I recently attended the 2022 NASPA Student Success in Higher Education Conferences (composed of Assessment, Persistence, and Data Analytics; Dismantling Systemic Barriers to Student Success; and First-Generation Student Success conferences). It really is a quality professional development opportunity, so I highly recommend attending in the future if you have the opportunity. I presented a session on the politics and ethics of student affairs assessment. For this month’s blog, I will focus on the ethical issues.
What words or phrases come to mind when you think about ethics? You might think of values, morals, doing the right thing, integrity, rules of behavior, honesty, etc. When thinking about ethics specific for student affairs assessment, you might think about accuracy, protection, confidentiality, privacy, fairness, equity, etc. While ethics are an individual matter, they are also based in an organizational or group context. Kitchener (in Applied Ethics in Student Affairs, 1985) described five principles that should guide students affairs practice, and they can be applied to assessment specifically. Respecting autonomy allows people to choose whether to participate or not (i.e., no coercion). Doing no harm means that you would not risk hurting others. Thinking beyond physical harm, assessment harm could be about ensuring confidentiality and ensuring instruments are culturally appropriate. Benefiting others could be about the immediate benefit to participants but also providing benefits to others through decisions made from assessment results. Being just means being fair, equitable, and impartial. It could also mean providing programs and services to all students if assessment results show a benefit to students who were assessed in a program. Finally, being faithful is about being honest. Rarely would assessment involve deception, and potential participants should be notified about the purpose of the assessment (i.e., informed consent). The big takeaway is that people who are engaged in the assessment process do right by their participants, the organization, and the larger society.
National associations also have ethical standards and/or guiding principles they expect members to follow. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has a code of ethics that address the work of educational researchers. ACPA—College Student Educators International also has a statement of ethical principles and standards for student affairs practitioners. I encourage you to look at websites of associations you belong to or that are similar to your work, in order to see the ethical and behavioral expectations.
Nearly all campuses have an Institutional Review Board that assists researchers in ethical behaviors and makes sure participants are not harmed. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services regulates the protection of “human subjects” (i.e., participants) in the research process. Some institutions require all data collection projects to go through the review process, while others have a clear distinction between what is research and what is assessment. See my previous blog about IRBs, and always contact your institutional board if you have any questions. Even if your assessment project does not go through the IRB, it is important that you are trained on ethical principles.
I hope this helps you reflect not only on your personal ethical principles, but also how you see those principles applied in an organizational setting. If you have not already, you might reach out to colleagues to have discussions on this topic or even develop your own code of ethics. Student Affairs Planning, Assessment & Research created and continues to revisit our Standards of Ethical Practice.