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Ask The Ethicist: Connecting Students with Community Agencies

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Dear Ask the Ethicist:

I am a public health faculty member working with a community agency in a consulting capacity. In that role, I have been asked to help the agency expand one of their action committees. I have a student who has the skills to contribute to this committee and who could help me fulfill my role with the agency. As the student’s advisor, I can envision this being a good learning experience for the student but also know how busy the student is between school work and a job outside of school. By suggesting that the student take on this role, would I be unfairly coercive in using my influence as professor? 


As a professor, your role is to provide opportunities to your students and former students that will enhance their professional growth. While you cannot ethically force a student to take on a role outside their program requirements, it is part of good teaching that you extend beyond program requirements to enable students to access opportunities that will facilitate their learning. You should advise the student as to the benefits you see this opportunity providing to their growth as a professional and help them weigh the pros and cons of the commitment. As long as you are clear that the decision whether to take on this added responsibility is the student’s to make, you are on firm ground ethically while fulfilling your duty as a professor to open up possibilities for your mentees. On the other side, not sharing this opportunity with the student might be considered neglect of your ethical obligation to help students build their expertise.  The key is assuring the student that he/she clearly has a choice and that there will be no negative repercussions associated with declining. To reduce the risk of implicit coercion, it would be best to present the option only in the context of the student’s learning and not how the role would benefit the faculty member.

What ethical principles apply here?

Especially when there are differences in power relations between people, concerns of justice are often present, assuring that the less powerful person is not coerced into doing something they don’t wish to do. Issues of coercion also usually are offset if the choice is voluntary, allowing the person making the decision to exercise truly autonomous behavior. Virtues often associated with mentorship and teaching are likely also relevant (e.g., trust, honesty, respect, integrity, etc.) both for the student’s ability to exercise control over the decision while also assuring responsibility on the part of the faculty member to fulfill his/her duty to create, offer  and encourage opportunities for growth.