Care over Compliance: Re-centering the Profession on Human Experience

Dr. Jim Lancaster and Dr. James Lorello

Student conduct administrators, undeniably a significant part of “modern universities” agree that “while student conduct covers compliance and a compliance -related issues, it includes many additional aspects…[insuring] that every student is treated fairly and respectfully while keeping education at the heart of the student conduct process” ( As Conduct administrators and faculty, we pose the overarching question concerning current practices in student conduct: where is the balance between educational developmental care and compliance in contemporary conduct administration? Is it time for a recentering of the profession to place greater emphasis on the human experience or our students in the conduct process? It is our belief that it is indeed time for putting the focus back on the students engaging with the student conduct profession. In an era of increasing legalistic fear arising from compliance issues, our goal is to recenter student conduct profession on who really matters: the students. With a focus on building student conduct professionals and processes that have compassion for their students, our hope is to open a dialogue about how to have more meaningful and development interactions with students, faculty and staff we encounter in our work. In this article we will focus on how to make this a reality.

Since the beginning of student conduct practice there have been questions of how to balance student behaviors with institutional expectations. One of the earliest examples of such concerns is an often-cited letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper. In this correspondence Jefferson, the third president of the United States and later founder of the University of Virginia wrote “The article of discipline is the most difficult in American education. Premature ideas of independence, too little repressed by parents, beget a spirit of insubordination, which is the greatest obstacle to science with us, and a principal cause of its decay since the revolution. I look to it with dismay in our institution, as a breaker ahead, which I am far from being confident we shall be able to weather.” (Letter, 1822). 

Jefferson's observation was an early reaction to what we know today to be the typical nature of traditional aged students whether enrolled in higher education or not.  These students will test boundaries, explore growing independence and search for their identity.  When attending a college or university, such behavior, whether intended or unconscious, frequently comes into conflict with the institution's expectations, the norms and rules for living in the community.  In the early history of higher education in this country, the response to such conduct was usually “punishment” by institutional authorities.  By 1913 this dualistic response had come to be viewed by in court challenges as both appropriate and legal, placing institutions in the status of “in loco parentis” or acting in the place of absent parents in imposing consequences similar to those a parent might utilize to punish such behavior (Gott v Berea, 1913). As institutions grew larger and more complex, the responses to student misconduct remained largely rule based, punitive and often reactive rather than thoughtful and anticipatory. However, changes in the legal and educational environment of higher education would eventually force a different response. 

Beginning in the protest era of the early 1960's, institutional responses to student misconduct in secondary and post-secondary institutions began to be challenged in the courts.  The case of Dixon v. Alabama (Dixon, 1961) is typically cited as the beginning of the legal demise of the previous doctrine.  In Dixon, the court for the first time recognized a class of student rights which, while not the same as the Bill of Rights, insured due process and an opportunity for the student to be heard when accused of misconduct prior to disciplinary action, especially as related to removal from the institution.  The era of student protest and emerging rights discussed in Dixon was part of a revisionist view of student behavior.  Student conduct processes after Dixon were further influenced by subsequent court cases and by the emergence of a framework of educational theories that would come to be called “student development”.  In this developmental theory, typical student behavior was viewed as emerging from a complex matrix involving cognitive, social, educational and situational considerations.  It was in the light of this matrix of developmentally based behavior that student affairs as a profession emerged, eventually including a sub-category of student conduct officers.  These campus professionals sought to construct codes embodying conduct expectations and educational sanctions versus accusations and punishments.  These codes were designed to be organic and evolving from experience in an attempt to balance the rapidly changing campus environments with the needs of the campus community and of the individual student. 

Despite these evolutionary changes, the developing growth and complexity of higher education in general, along with the increasing diversity among student populations, by the 1980's had led to new concerns related to established student conduct systems. One author explained these concerns in this manner:

Many student disciplinary systems have lost their educational effectiveness, usefulness and zeal. These systems have evolved into customary, monotonous, structured, legalistic and lifeless machines. They are often perceived by students and other stakeholders as bureaucratic, legalistic, menu-driven, inconsistent, impersonal, archaic and unfair. The student disciplinary process has become excessively routine and has fallen prey to adjudicating cases for the sake of adjudication. The process is oriented towards responding to forbidden behaviors and managing crises as they arise. Oftentimes, student conduct administrators … are overwhelmed and inundated with the volume of the caseload, insufficient staffing to help to manage the volume, and lack of support. The dynamic nature of issues associated with the law and higher education and the rapidly changing complexion of campus cultures create a situation in which few senior student affairs officers are able to stay abreast of the intricacies of student discipline. Therefore, many entry-level and mid-level student conduct administrators are forced to work independently to solve complex issues that may carry high stake implications with respect to the public relations and liability of the college or university. These student conduct administrators often are besieged and are left on their own to manage demanding and stressful situations. Anecdotal comment collected through conversations with entry-level administrators at the ASJA Institute suggest that additional pressures are caused by campus politics, laws and mandates, campus traditions, alumni, societal values and expectations, town/gown issues, parental involvement, technology, and burdensome systems that have been put into place to drive the process (Waryold, p. 39).

In the last five to ten years, social and legal mandates, including an evolving, complex Title IX environment, have further complicated the processes of responding to student behavior on campus.  Compliance with federal mandates as well as conflicting interpretations of their meaning often challenge the developmental and educational purposes student conduct processes normally are designed to deliver. Despite over 50 years of experience and research related to student behavior, those who work as student conduct officers on campuses increasingly find themselves challenged as they attempt to balance the legalistic and bureaucratic doctrines of  “compliance” mandates that often are in conflict with the fundamental philosophical and legal traditions of their profession. 

These challenges have been further exacerbated by the emergence in 2020, of the Covid-19 Pandemic that has led to colleges and universities struggling with decisions first to shutter and later about whether to open, re-open and then, to close yet again – in essence questioning how a college community exists and relates to students and their behavior.  In the meanwhile, institutional leadership has been challenged from all sides with existential issues of political and budgetary pressures exacerbated by the pandemic. In attempting to manage these pressures, one simplistic approach for many senior staff has been to “open the campus and rescue the budget” without resolving the question of what happens next to students caught in this time of crisis.  More nuanced considerations often have been ignored, including a realistic appraisal of how to balance the well-being of students individually with those of the whole community.  Such student affairs' professionals' traditional concerns for all areas of the student experience, including how to deal fairly and compassionately with students who are non-compliant with institutional rules, appear to be far from the top of institutional agendas.  Significant discussion about what standards of student behavior are reasonable to anticipate in the Covid crisis and how those who prove unwilling or unable to comply should be treated seem disconnected from the decisions related to re-opening the campus. 

For every institution, in whatever stage of operations, it is important for administrators to ask “what is the plan for dealing with expectations and regulations designed to keep students safe in the pandemic, whether in an open classroom model, hybrid on campus model or other variations in which their communities are at some point brought together”? In the current crisis, the expectations set forth by many campuses rightfully place emphasis on regulating the safety, sanitation and viral testing modalities for their community.  But compliance with these expectations appears to assume that students will naturally understand and comply with all regulations related to avoiding the spread of viral infection.  In general, under such regulations, students now are expected to wear masks when in public or with groups, utilize social distancing whenever in company with others, and not attend functions or events in which large numbers of persons gathering in bars, gyms, athletic events or other such venues may compromise health.  Despite what student affairs' professionals generally know about typical, normative student behavior and cognitive and social development among this population, many institutions seem to have ignored this resource and instead have depended on strict student compliance with set, draconian rules as their first line of defense.  The result is a less than thoughtful and unrealistic expectation of student compliance.

There has been an institutional failure to anticipate that achieving student compliance would be difficult.  The resulting impact on the community and on individual students was predictable and something far short of a successful and strategic response to this crisis. Students who are accused of violations of the behavioral rules set out for opening/reopening campuses have often faced direct penalties including removal from housing or from classes even though many of their classes are in fact virtual.  Senior administration, seeking to enforce a compliance-type strategy with these rules have sometimes required these punitive sanctions, assigning this enforcement those in conduct administration to manage processes with very little professional discretion when violators are found responsible.

Student conduct officers are aware that student compliance with rules involves many variables and may or may not be driven by a simple desire to avoid the rules.  Younger students are often inexperienced with the challenge of making life-altering decisions. This is understandably complicated by the fact that cognitive development research tells us that inhibition controls in our students are often not fully functioning until the age of 26 – somewhat older than the traditional aged college population.  Additionally, social drives, mores and normative behavior may lure students to seek out others; “meeting and greeting” are a ritual of reopening colleges that is well understood and in normal times encouraged by student affairs professionals. These issues are further exacerbated by the belief, unconsciously held by many traditional aged college students, that they are mysteriously invincible and therefore can ignore many practical risk management and survival strategies in their decision-making. In addition this virus in particular has proven to be considered less harmful for traditional aged college students. 

Whatever the causes of failure to follow the rules, simply expecting absolute compliance to the institutional expectations for navigating this crisis period, without compassion and developmental understanding of students as individuals, creates real ethical as well as practical dilemmas. To what extent is a single, eighteen year-old new student to be held fully accountable for the community's wellness? On what continuum should such accountability be assessed and sanctioned?  Should we temper such “justice” with mercy or do we choose to hold all who violate these pandemic policies in a time of danger equally culpable? In the current national environment, where fake news and disbelief in science often affect judgement, how do our students learn the difference between facts and fiction, discern how to think and act rationally and ethically and apply such learning to their behavioral actions?  If higher education really has a developmental responsibility to students, in addition to their educational curriculum, what is the responsibility that senior administrators in general and student affairs professionals and student conduct officers in particular bear in creating an environment that begins with the ethic of care in the pursuit of safety and well-being compliance? How can they provide processes that are reasonable, fair and effective? And, not least of all, how do we create a balance between care and compliance?

The problem of care vs. compliance has existed throughout our history as conduct professionals, yet somehow we continue to move away from care and towards compliance under our most stressful situations.  The last decade began with compliance in the era of Title IX and continues to do so today, with an additional layer of bias related incidents and Covid-19.  Why in hard circumstances choose compliance over care?  Where is our decision making from the heart as practitioners? We must find a way to again meet students where they are and educate them to become better citizens and community members. We believe an approach centered on an ethic of care, proves more beneficial and effective both for the individual and the community. It is our belief that it is indeed time for putting the focus back on the students engaging with the student conduct profession.  In an era of increasing legalistic fear arising from compliance issues in the larger university as well as in student conduct practice, our goal is to recenter student conduct profession on who really matters: the students.  With a focus on building student conduct professionals and processes that have compassion for their students, our hope is to open a dialogue about how to have more meaningful and development interactions with students, faculty and staff we encounter in our work.  If we are to believe that student conduct is an integral area to help foster positive growth and development in students, and to create everlasting change in campus communities, we must make this belief a reality rather than simply an expression of ideals. 



Gott v. Berea College, 156 Ky. 376 (1913)

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper (Nov. 2, 1822), in THOMAS JEFFERSON: WRITINGS 1463, 1465 (M. Patterson, ed., The Library of America) (1984)[hereinafter Letter to Cooper].   (retrieved September 26, 2020 at

Waryold, D. (2006). “Reframing our practices” in Exercising Power with Wisdom:  Bridging legal and ethical practice with Intention.  Lancaster, J. and Associates, College Administration Publications, Inc, Asheville, N.C.  2006.


There have been no comments made on this article. Why not be the first and add your own comment using the form below.

Leave a comment

Commenting is restricted to members only. Please login now to submit a comment.