ERIC Identifier: ED350970
Publication Date: 1992-07-00
Author: Wilcox, John R. - Ebbs, Susan L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington Univ. Washington DC. School of Education and Human Development.

The Leadership Compass. Values and Ethics in Higher Education. ERIC Digest.

Colleges and universities are custodians of knowledge. Because the possession of knowledge is the source of power, understood here as the ability to influence decisions in contemporary society, these institutions are also the gateway to power, significantly affecting the quality of economic and social life throughout the world. Thus, insofar as colleges and universities create and disseminate knowledge within a particular society, they are institutions with moral responsibilities to maintain the well-being of that society.


The role of the higher education professional should be looked at by means of ethical analysis more broadly conceived than scrutinizing campus ethical dilemmas under the microscope of ethical theories. Of cardinal importance is the impact of ethos--customs, practices, and institutional contexts--on the quality of life and on the ability to sustain a connected view of things characterized by loyalty, commitment, and love (Kuh and Whitt 1988; Palmer 1987). With a focus on the ethos of higher education, any normative discussion of ethics--and of values--takes place within the broader contexts of organizational structure and society.


Morality is not an issue only when problems arise. Responsibility for individual and social welfare is part of the institutional landscape, a daily occurrence manifested in decision making on all levels of the college or university and in the goals toward which the decision making is directed. An ethical analysis that highlights the interconnectedness of all elements in the institution--an ethics of ethos--brings to attention the complexity of the moral life and the subtle nature of responsibility in higher education.


The professoriat

Work in academic life, like any other kind of work, is laden with values and has a moral dimension that emerges from the ethical reflection characteristic of institutional self-scrutiny. Students are vulnerable before and unequal to the scholar; trust must characterize faculty-student relationships. Ultimately, however, professorial knowledge is not proprietary but communal, dedicated to the welfare of society through the transmission and extension of knowledge. The role of the scholar can be conceived in four phases: teaching, discovery, application, and integration, each of which has its own ethical assumptions and problems (Boyer 1990). Often the competing needs of these roles cause conflicts for the scholar teacher/researcher. In responding to these problems, the scholar must balance individual with group realities and requirements. An important pedagogical conception to help achieve the balance is the learning community.


Leadership in higher education continues to be under intense pressure to respond to societal issues resulting from trends in demographics and enrollment and economic and social forces that bring both possible disruption and/or opportunity. The use of values expressed by the mission statement and ethical reflection as resources in decision making can positively affect the institution's ability to respond to complex decisions about funding and the budget.

Models of ethical decision making help inform the practice of successful leadership in the face of ever-increasing complexities in higher education. These models have in common the process of defining the issues, making decisions by reviewing alternatives based on intuitive evaluation or on ethical rules and principles, deciding whether to carry out the action, and then implementing it using the best deliberative judgment.

Student life

Students on today's campuses encounter a variety of complex situations for which they are often ill-prepared by experience or individual development. The relationship between students' attitudes and values and the environment that supports or challenges them stands as a dynamic dialectic of confirmation and rejection that affects the ethical positions and choices of both the individual and the institution. The distinctive nature of the institutional ethos affects the values and interests manifested in the campus climate and the overall effect of the college experience on the student.

Issues facing higher education, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, substance abuse, and academic dishonesty, argue for the pursuit of an ethical environment that consistently asserts the importance of human dignity, nourishes growth and achievement, and insists on respect in interpersonal communication and relations.


The literature detailing the immorality of individual actions or policies underscores a more pervasive problem in higher education: the lack of community and the lack of a sense of shared values that give direction and purpose (Bellah et al. 1985, 1991). Strategic planning for the future must emphasize the learning community as the institutionalization of a program that responds to concern for values and ethics in higher education (Gabelnick et al. 1990).


The learning community can be provisionally construed as an ideal type of higher education culture that seeks to overcome current tendencies toward individual alienation and intellectual fragmentation with regard to present academic specialization and special interests. The learning community does not deny the value of research or the scholar's freedom of inquiry, but, as a moral community, it does seek to organize them within an ethical domain of connectedness and mutual responsibility.


The learning community embraces a distinctive ethos, one that is laden with values and sustains the only fitting context for ethical analysis. Based on the curriculum, the learning community addresses many important concerns already touched on. The learning community enables faculty who feel isolated by the limits of their discipline and miss the richness they knew so well in graduate school to reach out to other disciplines. At the same time, learning communities address the growing diversity among students in terms of age, race, ethnicity, religion, and marital and enrollment status. Most important, the learning community allows for a wide variety of applications, not simply application in the small liberal arts college.

In many ways, the learning community brings together the themes of leadership, faculty, and students. Leadership is essential to colleges' and universities' sensitivity to values in higher education. The learning community symbolizes the delicate nature of that task. At the same time, collaboration among faculty in this learning project is of the essence. Such communities can bring out the best in faculty and resolve several of the tensions faculty face in their careers, especially the tension between research and teaching. Community gives direction to students and anchors their collegiate experience in the intellectual life (Astin 1985). Only such an approach will do justice to the complexity of ethical issues facing higher education.


Astin, Alexander W. 1985. Achieving Educational Excellence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

---. 1991. The Good Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Bensimon, Estela M., Anna Neumann, and Robert Birnbaum. 1989. Making Sense of Administrative Leadership: The "L" Word in Higher Education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development. ED 316 074. 121 pp. MF-01; PC-05.

Boyer, Ernest. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Fisher, James L., and Martha W. Tack. 1988. Leaders on Leadership: The College Presidency. New Directions for Higher Education No. 61. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gabelnick, Faith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Barbara Leigh Smith. 1990. Learning Communities: Creating Connections among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 41. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, George D., and Elizabeth J. Whitt. 1988. The Invisible Tapestry: Culture in American Colleges and Universities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of Higher Education. ED 299 934. 160 pp. MF-01; PC-07.

Palmer, Parker. 1987. "Community, Conflict, and Ways of Knowing." Change 19(5): 20-25.

Wilcox, John R., and Susan L. Ebbs. 1992. "Promoting an Ethical Campus Climate: The Values Audit." NASPA Journal 29(4): 253-60.

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