John S. Leipzig, Ph.D.

Interim Dean, College of Liberal Arts

University of Alaska Fairbanks


Effective decision making exists within the intersection of valued thought and communication practices. This paper will examine the bases of ethical decision making as well as ethical considerations inherent in the communicating of decisions. This topic is especially timely given rapid and increased interconnectivity within the world which requires that persons in administrative positions take ethical and communication considerations into account when making decisions. A case study example from academic administration will provide the opportunity for participants to examine how ethical and communication considerations can affect the quality and acceptance of administrative choices.


Weingartner (1999) notes how little has been written on the topic of morality in academic administration and calls for others to "cultivate the theme of ethical issues in academic administration further" (p. xi). This paper will begin by adopting a dialogic approach to administrative decision making and will argue that through the sharing of decisions, ethics are made manifest. Not only is the ethicality of particular decisions of importance to todayís academic administrators, but the manner in which those decisions are shared is equally important. The theme of this yearís International Congress on Challenges to Education, "Balancing Unity and Diversity in a Charging World", foreshadows a crucial ethical decision that academic administrators are faced with in an academic environment. How does one who is chosen to lead the faculty, staff and students of an institution promote both unity and diversity within these various constituencies? This paper, after examining the basic premises of dialogic ethics, will discuss a series of issues tied directly to the theme of this Congress. Due to increasing turbulence in academic environments, academic administrators are having to make decisions which increasingly involve ethical considerations.

Movement toward a Dialogic Basis for Administrative Ethics

According to Johannesen (1996) "dialogic perspectives for evaluating communication ethics focus on the attitudes toward each other held by the participants in a communication transaction" (p. 64). In describing dialogic versus other perspectives on ethics, Johannesen (1996) discusses six essential characteristics of the perspective. Authenticity, inclusion, confirmation, presentness, a spirit of mutual equality and a supportive climate (pp. 67-68) will be used to demonstrate ethical approaches to communicating administrative decisions. Within all organizations, including academic organizations, procedures and practices may exist which constrain dialogue and thereby impact the ethicality of the decision processes as well as the outcomes of the decisions that are made. The degree of ethicality within a situation varies in proportion to the attention paid to the six essential characteristics within a communication transaction.

There are essential differences in academic organizations when compared to for-profit business organizations, due primarily to the widely held conception of academic administrators as academic peers versus managers of others (though many would suggest that there are classic managerial tasks associated with all administrative positions). Again Weingartner (1999) provides guidance when he notes that academic administrators are "the assignees of central obligations incurred by the institutions they serve" (p. 33). Each collegeís or universityís mission is somewhat and arguably unique, and thus the obligations for each administrator is likewise unique. Remaining for most institutions are broad categories of shared concerns in teaching, scholarship and service. Also in common is the expressed desire on the part of most stakeholders within academe for full and open informational disclosure between administrators and themselves. In a real sense the essential characteristics of an ethical academic environment mirrors Habermasí (1990) conception of the "ideal speech situation". Habermas was interested in providing a minimal set of procedural standards that would characterize ethical conversations whose goal was emancipation for the participants rather than control by one of the parties in dialogue. The following are those standards:

Every subject (person) with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.

Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.

Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.

Everyone is allowed to express his or her attitudes, desires and needs.

No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from expressing his or her rights as laid down in 1 and 2 above (p. 89).

Importantly, dialogue grounds ethics in the world of experience of the participants not

in a set of prescriptions (or rules) for what is or what is not ethical. If emancipation is a state of being only enjoyed though genuine conversation, then the application of the six essential characteristics should provide instructive to ethical administrative practice. Johnstone (1994) clarifies the role of communication in ethics by providing two principles upon which a proper communication ethic should rest: (1) believing in the inherent worth of communication is the first principle and (2) the construction of a sense of what it means to be in communication and by extension to be human-in-the-world is second (p. 300). The manner of communication with another is critical in meeting primary institutional obligations of academic administrators. Academic administratorsí communication practices are what demonstrate a commitment to ethics in a genuine being human-in-the-world sense and confirm the care and concern the institution has for its constituents.

An Educational Example of the Six Characteristics of Dialogic Communication.

One issue certainly on the minds of many in education is the argument of whether or not students are consumers of an educational product. Some students have claimed that since they pay tuition they should have a greater say in the product that they anticipate receiving. The following example takes as its goal an examination of what a conversation that is fully communicatively functioning and dialogically ethical might look like. The example assumes for the point of discussion that there is genuine disagreement as to the efficacy of the claim that students are consumers of education. The scene is a deanís office in which a student is expressing concern that there is not a class she wants to take being offered at a available time within her schedule. The academic administrator is thus thrust into a dialogue during a meeting scheduled by the student.

AUTHENTICITY: (Open, direct and honest in sharing subject relevant information and feelings). The student begins by expressing her desire to take a rock climbing class and describes how this is an elective that she has always wanted to take but has never been able to schedule due to the fact that the lecturer does not teach full-time with the university and can only offer the class in the evening hours. She begins by stating that since this course is in the catalog it should be offered at multiple times so that all students, not just evening students, have access to the curriculum. In fact, she asserts that by paying tuition she is actually paying for access to the entire curriculum. The dean, concerned not with changing the studentís mind but with expressing alternative attitudes, begins by defining the terms and issues. As a professional obligation of the academic administrator, he states that the model of student as client is preferable to the dean. In this way the dean notes that, as a client, students are employing the service of a professional, in this particular case a rock climbing lecturer. The dean also notes that because of the liability involved with rock climbing that only certified instructors can be hired and that the employment calls for rock climbing instructors have netted only one qualified candidate to date and this person has a full-time job in the community and can only teach at night. Further, scheduling of the climbing wall has been an issue in the past with the facilities manager. By sharing information and feelings the two have engaged in a dialogue in which both are trying to understand the issues involved. The goal is understanding, not change nor persuasion. The goal for both, if they are in genuine dialogue, is to understand the otherís point of view.

INCLUSION: (Trying to imagine the reality that the other is experiencing without giving up oneís own personal beliefs or convictions). The student with a better understanding of the situation asks if the dean is planning on extending the call for lecturers in the coming year so that she would have an increased opportunity to take the class. The dean asks the student if there is any reason why she could not take a night class. The student notes that she has a part-time job in the evening that helps pay for her tuition and that she has very little flexibility during the hours of her job since she is in school from 8-4, Monday through Friday. The dean notes this constraint to the studentís ability to take the rock climbing class. The dean further asks why this particular class is so important to the student. In conversation he learns that the student is an Anthropology major who is enrolling in a summer internship in which some of the field work will be in exposed cliffs in Russia. Though rock climbing is not a requirement for the internship, she felt it would help her with the confidence needed to work in this particular site.

CONFIRMATION: (Affirmation of the other as a human-in-the-world who holds differing beliefs and values). The student confirms her understanding of the deanís willingness to continue to find other rock climbing lecturers for the coming year but understands the constraints that he faces. She notes this to him while restating how much she would like to take this class and feels that the university should provide her with this opportunity. The dean acknowledges the studentís desire and expresses how he now has a better understanding of the particular importance of this class for the student.


PRESENTNESS: (Willingness to be fully engaged with the other during conversation). The dean by scheduling time with the student indicated the importance of the conversation in the first place. By paraphrasing back the studentís concerns and by maintaining sufficient eye contact during the conversation, the dean demonstrated that he was present within the setting and the dialogue. The student, likewise by scheduling a time with the dean, indicated that his time was important as well. By paraphrasing to the dean her understanding of the situation and by maintaining eye contact, the student also demonstrated that she was involved in the conversation.

A SPIRIT OF MUTAL EQUALITY: (Avoiding the appearance of superiority even though roles and society may ascribe differing status to the conversational participants): While it would have been easy for the dean to say to the student that he was charged with making these types of decisions, he did not and instead focussed on the problem at hand from the studentís perspective. The student, while she could have concentrated upon the fact that she felt that she was due this class, instead focussed on the problem from the deanís point of view. Importantly, neither was attempting to persuade the other to change; and in fact the outcome of the dialogue would be increased understanding of the problems and of the positions of each in the transaction. The ethicality of the process is what would have been most important in this instance.

A SUPPORTIVE CLIMATE: (Both participants are encouraged to communicate without interjecting preconceived judgements prior to hearing the other). The dean listened intently to the studentís concerns and better understood the importance of this class to her. In turn the student understood that the deanís problem was one of availability of instruction and that he was not purposefully withholding instruction.

This dialogue between the student and the dean emulated the principles of the ideal speech situation. The obligation of an academic administrator to help meet the universityís teaching mission was also highlighted in this encounter. Equal communicative status and emancipation were actualized in the conversation and presentness was exhibited. That which sustains and enhances communication while questioning what is while still caring for and affirming the other in conversation is what ought to be done. This is the best explanation of what it means to engage in ethical dialogue. The process of honest engagement in reasoned argumentation is central to the academic mission and is as much an obligation of academic administrators as it is for faculty and students.


The fact that the lead article in the Resource Handbook for Academic Deans (Allan, 1999) was entitled "The Ethics of Deaning" is not a coincidence. In this article by Charles Masiello the author notes that "your role as dean is critical in nurturing ethical behavior in your college or university" (p. 3). This is exactly the point of the previous example; the academic administrator is responsible for demonstrating to the various competing stakeholders in the university ethical treatment of others. Some of the guidelines for ethical leadership are correlates of the six characteristics of dialogic communication noted before:

Listen before you act.

Acknowledge the interdependence of the components of your institution.

Consult with relevant individuals and groups.

Take the time to be sensitive to your constituencies.

Make every effort to serve their basic needs.

Do not distort reality to achieve your own ends, even good ones.

Correct misconceptions and incorrect interpretation.

Respect others; do not diminish them in an attempt to make your point or win support for your perspective.

Resolve rather than exploit conflict.

Trust others until such time that they prove unworthy of your trust.

Help others to realize their full potential.

Set measurable and achievable goals.

Provide the resources necessary for others to function effectively.

Stand by others who in striving to meet common goals may make honest mistakes.

Accept responsibility.

Share the leadership task by empowering others.

Take the blame; share the fame (Masiello, 1999, p. 5).

Of particular note is the fact that most of the suggestions by Masiello are dialogic by nature. The point is that through dialogue ethics are made real which in turn gives greater credence to the argument that for academic administrators principles of dialogic ethics are relevant in everyday conduct. An academic administrator should demonstrate dialogic ethicality in everyday conversations in which that administrator is open and direct while confirming and including the other on an equal conversational basis in a supportive climate. Presentness is an extremely important quality for academic administrators, since many authors point to the need to be intuitive and subjective in many cases and to trust experience and judgement rather than to slavishly follow rules. Presentness means that each conversational encounter is a singular non-repeatable event, which though it may well contain components of other past conversations, is unique. The communication and its outcomes which occur during conversation must be treated in the presentness of the moment as well.

Ratliff (1999) in a postscript to Masielloís article does provide an alternative suggestion about openness when he says that one of "the first ethical concerns you will have is to decide how much information to share" (p. 6) with others. While suggesting that it behooves a dean to provide necessary information, he cautions about a tendency to over inform others. I would suggest that Ratliff is not suggesting withholding information for control purposes, but that misplaced or mistimed information might actually be counterproductive to good decision making and the ideal speech situation. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing in itself, for too much information can obscure the real issues at hand and does not demonstrate care for the conversational participants as well.


To be fully involved in the world is to see oneself and others as human-in-the world. Most realistically we are talking about interacting with others who may come from vastly different life experiences and who hold vastly different attitudes as well as practice unique cultural practices. Understanding begins with a willingness to communicate and to respect the diversity in the world. This respect is manifested by the establishment of an ideal speech situation which by definition is representative of an ethical dialogic communication climate. Understanding comes through communication and because of a genuine appreciation of the other as a co-acting human-in-the-world. Academic deans "stand at the nexus of the sometimes competing interests of administration, faculty, and students" (Masiello, 1999, p. 1). The deanís role is to work with others to explore issues that occur because of competing interests. Deans and other academic administrators are meant to be between others and conversations will benefit from honestly adopting a dialogic approach to ethical communicative practices. Academic deans are characterized as unifiers in their institutions. The goal of respecting diversity while guarding against its diminution should guide the conduct of academic administrators.


A current opening for a deanís position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks demonstrates the importance that faculty, staff, students and administrators place on the concepts of diversity and unity. An analysis of the duties and qualifications for the position should be instructive. The language within the advertisement will be categorized by the diversity or unity concepts contained within the announcement.


Of the approximately 5000 students Ö a high percentage of Alaska Native, Native American, and International students. Other ethnic backgrounds in the student population and a range of experience among non-traditional students combine to make UAF a richly diverse academic setting.

The College also is home to the Universityís Alaska Native Language Center, the Northern Studies Program, Center for Cross Cultural Studies, the Rural Alaska Honors Institute, Elderhostel, Womenís Studies Program, Film Studies Program, Library Science, Military Science, and KUAC TV/FM.

She or he will have a record of personal commitment in support of multicultural perspectives.

The ideal candidate will possess . . . supporting non-traditional educational opportunities; hiring among members of racial and ethnic groups underrepresented on the faculty.

Will have successful experience with people of culturally and socially varied backgrounds.

A demonstrated familiarity with distance delivery and the issues of centralization that accompany it.


The Dean is expected to support and promote the programs of the College in interactions with other internal and external constituencies.

The Dean is expected to participate in efforts to enrich the academic environment and provide the very best of educational opportunities for students.

The Dean will facilitate the development and enhancement of quality teaching, scholarship/creative activity, and service within the College.

Familiarity with and the ability to work with upper administration in a university system.

Will possess informational openness in academic administration; supporting, developing and retaining quality faculty, staff and students.

Supporting faculty research initiatives and faculty staff, and student participation in university governance, the well-being of staff in the workplace; the well-being of graduate student teaching fellows and assistants and adjunct faculty.

Administer effectively in a unionized university setting with a unionized faculty.

A demonstrated experience in working with the central administration of a university and working with private and public external constituencies.

Clearly, constituent groups looking to hire an academic administrator place high

value on attitudes and behaviors that demonstrate the ability of potential candidates to be able to balance unity and diversity concerns held by representatives of the multiple audiences with whom they will be frequently in dialogue. The questions are whether or not such expectations are realistic; and whether or not candidates can meet such expectations in any way other than through the adoption of a generalized dialogic philosophy such as the one proposed in this paper. The adoption of an administrative ethic based upon dialogic communication would provide candidates with the best opportunity to meet attitudinal and behavioral expectations of many search committees when it comes to the issues of diversity and unity.


Recently, higher academe has been reexamining priorities in terms of diversity and unity concepts. In fact, the dynamic tension between these two concepts are what are actually causing a reexamination. Some states have even passed legislation limiting the use of diversity concepts in the selection of students or employees. In a recent article by Clegg (2000) in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why Iím Sick of the Praise for Diversity on Campuses" he talks about being diversity-indifferent (p. B 8). His argument is that "in matters of our language and our civic culture Ė as well as, more broadly, our manners and morality-assimilation should be the goal. An America which is multiracial and multiethnic, yes. Multicultural, no. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one." (p. B 8).

The feeling echoed in this article is that with the rush to do the "right thing" in terms of embracing and recognizing diversity many institutions have broken the promise of unity fundamental to the founding of this nation. Further, these same institutions can cause resentment and in the process objectify particular individuals as well as entire groups of people through many of the rules and practices which were intended to create a vibrant and involved academic environment.


Accepting as the major premise of the argument that what is best is that which recognizes humans as being-in-the-world is an important starting point for academic administrators interested in ethical administration. Realizing secondly, that ethics are derived through dialogue with others in the world not just by the nature of the outcome of a particular decision is equally important. Finally, providing supportive climates in which humans-in-the-world can share feelings and ideas in genuine conversation is the primary responsibility of those in academic administration. Anything that enhances and supports communication is ethical; anything that does not is less so. Persons considering or who are currently in academic administrative positions should take seriously the primacy of communication in the conduct of academic life. By making real the characteristics of dialogic communication, the standards for the ideal speech situation and the guidelines for ethical leadership in everyday conversation, academic administrators can provide a model for balancing concerns of unity and diversity in a way that recognizes the importance and need to embrace components of each in a turbulent ever changing environment.


Clegg, R. (2000, July 14). Why Iím Sick of the Praise for Diversity on Campuses. The chronicle of higher education, p. B 8.

Habermas, J. (1990). Discourse Ethics: Notes on a program of philosophical justification (C. Lenhardt and S. Weber, Trans.) In Moral consciousness and communicative action (pp. 43-15). [Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought]. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johannesen, R. (1996). Ethics in human communication (4th ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Johnstone, C. (1994). Ontological vision as ground for communication ethics. In J. Jaska (Ed.), Conference proceedings of the third national communication ethics conference (pp. 299-302). Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association (now the National Communication Association).

Masiello, C. (1999). The Ethics of Deaning. In J. Allan (Ed.) Resource handbook for academic deans (pp. 3-6). Washington DC: American Conference of Academic Deans.

Ratliff, G. (1999). Remarks to the Ethics of Deaning. In J. Allan (Ed.) Resource handbook for academic deans (p. 6). Washington DC: American Conference of Academic Deans.

Weingartner, R. (1999). The moral dimensions of academic administration. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.