20 Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas

of Newly Elected Student Government Leaders


1. Now that you are elected, with whom can you meet, and what can you talk about?

  • Student groups not recognized by the university?
  • Companies seeking contracts or promotional assistance? (App developers, drink companies, etc)
  • Faculty or staff members?
  • Friends or students from outside the organization who are seeking information about student government?

2. What do you owe those who supported and elected you?

  • Can you show favoritism to your campaign supporters?
  • Should you appoint loyal supporters to available positions?
  • Should you vote against or avoid collaboration with those who ran or worked against you?

3. Whom do you represent?

  • Your personal values, priorities, and agenda?
  • Your personal communities: a circle of friends, academic major, club affiliation, Greek organization, or the broader campus community?
  • Student needs or the agenda of your student government organization?
  • Broader state, regional, or national priorities?

4. Are you a public servant or politician – or both?

  • Should you support good policies or your political interests and platform agenda?
  • Should you focus on current student issues or themed committee work?
  • Should you support good policies or the interests of friends?
  • Should you support good policies or create political IOUs with other representatives, administrators, or organizations?

5. Where are your personal conflicts of interest?

  • Other clubs or organizations?
  • Greek life?
  • Friendships and personal relationships?
  • Employment?
  • What, if anything, should you resign from?
  • On what matters should you recuse yourself?

6. How do you honestly present your positions on issues?

  • When do you reveal your position?
  • Should you reveal why you voted for something? Do you need to explain the rationale behind your student government decisions?
  • How do you present issues to students?
  • Should you present dilemmas differently in order to appeal to administrators?

7. What ethical standards apply to the process of decision making and contracting?

  • What are the standards of due consideration? What is fair treatment of petitioners?
  • Should you favor or promote a student bid over a stronger non-student bid? Are you obligated to support or encourage student endeavors?
  • At what point should informal arrangements give way to established procedures for bids and contracts?
  • Should you contract with students or people that you know? Should you remove yourself from approval of a bid that involves a friend?

8. How can you use your power and position in other parts of your life?

  • Can you use student government connections or networking to gain advantage in the job-seeking process?
  • Do you use your title or organization’s seal in personal business?
  • Should you favor your preferred charities, associations, etc.?
  • Can you utilize student government resources to do personal work: homework, printing, etc.?

9. What gifts, benefits, and freebies can you take?

  • How much student government funding should be used to develop the organization, purchase logo gear, and award members?
  • What are the motives of others who may give you gifts or offer favors?
  • What preferential treatment do you receive as a result of your position? Are there limits?
  • What actually compromises you?
  • What appears to compromise you?

10. How can you help those who seek your assistance?

  • Friends
  • Clubs, student organizations, academic departments, or community groups
  • Other student government representatives or campus leaders: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine
  • University administrators
  • Building your own political IOUs

11. How can you work properly with university administration?

  • When can you make specific requests of university administrators?
  • What information is important for you to share with administrators?
  • Should you fulfill the requests of university administrators?
  • Are there different standards for meetings, conversations, correspondence, etc?

12. What information should you bring to your decisions?

  • When should you solicit information from other sources?Should you speak from your own experience or gather feedback from students?
  • Should you rely completely on the reports and recommendations of other student government leaders?
  • Can you investigate issues personally? What ways and means are most effective to do this?
  • In the face of a deeply divided student body, what criteria should you use to select a side?

13. What is personal integrity in student government life?

  • Do you maintain the commitment to work hard and avoid burn out?
  • Are you willing to speak the truth or dissent even if it is uncomfortable?
  • Do you withstand the pressures to influence your votes?
  • Do you resist the temptation to take advantage of your position?
  • How do you represent the organization in your personal life and social behavior?

14. How do you handle conflicts between your roles?

  • Differences between your role as a student representative and committee member
  • Membership in multiple campus organizations
  • Balancing your role as student and student leader

15. How do you deal with “friends” of student government?

  • Former student government members
  • University administrators and advisors
  • How much loyalty should you show to people you have worked with before?
  • In a hiring or appointment process, how much value should you assign to previous service in student government?

16. How do you function as a minority or even a whistle blower?

  • Should you voice dissent from a majority position?
  • How do you represent and support initiatives or laws, passed by the majority, with which you disagree?
  • How do you balance presenting a united front as an organization while preserving healthy dissent?
  • When can you criticize university policy or administration?
  • When should you hold other members of student government accountable by reporting their behavior?

17. What level of respect and civility should exist among student leaders?

  • What level of respect is required toward colleagues, staff, and the student body, especially when offering criticism?
  • Toward those who ran, voted, or organized against you?
  • Toward those you do not trust?
  • When is it your duty to respect a decision you do not agree with?
  • When should you solicit outside information or expertise? With whom can you discuss this?
  • How can you build and sustain trust, within student government and with other student organizations?

18. How do you protect the confidentiality of information made available to you?

  • Closed session or meeting confidentiality
  • Personnel or disciplinary issues
  • Contracting details
  • How does social media play a role in this?

19.  How do you deal ethically with the press, social media, and internet presence?

  • Respecting the confidentiality of sessions and issues
  • Accurately characterizing your views, your opponent’s views, and the organization’s views
  • Distinguishing between personal and professional use of social media
  • When should you use social media to reach out to students?
  • How should this use influence the content of your social media sites?

20. How can you ethically campaign while in office?

  • Making current decisions based on future campaign platforms, contributions, or support?
  • Using insider information to favor your campaign?
  • Using privileged access to student government resources and the community to favor or develop your campaign?
  • Promoting initiatives solely to create a record for your campaign?
  • Accurately representing your record and past role in government?

Download “2O Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas of Newly Elected Student Government Leaders” here.


Thank you to Judy Nadler and her piece “20 Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas of Newly Elected Government Officials” for the inspiration for this page.

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