THE ETHICS OF FACULTY BEHAVIOR:
STUDENTS' AND PROFESSORS' VIEWS
We examined differences in professors'
and students' perceptions of the ethicalness of faculty
behavior. The sample of 115 professors and 157 undergraduates
responded to 16 items regarding faculty behavior. Faculty and
students differed significantly on 4 of the 16 behaviors and
showed a strong trend on another 3. Faculty saw ensuring
popularity with an easy test, accepting a textbook rebate, and
using profanity as more unethical than did the undergraduates.
The students viewed failing to update notes as more unethical
than did the faculty. We argue that future research should
explore students' views on the distinction between professors'
undesirable and unethical behaviors.
Many educators and social commentators
have explored ethical issues in higher education (e.g.,
Alexander, 1986; Finn, 1989; Robinson & Moulton, 1985; Thompson,
1991; Wilshire, 1990). Professional associations, such as the
American Association of University Professors (AAUP, 1987) and
the American Psychological Association (APA, 1992) have issued
responsibility standards that apply to their general membership
and special considerations that cover the unique situations that
confront their academic professionals. Despite the fact that
scholars have noted that teaching is rife with ethical dilemmas
that require a “conscious reflection on values” (e.g., Svinicki,
1994, p. 277), there is relatively little empirical research on
ethical issues in academia (Tabachnick, Keith-Spiegel, & Pope,
1991). Research on faculty behavior has focused on “hot topics”
such as sexual harassment and largely ignored the more daily
ethical dilemmas involved in teaching and instructor-student
interactions. In particular, there is sparse research on
students' perceptions of faculty behavior.
Tabachnick, Keith-Spiegel, and Pope
(1991) conducted a survey of ethical problems in higher
education utilizing a 63-item questionnaire that asked faculty
to identify and rank potential ethical issues. Although their
study was limited to academic psychologists, research on ethical
issues involved in teaching per se suggests that many of the
themes are generalizable across disciplines (Keith-Spiegel,
Wittig, Perkins, Balogh, & Whitley, 1993). In a related
follow-up, Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, and Allen (1993) culled 51
items from their original work and explored students' views of
professors' actions. Unfortunately, due to differences in the
response scales used, they could not make direct statistical
comparisons between students and faculty. However, they did find
indications that faculty and students were similar on most of
The present study compared faculty and
student perceptions of faculty behavior using items from
Tabachnick, Keith-Spiegel, and Pope's (1901) work. We expected
that agreement would be high for faculty and students.
We sampled faculty (N = 115) and
undergraduates (N = 157) at a medium-sized public Midwestern
university. We mailed questionnaires to a randomly selected
sample of 234 faculty members (representing half the faculty).
The 115 responses represented a response rate of 49%. The
students were enrolled in a general education introductory
psychology course and received course credit for their
participation. To insure that the students had reasonable
familiarity with university life, they must have completed at
least two semesters of college in order to participate in the
Respondents rated the ethicalness of
16 faculty behaviors on a 5-point scale that ranged from 1
(unquestionably not ethical) to 5 (unquestionably ethical). We
selected the items from a larger list of issues developed by
Tabachnick, Keith-Spiegel, and Pope (1991) and we focused
primarily on student-teacher relationships and professional
ethical issues for college teachers. We chose items that
appeared to be appropriate across all disciplines.
Faculty. Of the 115 faculty
respondents, 62% were men and 38% were women. The median age was
47 and the age range was 28–63. The sample was predominantly
European-American (96%). The majority of the faculty was from a
college of liberal arts (62%), 12% were from the college of
business, and an additional 25% were from colleges of science,
and health/physical education. Respondents indicated that, on
average, they spent 81% of their workload on teaching related
activities. In general, despite a higher percentage of female
faculty, the sample approximated the demographics of the faculty
Students. Of the 157 student
respondents, 94 were women (60%) and 63 were men (40%). The
median age was 19 and the age range was 18–28. The sample was
predominantly European-American (92%). Seventy percent of the
sample was sophomores and the remaining 30% were juniors or
seniors. The students represented a cross-section of majors.
To adjust for the use of multiple
tests, we considered differences significant if they achieved
the probability level of .003 or better. In contrast to the
expectation of high agreement between faculty and students, we
found significant differences on 4 of the 16 behaviors and a
strong trend in another 3 behaviors. Although both faculty and
students viewed most of the behaviors as unethical, there were
differences detected in the degree of perceived ethicalness.
Table 1 shows the mean score on each
behavior for the faculty and student samples. Faculty saw
ensuring popularity with easy tests (*[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] = −5.04, *[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] < .001), accepting a textbook rebate
(*[This character cannot be represented in ASCII text] = −5.14,
*[This character cannot be represented in ASCII text] < .001),
and using profanity in lectures (*[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] = −6.68, *[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] < .001) as more unethical than did
the student sample. Additionally, there was a strong trend for
faculty to see sexual involvement with a student as more
unethical than did the students (*[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] = −2.91, *[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] = .004). Students saw the use of old
lecture notes *[This character cannot be represented in ASCII
text] = 3.66, *[This character cannot be represented in ASCII
text] < .001) as more unethical than did faculty, and had a
strong trend toward viewing the breaking of confidence (*[This
character cannot be represented in ASCII text] = 2.85,*[This
character cannot be represented in ASCII text] = .005) and the
teaching of unmastered material (*[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] = 2.89, *[This character cannot be
represented in ASCII text] = .004) as more unethical than did
Overall, we detected more differences
between students and faculty than previous research would
suggest (Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Allen, 1993). However, the
findings are logical when we consider the daily context of both
students and faculty. For instance, students' understandable
self-interest is evident in their concern over course issues
such as outdated lecture notes. On the other hand, faculty are
more aware of factors (such as emergency hires) that refocus the
moral principles that may underlie “unwanted” behaviors such as
“teaching material you haven't really mastered.” Students appear
less perturbed by some of the “political” issues in academia
such as allowing likability to influence grading, giving easy
tests for popularity sake, or sexual relations between faculty
and students. However, although there was a difference of
degree, both faculty and students viewed most of the behaviors
as unethical. For instance, both faculty and students ignoring
evidence of cheating and insulting a student in his/her absence
as strongly unethical.
Recently, researchers have examined
students' “pet peeves” regarding faculty behavior (Murray,
2000). Appleby (1990) and Perlman and McCann (1998) have tapped
students' views of undesirable faculty behaviors. The lists
include behaviors such as poor organization, intellectual
arrogance, poor testing, and keeping students past the end of
class. When contrasting the work on ethics in education with the
work on pet peeves, we believe that it is important to conduct
further empirical research into students' motivation and ability
to distinguish between undesirable behaviors and unethical
behaviors. We need to explore whether students discern the
underlying moral principle at hand when considering their
concerns regarding professors' behaviors. In focus group work
with students in this area (Morgan, Korschgen, & Gardner, 1996),
we detected few arguments that centered on classic moral
reasoning (e.g., Rest, 1986). Future research on this topic may
be well served by using senior students due to their increased
experience with college situations. In a practical sense, we
believe that professors should know if students perceive a
behavior as more than just a “pet peeve.” We see judgments of
morality to carry a more severe implication than those regarding
unwanted behaviors. Professors' attention to students concerns
(undesirable or unethical) should improve the quality of the
classroom interaction and, consequently, student learning.
We thank Kristin Bever and Joseph
Monroe for their help with the data collection.
Table 1. The 16 Ethical Issues In
Academia Items[a] — Student And Faculty Comparisons
Legend for Chart:
A - Faculty Sample: (N = 115): M
B - Faculty Sample: (N = 115): SD
C - Student Sample: (N = 157): M
D - Student Sample: (N = 157): SD
Behaviors that faculty viewed as more unethical
1. Giving easy courses or tests to ensure your
popularity with students.
2. Accepting for yourself a publisher's monetary
rebate for adopting their text.
3. Using profanity in lectures.
4. Becoming sexually involved with a student.[b]
Behaviors that students viewed as more unethical
5. Failing to update lecture notes when
re-teaching a course.
6. Telling colleagues a confidential disclosure
told to you by a student.[b]
7. Teaching material you haven't
Behaviors that did not yield significant differences
8. Ignoring strong evidence of cheating.
9. Teaching full time while
“moonlighting” at least 20
hours per week.
10. Selling unwanted complimentary textbooks
to used book vendors.
11. Allowing students to drop courses for
reasons not officially approved.
12. Omitting significant information when writing
a letter of recommendation for a student.
13. Insulting, ridiculing, etc. a student in
his or her absence.
14. Ignoring unethical behavior by colleagues.
15. Allowing a student's “likability”
to influence your grading.
16. Grading on a strict curve regardless of
class performance level.
Notes for Table 1
a from Tabachnick et al. (1991).
b Evidence of a strong trend (p.
1 Adjusting for multiple t tests,
differences considered significant at the p. <.003 level.
Note: Ratings are on a 1–5 Likert-type
scale. The lower the number the more unethical the behavior.
Note: Items administered in the
followed order: 8, 1, 9, 10, 2, 11, 12, 5, 6, 13, 3, 4, 7, 14,
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By Betsy Levonian Morgan, University
of Wisconsin—La Crosse and Ann J. Korschgen, University of
Send correspondence regarding this
manuscript to Betsy Morgan, Psychology Department, 1725 State
Street, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, WI 54601. e-mail: