Bulletin September 2006
Volume 74 | Issue 5
September 2006

Teachable Moments: The role of college unions in coaching character and teaching ethics

Adam Peck

In a deserted stretch of road in rural Alabama, a group of college students prepared to do the unthinkable. Armed with incendiary powder and matches, the group began to burn a path of destruction that would eventually consume nine (and possibly 10) churches and leave all three young men looking at the possibility of 45 years in jail (45 years for church fire suspects?, 2006). The students would later describe the destruction as “a joke” that had gotten “out of hand” (Lyman, 2006, ¶ 15). Articulating the thoughts of many, Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church (one of the burned churches), said: “We really are concerned about them as people … I would just like to know what they were thinking” (45 years for church fire suspects?, 2006, ¶ 21).

That the individuals allegedly behind the Alabama church fires were college students, seemed to add a new dynamic to the story. Other highly publicized stories involving the perceived inability of colleges and universities to teach ethics, or students’ failure to learn them, have been nearly ubiquitous in recent days and seem to have fueled increasing public scrutiny of higher education in general. To the general public, the message seems to be that students are no more prepared to behave ethically than those who do not attend college, or worse, that they are enabled or encouraged during the pursuit of higher education to behave in an unethical way.

The students may also wonder what, if any, transformational qualities higher education may possess. Consumer notions of education pervade and, as the concept of liberal education (where students proceed through a common core of classes) falls increasingly out of favor with students and institutions alike, students may soon not remember a time when education was expected to leave the student fundamentally changed. Even if the teaching of ethics is integrated into the curriculum, it may be difficult for students to view such courses as anything more than another requirement to be met or a means to the end of earning a college degree.

In contrast, colleges and universities still believe that the exposure to issues and ideas can change students. Fueled by the perceived need, many institutions are recognizing how vital it is to include ethical issues in classroom education. Courses are being added or enhanced, and colleges and universities are teaming up with leaders in business and industry to encourage the discussion about ethical issues. But as many student affairs professionals know, this is only half of the equation; student learning is greatly enhanced by the opportunity to apply these skills in “real world” situations. This is the imperative of student affairs work, especially within the domain of a topic as richly contextual as the application of ethics and values.

While active learning is not the exclusive domain of student affairs professionals, it is often thought to be an important and achievable learning outcome of cocurricular programs. College unions may be uniquely qualified to provide leadership in this area. After all, unions were largely founded to provide avenues for students to do both of the essential components this issue demands: providing collaborative and engaging laboratories to apply the skills they gain in college to challenging and complex concerns, and fostering the kind of discussion and debate that can lead to the formation of reasoning and moral development.

Many student affairs professionals do not feel adequately prepared to take on this kind of responsibility and do not usually possess an extensive knowledge of ethical theory (Humphrey, Janosik, & Creamer, 2004). While most likely see the ethical dimensions of their daily work and try to teach students to make effective and ethical decisions as opportunities arise, it is difficult to articulate any consistent message that the professional gives to students. There may also be a persistent, nagging feeling that important opportunities are passing them by.

Student learning is often described as occurring in “teachable moments.” But it also is consciously developed through intentional and effective program development. College union professionals have the opportunity to do both, provided they have the tools for guiding students in their ethical development.

Ethics, values, and character

These three terms are often used interchangeably, but each carries its own distinct meaning. Being able to articulate this difference to students may be useful in encouraging them to view their own actions in a different light.

In short, ethics refers to one’s personal and specific list of rules and duties that govern their life. As this definition implies, these can be quite disconnected and ethics often conflict. Values, in contrast, are more firmly established and (theoretically) less subject to change in different contexts. These values are based on the hierarchical relationship between ideals that one has established, and the relative weight that each is given. Decisions based on values are made by deciding which outcome aligns best with one’s value system.

Character, however, involves both ethics and values. As Gough (1998) asserts: “Character is … what you are in your essence, the sum total of your habits, your personal assortment of virtues and vices” (p. 3). Or as someone once said, “Character is who you are when nobody is looking.” An individual’s character is revealed in each choice he or she makes and is refined through careful attention to what these decisions mean.

In essence, both ethics and values can be positive or negative. Any action can be a part of one’s ethical framework, and what one values can be self-serving. But advocating that students develop character is something quite different; it encourages them to reach beyond the apparent ethicality of a particular decision in a particular context and to look toward the implications that all of these decisions say about who they are when they are considered together.

Teaching in the moment

Many student affairs professionals may be, at best, what Harry Stein (1982) called, “reluctant ethicists,” paralyzed by the fear that to set and expect higher ethical standards from our students is the same as being dogmatic or inflexible—or worse, holds all of our actions up to scrutiny, perhaps revealing us to be hypocrites or charlatans. It is true that if there is one thing that students seem most attune to detect, it is hypocrisy. But helping to dispel the myth that professionals can be concerned about their character without representing themselves as paragons of virtue can be an important step in encouraging students to make ethical considerations part of their routine behavior.

Additionally, it is a far different thing to encourage students to discover their own values and follow them than it is to tell them what to believe and what to do. It is different to hold someone to account for violating their own ethics than to apply rigidly defined rules. A basic knowledge of classical ethical approaches to decision making can aid professionals in helping students draw their own conclusions about the ethicality of decisions.

Applying classical approaches

Many people may think back to ethics courses, recall reading classical works by Plato or Aristotle, and wonder what connection, if any, these had to common-day decision making. In many cases, what was learned in these courses has melted away, and all that remains is the memory that these works felt incredibly dated and did not seem to apply to day-to-day decision making. However, classical approaches to ethics can be useful frames to apply to common ethical questions, and may help students to displace themselves from what they want to do or feel is most expedient, and help them to do what is right.

Three common and useful ethical approaches are deontological ethics, utilitarianism, and communitarian ethics. Each suggests a different view of what is right. Advisors who understand even the basics about each of these approaches can use them to guide students toward ethical decisions.

Deontological ethics are based on what a person’s “duty” is in a given situation (Gregor, Korsgaard, Ameriks, & Clarke, 1997). What does this duty compels them to do? In contrast to other approaches, it does not worry about the end-state of the outcome because it asserts that people should do what is right regardless of the outcome. Utilitarianism, however, is more concerned with outcomes. When using this approach, the individual asks, what will do the most good for the most people (Sher, 1979)? This is a somewhat political approach because it guarantees that the majority will be pleased. Students feel a strong connection to this approach (Peck, 2006), but advisors must be careful to help students understand that what is popular is not always right. This is a major supposition of communitarian ethics. In this frame, individuals think beyond their own personal goals and consider what responsibilities they owe to the community. What expectations do others hold for them and how do they do what is best for the entire group (Taylor, 1989)?

These approaches are, in many ways, more similar than different, as each encourages contemplation of issues and the consideration about what one’s duty is to oneself and to others. At first, this approach may feel foreign to student affairs professionals. After all, few are trained as ethics teachers. But even the basic primer provided here can be useful in jarring and redirecting one’s thinking. Giving students guidelines can assist even more in helping them to draw their own ethical conclusions, and also provide them resources that they can use when making future decisions in which an advisor’s help may not be available.

Before, during, and after questions arise

One might assert that character is best coached through practical and contextual situations like those that naturally occur in cocurricular activities. But at the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, there is the implication that ethics and values that change within these contexts will fail to produce the kind of character development that will best equip students for consistent ethical behavior.

It is the opportunity to observe and coach students’ behavior in the moment that gives student affairs personnel such a unique opportunity to guide ethical behavior. But this is not to imply that this is an ad hoc goal that requires no advanced preparation. For the educator who prepares in advance for ethically based learning outcomes, there is a tremendous opportunity to provide students insight into making choices that support the development of strong and consistent character. This requires a plan for dealing with ethical dilemmas before, during, and after they occur.

Before ethical questions arise

It is useful to have an ethical baseline before questions arise. This allows students to place dilemmas in the context of their own values. One useful exercise (of which there are many variations) is to ask students to list, prioritize, and rank what they value most. Is it truth? Family? Work? Honor? Once the (usually painful) process of ranking competing values is complete, encourage students to take the list with them as a way of remembering what they determine to be their highest values. This prior thought may help them to clarify their own thoughts and guide their future actions. It may also be a useful way for the educator to help students see times when their actions are outside of their own values system.

When ethical questions arise

Holding others to account for their actions is one of the most thankless and difficult parts of student affairs work. But it also is essential in encouraging students to think about the ethicality of their actions. It is this aspect of character education that makes this subject more than just words. Failing to identify and address ethical lapses degrades not only the character of those who might be inclined to break the rules, but also those who would rather follow them. If ethical issues are not dealt with, there is no value in following the rules.

Student-run processes can be most effective in dealing with these kinds of concerns. For one thing, students expect high levels of empathy from each other (Peck, 2006). When students play a key role in dealing with the issues other students raise, there is a higher expectation that these processes will yield desirable outcomes for the student (Peck, 2006). Having one’s peers express their expectations sends a strong message; it says that one’s actions have fallen outside of the norm, and that is a powerful message.

However, many students prefer explicit rules and may find it hard to uphold even the most commonsense expectations if they are not clearly stated. Sometimes it may seem most expedient to just outlaw or allow everything the group can think of before it happens, and adjust rules after new cases arise. But this places all of the power in external regulation rather than students’ internal self-regulation. While making sure that policies and standards are clear is a good practice, it also makes sense to talk about overarching standards and ethical aspirations that extend beyond merely following the letter of the rules.

After ethical questions arise

Of course, how to evaluate situations once they have been adequately addressed depends on context. However, after a decision has been reached, the students involved should assess the group’s handling of the situation; any rules, bylaws, or contextual issues that may have allowed the ethical question to occur; and whether it is advisable to make any changes to prevent future happenings of this kind (with the cautions of the previous section in mind). These types of occurrences are, in essence, the teachable moments that educators seek. It is useful, within the bounds of the privacy and dignity of those involved, to find ways for others to learn from these mistakes.

Un-teachable moments

Humankind is blessed with many gifts, but among the most spectacular is the power to delude oneself, to make oneself believe that reality is different from the way it is perceived. Unethical choices may seem to be the only choices, or some may make themselves believe that they somehow deserve the spoils of ill-gotten gains. And because often the ethical questions presented represent desired benefits, it can be hard to turn off the inner voice that suggests that the circumstances somehow justify what one wants.

These “inner voices” are experts at rationalizing unethical behavior and sabotage many best intentions. Therefore, individuals may need to rely on others to help them thwart this mutiny. Knowing some of the most common rationalizations for unethical behavior may useful in this endeavor. Student affairs professionals can use the rationalizations in the case study on p. 26 to recognize these excuses as they occur, and in present them to students to help then guide their own behavior. For one thing, it depersonalizes the issue, and allows students to see that they have fallen into a common pitfall, rather than making them think that they have fallen prey to an ethical lapse or extreme personality flaw.

The teacher is the tool, Parker Palmer (1998) suggested that, "...good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 10). This requires an increased self-awareness on the part of educators to recognize the teachable moments found in ethical dilemmas and questions that arise in the course of day-to-day work. To use a common expression, “Actions speak louder than words.” The most comprehensive approach for teaching ethics in higher education requires a kind of triangulation from faculty and staff that provides students with both the formal knowledge of the subject matter and experiences that underscore the information’s utility in practical contexts.

Teaching in the moment depends on professionals who will accept the vulnerability of engaging in the subjective nature of this subject matter. Educators must reveal more than, as Palmer (1998) articulated, “… our noble features, or the good deeds we do, or the brave faces we wear to conceal our confusions and complexities … [but] our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears…our strength and potential” (para 28). Removing the stigma or aura of ethical decision making and character building is one of the most important things that student affairs educators can do in the pursuit of strengthening student learning outcomes in this area. College unions’ programs, services, history, and tradition not only facilitate, but compel a high level of involvement in this endeavor.

Student affairs personnel often talk about teachable moments from the perspective of those who are teaching, but there is much to be learned, too. Educators do well to remember the transformation nature of their work. In essence, the concept of teaching ethics is relatively simple. As Maxwell (2003) stated, “There are really only two important points when it comes to ethics. The first is a standard to follow. The second is the will to follow it” (p. 17). Platitudes such as this are easy to understand, but difficult to follow. The educator’s role is equally clear: guide students in developing standards and remind, encourage and coach them to follow those standards.


There are no magic bullets to ensure that a tragedy like the Alabama church fires will not happen again, but by cultivating each opportunity in personal interactions with students, educators invite them to investigate and follow their own values and encourage a compelling conversation. The college union was founded to facilitate conversation, and to that end, it is a very good place to start.


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Gough, R. (1998). Character is destiny: The value of personal ethics in everyday life. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing.
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Humphrey, E., Janosik, S.M., & Creamer, D.G. (2004). The role of principles, character, and professional values in ethical decision-making. NASPA Journal, 41(3), 675–692.
Lyman, R. (2006, March 8). 3 college students arrested in Alabama church fires. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from The New York Times Web site: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/08/national/08
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