Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the second edition of The Penn State Adviser, published this month.

There is a moral contract that each of us subscribes to when we become academic advisers. We are in a position of responsibility to students and to the institution; therefore, we are obliged to behave morally. Moreover, there is no way we can ignore this responsibility, for there is no ethically neutral place from which to advise. So how do we fulfill the contract to which we have subscribed? There is no list of moral principles that can cover all situations in a foolproof way. Instead, we offer the following discussion of areas or of ideas where the issue of right conduct is especially crucial or pertinent.

Legal responsibilities/moral responsibilities

When you started as an academic adviser, you took on certain legal obligations. You became part of a larger legal entity: you are the University, and your actions are the University's actions. On a day-to-day basis, the legal obligations that pertain to the advising process are actually few. It is hard to get yourself or the University sued if you act in good faith and with students' interests at heart. But it can happen.

The relationship between students and the University is contractual. This circumstance means that you as a spokesperson of the University must be careful about making any claims that you can't back up, such as regards fulfillment of degree requirements, guaranteeing employment in a certain field, and so on. Even spoken statements, like “I'm sure that the College of Science will allow you to graduate without this course,” or “Major in food science and you'll get a good job in the field,” whether true or not, are potentially dangerous because their utterance changes the terms of the contract between the student and the University. Only write or speak claims of which you have certain knowledge or that you have the power to bring about. If a student can prove that the adviser made a claim and that claim is not being fulfilled, the adviser/University might be asked to deliver on a promise or be sued.

Be careful, too, about defamation. “Defamation is a false statement made by one person to another about a third person that damages the reputation of the third person. For example, an adviser who mentions to another faculty member that one of his advisees cheated his way into medical school could be liable for slander (spoken defamation). If the communication were put into writing, it is called libel (written defamation).” (Donald D. Gehring, “The Legal Limitations on Statements Made by Advisers,” NACADA journal, Vol. 7, No. 2 [Fall 1987], p. 64). We advisers like to talk about our students with each other. This is good. But magnifying problems to make the narrative more interesting is not. Be careful lest exaggeration lead to defamation.

No one would question that we need to take pains to provide the best advice we can to each student we meet. No one would question that we should take students' best interests to heart. But there are a thousand ways to do these things. Some obvious ways to fulfill moral obligations are to present students with all options, not just those you want them to follow; to get your students to take responsibility in advising and curricular matters; and not to cast aspersions on a colleague, class, or student. Don't recommend or not recommend a course or colleague based on hearsay alone.

Our moral obligations as advisers should correspond in every way with our legal responsibilities. To what extent are we responsible to students? To what extent are they really responsible for their own progress toward graduation? Penn State's faculty senate policy says that students are responsible for such decisions. Indeed students can take action contrary to what we urge them to do. But legally and morally we owe them those recommendations and admonitions. We owe them our counsel and the moral responsibility of standing by our counsel. Although we are legally not required to do so, when we are wrong, we need to make things right.

Bias and harassment behavior

Bias and harassment include but are not limited to harassment along any of the following lines: gender, race, culture, age, sexual orientation, disability, and intellectual abilities. We humans are forced to see the world from a particular, limited point of view. We cannot see things or people as they really are; we are forced to make judgments about them according to our own lights. This viewpoint means that we are biased by our very nature. It is natural to group things and people together according to the ways in which they are similar. It is, furthermore, quite natural to respond to things and people based on this perceived similarity. But in the advising relationship, we must strive to fight against our natures and respond to people as individuals, suspending judgments that force themselves into our minds, judgments that are based on a perceived similarity between the person before us and a category of persons with which we are already familiar. In fact, we are arguing here against categorization, even though we realize that it is literally impossible to do away with categories.

Though it is impossible to resist categorization, you can still behave as though you were not categorizing people and judging them on their similarity to others. You certainly have the freedom of your thoughts. But you cannot let categorization govern the ways in which you listen to the student you are with. Similarly, you cannot let yourself exhibit any behavior – regardless of your inner thoughts – that could be considered harassment, because you need to relate to the student as a student and not as an object, a category, or a thing to be dominated. Your student needs to see you as a human being, not as a power broker.

In fact, all forms of harassment get back to an issue of power. We have earlier advocated that you regard your advisee as an equal who is entitled to your respect. This attitude demands that any power not being used for the greater benefit of the student should be relinquished or eschewed. Even pity at a physical or a learning disability is a form of exercising power (to feel pity is to engage in a power relationship: one is up and superior, one is down and inferior). Charity is not a virtue when it allows one to feel superior.

A good way to become aware of (and hence to cut down on) your own biases is to monitor closely how you refer to students in the third person when discussing cases with other advisers. If you find yourself saying things like “This student, a girl in engineering ...” instead of “This engineering student ...” when engineering is the only relevant factor, then you have two strikes against you already. You may be basing other judgments on extraneous factors as well.

Conflict of interest

Sometimes your role as a private individual comes into conflict with your role as an adviser. Sometimes the multiple roles that are part of the moral contract of being an adviser come into conflict with each other: for example, your legal versus your moral obligations; or your role as student advocate versus your role as institutional representative. Sometimes what the student wants very much conflicts with what you want for the student. But there is no rule for dealing with conflict of interest; you, yourself, must decide which role should gain ascendancy.

If things reach a point where you are exerting undue and untoward pressure on the student or yourself, the only thing to do is to withdraw from the situation. Refer the student to a higher authority, or ask another adviser to take over the situation for you. At the very least, consult with a colleague to find out what that person might have done in a similar situation.

Three dialectical tensions

There are at least three continua along which moral behavior must be located for each new adviser. That is, new advisers must decide where they are comfortable on each of three sliding scales. Each veteran adviser needs to keep revisiting these dialectical tensions so as not to get stale.

The first is neutral vs. prescriptive. To occupy a position on the neutral side of this scale is to be reluctant to tell students what to do, preferring to let students discover the appropriate action with a little guidance. A neutral adviser will patiently provide information to help students decide on a course or a major, but will draw the line at making a recommendation. A prescriptive adviser doesn't hesitate to render an opinion, sometimes using the authority of the position of adviser to make the recommendation stick. Both positions, if taken to the extreme, can be dangerous to students.

The second is encouraging vs. discouraging, or always being optimistic vs. being cruel to be kind. On the one extreme are advisers who only look for ways to give positive messages to students. Such advisers, if they exist at all, would never criticize students for, say, bad grades, lest they become discouraged and go from bad to worse. On the other extreme are advisers who might relish every opportunity to chastise or look for negative consequences. These advisers are the sort who seem to lay every mishap that befalls a student on that student's doorstep. Neither extreme is likely to be right. Where you decide to place yourself on this continuum probably depends on what you believe would be right for the individual student before you.

Last, there is judgmental vs. nonjudgmental. This tension only exists within the adviser, not in the interaction with students. It is a basic attitude that you hold, a stance that you take, a way of looking at the world. You can either form judgments or not, or be somewhere in between. To be nonjudgmental is to accept without criticism what students say; to be judgmental is to not accept anything without subjecting it to scrutiny. Neither position is right or wrong. Both positions, if taken to the extreme, can affect students adversely. You need to locate yourself along this continuum in order to assess the moral position you hold vis-a-vis your interlocutors.


  1. In talking with students, make no claims based on uncertain knowledge. Avoid hearsay.
  2. An adviser must be a custodian of the student's good reputation.
  3. Present students with all the options open to them, not just the ones you favor.
  4. An adviser who misadvises a student has the moral obligation to make things right.
  5. Acknowledge one's biases and respond to students as unique individuals and not as members of a group or category.
  6. Advisers advise; students decide.

Seek the elusive middle ground.