The most important way that faculty, staff, and administrators can cultivate integrity in students is by modeling it.

Character counts: Students need integrity to succeed

The most important way that faculty, staff, and administrators can cultivate integrity in students is by modeling it

Most outcome-based curriculums target specific deliverables. These rubrics focus on key technical proficiencies and critical thinking skills that should be cultivated in students. But are they missing something? There are fundamental aspects of character that are essential for the success of every student—both in college and in the workforce. We must not neglect these virtues when considering the development of students.

Students may have the brightest intellects, the latest technical training, the keenest problem-solving skills, and the most creative innovation. But, if they lack the moral compass to navigate the world, they can shipwreck not only their own life, but that of others.

No school brags that Bernie Madoff was an alumnus. Madoff had brains, charisma, and drive. He could have been famous. Instead, he is infamous for perpetrating the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and destroying countless lives. Madoff stands as a dramatic example of the importance of character as a ballast for aptitude.

When we do discuss character in college classrooms, the conversations often fall into one of two approaches. Most often, they are perfunctory. It’s assumed that everyone is on the same page. Honesty is considered as rudimentary as basic arithmetic and, like 1+1, was covered in elementary school. Alternatively, faculty can seem almost embarrassed when discussing character. On some level, they seem to feel virtues are passé and we should get on to the more interesting and glamorous ideas.

Both these methods miss the mark. College is about growing and developing a student into a contributing member of society. We must not only expose them to new ideas but deepen their understanding and appreciation for familiar ones. This includes sparking their moral imagination. Our discussions of ethics must be robust and challenging to engage students and foster character.

This may sound good in theory, but how can we integrate an emphasis on honesty into everyday campus life? I’d like to propose three practical ways to bridge the gap from theoretical ideals to tangible expression.

Natural inroads

No matter the school, every syllabus across the country includes a notice about academic honesty. Usually, these are identical copy-and-paste, boilerplate paragraphs. The syllabus and the opening class session provide a natural juncture to discuss the importance of honesty and its role in academic life. This doesn’t need to be an entire class period of philosophical inquiry or inspirational monologues. Simply encourage faculty to move beyond threats of the consequences of plagiarism to a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of honest discourse and academic integrity.

Institutional values

The traits we choose to focus on as a community will grow. The attributes we neglect will recede. From the reasons we give everyday compliments, to the topics we write about in articles, to the people we recognize with awards, we are shaping an institution’s identity. Like a bonsai tree patiently pruned over years, values are inculcated into a community one moment, one interaction at a time. A sustained emphasis on the significance of character starts with key stakeholders and builds to influence an entire campus. Identify a manageable number of specific steps you can take and build from there. This isn’t Pollyanna optimism, but a candid recognition of what matters. 

Leading by example

The most important way that faculty, staff, and administrators can cultivate character is by modeling it. When you model trustworthiness, the effects will be significant and sustained. Far too often, our consideration of truthfulness focuses only on the negative aspect. Honesty is more than not lying or getting caught. There is a positive benefit felt in our relationships when we are people of our word. This is manifested in countless small ways, from following through on promises, to being generous and respectful when discussing others’ viewpoints, to keeping confidences. The effect on campus life is powerful and positive.

A renewed emphasis on character will contribute to more holistic development, which will enhance the student experience. This adds to the value of college, at a time when people are rethinking the role and worth of college. More importantly, it will enhance your culture and community on-campus and equip your students to thrive in their lives after graduation.

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