The Ethics of Student Life

College officials hope to foster good decision-making by helping students view their actions through an ethical lens.
July 15, 2011

With college students' illicit use of “study aids” like Ritalin and Adderall climbing toward 10 percent nationally, health officials are struggling to find effective ways to address the issue. While many focus on giving students information about the dangers of using drugs for reasons other than their intended use, ethicists at Santa Clara University is turning to the students, asking them to take a more thoughtful, proactive approach to consider whether they should engage in such behavior.

Through a new project called The Big Q, housed in Santa Clara’s Makkula Center for Applied Ethics, students can engage in the ethical questions that arise in conversations about prescription drugs – namely, if students are using them to get ahead in classes, does that constitute cheating? And is it OK to use pills for something other than their intended purpose, particularly when they were prescribed to someone else? The Big Q’s creators hope that by considering these questions when they first enroll in classes, students will be better equipped to act when, during a late night at the library with a final paper due at 8 a.m., they’re tempted by a peer who’s selling Adderall.

But this, of course, is just one of the vexing ethical quandaries today’s students face when they leave home for the first time. They also encounter casual sex, underage drinking and plagiarism, to name just a few. So the Big Q's creators initiate discussions about all of the above – and a number of other topics that make up the “top 10 ethical issues for college freshmen” – at new-student orientation and in weekly online forums.

“In any role we play in life, there are a set of unavoidable ethical dilemmas that come with that role, that come with the territory. Practical ethics is about knowing those are coming so they don’t blindside you, and preparing yourself to handle them,” said Kirk Hanson, executive director of the ethics center. “We can make it possible for freshmen to live their lives with greater integrity, or greater consistency with their own values, if they know what kind of dilemmas they’re going to face.”

That sort of preparation is crucial to the development an ethical character, said Stacy Cherones, a graduate student at Southern Methodist University who in 2010-11 advised an undergraduate group that spends each year studying and analyzing a different student life issue from various ethical perspectives (last year's topic was food). She said that project, as well as Santa Clara's, can help students form more sophisticated outlooks on life. "Their ability to assess a situation became more nuanced and that was helpful, because I think until they get to college they're often just observing kind of simplistic stances on things," she said. "So being able to talk about and think through these issues on a weekly basis like we did -- absolutely, the students became more articulate and more aware of a variety of perspectives, more sympathetic and more sensitive to a wide variety of different stances."

While the Big Q website is a new feature, the top 10 issues began emerging six years ago, when students from various institutions (including the University of Southern California and Princeton University) interviewed about 200 of their peers to identify the ethical dilemmas they faced as freshmen and sophomores. Then, a few years ago, a group of Santa Clara students modified the list to include more recent issues, like cyberbullying through social media. Once the list was finalized, the project’s blog and Facebook page went live in March.

At orientation this summer, each Santa Clara freshman will participate in case studies of three ethical dilemmas relating to academic integrity or other issues students may face. Those will take place in person, but students can revisit the cases and others (or explore them for the first time) on the Big Q blog. There, students post responses to topical situations like this one: Eric, a second-semester senior, finally gets a job after sending out scores of résumés. The problem is, he’s not really interested. Should he accept the job, even while continuing to pursue other opportunities?

The question prompted comments like this one from Eastern Washington University student Mikaila Read (Santa Clara encourages other colleges to participate), which concluded that accepting the job would be ethical: “While Eric may lack enthusiasm for the job, he fairly went through the procedures and screening processes so as to be offered the position. He earned the right to the job,” Read wrote. But, she added, “If Eric were to accept the position without any mention of his desire to pursue more suitable positions, he would be deceiving his future employers.”

But Ben Chinoy, a rising sophomore at Santa Clara, says that revealing his misgivings about the job would discourage the employers from hiring Eric, who “has no choice” but to accept. “If Eric does take the job, he can certainly continue searching for other possibilities. Why wouldn't he?,” Chinoy wrote. “He will gain valuable experience in one of the most difficult economies in decades. In a year, he can reconsider his options. Until then, he can make some money and start paying off his debts!”

Taken together, these two comments comprise what Hanson would consider a well-rounded response to an ethical dilemma: one that understands the pressures individuals are under, but also considers the effect their decisions will have on others and grasps why one course of behavior may be more responsible or ethical than another. The comments also illustrate a key benefit Hanson wants to emerge from this sort of discussion: students considering each other’s diverse opinions, responding to and building on them.

A former business ethics professor, Hanson identifies many similarities between the social structures in the workplace and academe, where conflicts play out. “How an ethical dilemma might arise in a corporation can be very similar to how an ethical dilemma might arise in a student dormitory,” he said. “How you deal with a coworker may be very similar to how you deal with a roommate. How you deal with a boss may be very similar to how you deal with a faculty member or dean.”

In an interview, Chinoy, who is studying accounting information systems, agreed. “Looking at these issues not in a business perspective [gives me] a broader idea of how to tackle certain ethical issues in the business world,” he said. “To get that whole understanding, it helped me, and will probably help me further down the line” when those situations arise in the workplace. (Chinoy added that he didn't just comment for a shot at the $50 Amazon gift card awarded to the poster of the most insightful comment.)

Chinoy faces many of the top 10 issues and discusses them with his friends all the time, he said. But when it comes to broaching the topics of cheating or alcohol with college officials, he said, this format is a much more inviting – and effective – notion than a lecture or series of posters. “The Big Q gives you a more personal way of expressing yourself…. It’s sort of an open way for them to get you involved,” Chinoy said. “I think it’s definitely a good way to explore some of the issues. You know those go on, so I think it’s important to talk about these things and bring them out into the open. You can get a better understanding of them and how you would deal with them.”

Debating ethical questions can also teach students about themselves, said Miriam Schulman, communications director at the ethics center and creator of its original website in 1995. “A lot of times the hard decisions come at you when you can’t sit down and reflect. It’s not a decision like, ‘Should I take my mother off life support?’,” she said. “It’s, ‘Am I going to party or study?’ That’s something you do all the time. And as you make that decision, you’re forming your character. We want students to see that. They can have a role in who they are.” Schulman herself is one of a few regular commenters who are there to create a starting point and ensure that somewhere in the discussion, the ethical issues are made clear. The mother of two represents the parental perspective, while a theological ethics professor takes on the role of the ethicist and students at the undergraduate and graduate levels serve as voices for the students.

More than 250 college groups and institutions across the country have “liked” the project on Facebook, but Schulman and Hanson hope they’ll become active participants. The ethics center has started disseminating information about The Big Q to other colleges, starting with a network of other Jesuit-affiliated ones, through the student affairs office. Some out-of-state students have begun commenting on the dilemmas.

“The conversations of kids who go to different kinds of schools are different,” Schulman said. “To me, it can only be a benefit to have voices coming from a lot of different experiences.”


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