacy and (c) to support their autonomy." (Lowenstein & Grites, 1993) 

This principle entitles individuals to make their own choices informed by the truth. We should never manipulate individuals to bring about our own goals even if we deem those goals as worthy. (Lowenstein & Grites, 1993) It is important to remember that our concept of ethics is culturally influenced and desirable standards, social norms and the worthiness of a goal may be different for each student as well as each advisor (Chmielewski, 2004).


Fidelity indicates that we must fulfill the explicit and implied commitments or promises we make. In some cases, fidelity can commit individuals to responsibilities of which were are not aware or of which they do not find pleasing or rewarding.  (Lowenstein & Grites, 1993)

Ethical Principles for Advising

From these philosophical foundations, Lowenstein and Grites (1993) went on to derive eight ethical principles for academic advising. Attention should be paid not only to the explanation of each principle but also to the ideals from which it is derived.

  1. Seek the best possible education for the advisee. This is a utilitarian principle. In an educational setting, the good that we hope to maximize is education and its attendant benefits. It is not always easy to judge what will be the best education; our obligation is to do our best with the information available. This will benefit students, people with whom they will later have contact and society as a whole.
  2. Treat students equitably; don't play favorites or create special privileges. Treating students equitably does not mean treating them all the same (e.g., advising them all to have the same major). Differences in students' needs require us to spend more time with one than with another and to advise one more intrusively than another. But the fact that we might like one student more or that we might share another's values would not justify differential treatment. This principle clearly follows from the ideal of justice.
  3. Enhance the advisee's ability to make decisions. This is a key principle of developmental academic advising, so its presence here is welcome. As we all know, we cannot accomplish this goal without permitting the advisee to make decisions. This principle is derived both from utility because it benefits the student and others in the long run and from respect for persons because it supports and develops individual autonomy.
  4. Advocate for the advisee with other offices. Students will not get all the services they might from the college without a little help. This principle comes from fidelity because it is an implicit part of the commitment one makes by becoming an advisor. There are limitations on this principle, imposed by utility, for advocating too hard can reduce one's future effectiveness.
  5. Tell the advisee the truth about college policies and procedures, and tell others (e.g., faculty, staff and administrators) the truth as well, but respect the confidentiality of interactions with the advisee.  As in the case of truth-telling, this is derived from respect for persons, which also includes privacy. Additionally it comes from fidelity, for confidentiality is part of the implicit commitment one makes to an advisee.
  6. Support the institution's educational philosophy and its policies. We need to make special note of this principle because it may not come naturally to advisors who think for themselves and have their own educational philosophies, but it comes from fidelity because it is another commitment that is built into the moral contract one makes when accepting an advising position. Note that this principle does not preclude arguing against policies in appropriate forums.
  7. Maintain the credibility of the advising program. All concerned must perceive the program as giving advice that (a) is coherent, (b) is consistent with college policy, and (c) holds up when questioned. This is derived both from utility, because the program's effectiveness depends partly on its credibility, and from fidelity, because the advisor makes this commitment upon taking the position.
  8. Accord colleagues appropriate professional courtesy and respect. This is not only about being polite to people; it is also a prohibition against encouraging students to believe negative things about the competence or character of colleagues. Opportunities to observe or violate this duty arise when a student asks which instructor to take a course from or asks for confirmation of something that "they" are saying against a particular individual. This principle is based on utility because an institution where such a rule is not followed loses effectiveness and because a student's inclination to gossip and jump to hasty conclusions is unduly reinforced, with long-term consequences.

5 Steps to an Ethical Decision

Matthew Church and Anthony Robinson (2006), while appreciating the dialog regarding ethical decision making and the ethical principles, found that the actual steps in making an ethical decision were not clear nor addressed in most ethics discussions. The following is a quotation of the five step method for resolving ethical concerns created by Church and Robinson (2006).

  1. The advisor should consider the issue on its own and try to identify and deconstruct the issue to allow for analysis…starting with a blank slate.
  2. The advisor, having broken down the issue, should look at what is best for the student and the institution.
  3. The third step involves consideration of utility. An advisor should attempt to find what action would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number.
  4. By quantifying the positives and negatives of the situation the advisor has a better chance of evaluating the situation. The fourth step allows for a comparison of the possible ethical good of a decision.
  5. The decision, ultimately, is made by the advisor. While consulting colleagues is feasible, the advisor has to answer to the student and decide what is best for the student, the institution, and the advisor.

Beyond Ethics: Legal Considerations

"On a day-to-day basis… It is hard to get yourself or the University sued if you act in good faith and with the students’ interests at heart. But it can happen." (Buck et al., 2001).

Students and the University have a contractual relationship, in which advisors, as representatives of the University, can bind the University to certain actions based on our actions as advisors. This is known as the law of agency. (Habley, 1995; Robinson, 2004)

The following suggestions are designed to protect the university, the student and yourself, you may want to consider the following points:

  1. In talking with students, make no claims based on uncertain knowledge. Avoid hearsay (Buck et al., 2001).
    • Conduct periodic and careful review of all printed materials to see if they coincide with advising practice. If there are discrepancies between policy and practice, take steps to initiate the alteration of materials OR alter your own practice.
    • Assist students in locating and understanding the "fine print."
    • If you are aware of upcoming changes in policies, procedures or programs, encourage students to plan ahead and stay informed. (Habley, 1995)
  2. An advisor must be a custodian of the student’s good reputation (Buck et al., 2001).
    • "Advisor Notes" should be entered using the Faculty/Advisor Resource Center when advising a student. Personal notes are not a part of the "official file" as defined by the Buckley Amendment. If you need to retain specific, more personal information about a student’s situation to give effective advice, these personal notes should be kept in a different location. (Habley, 1995)
  3. Present students with all the options open to them, not just the ones you favor (Buck et al., 2001).
    • Do not equivocate or apologize to students for policies with which you personally disagree. Your equivocation may be misinterpreted and could provide the source for future litigation. (Habley, 1995)
  4. An advisor who misadvises a student has the moral obligation to make things right (Buck et al., 2001).
    • Help students understand how to appeal policies and procedures when necessary.
    • If you are uncertain of a policy, identify the person with the "final say" to give either you or the student an answer. (Habley, 1995)
  5. Acknowledge one’s biases and respond to students as unique individuals and not as members of a group or category (Buck et al., 2001).
  6. Advisors advise; students decide (Buck et al., 2001).
    • Discuss advisor responsibilities and rights with all advisees. (Habley, 1995)