Field Notes: The moral minefield of making exceptions to policy

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at 

By Michael Santarosa, Associate Registrar, University of Utah

Whether we’re registrars or admissions officers, one of our main responsibilities is often to ensure compliance with policy.  However, it doesn’t take a long time in these positions before we’re being called upon to make exceptions to policy.  During my time as a registrar I’ve felt anxiety myself and I’ve heard reports from many others about the discomfort they feel because of the potential ethical implications of the decisions they’re called upon to make.  The concern isn’t just related to saying “no” in order to uphold the integrity of the policies and procedures of our institutions while seemingly ignoring the plight of students in need.  Unease also surrounds us when we say “yes” when we’ve already said “no” a thousand times before.  There’s also fear that by saying “yes” we’re opening the floodgates of compromise that will slowly erode the quality of our institutions and our reputations as well as setting precedent that will never allow us to say “no” again.  Are we being fair?  Are we advancing social justice?  Are we teaching students to comply with deadlines and policy restrictions?  Can we ever make exceptions to policy without entering a moral minefield?

The big picture

To answer those questions, it helps to take a step back and think about why exceptions to policy might be warranted in the first place and why you or your team have been empowered to decide when exceptions should be made.  We’re not just mechanical bureaucrats and our students are not just cogs in the wheel of progress.  Part of the reason exceptions need to be considered is because we’re dealing with both people and power.  People—our students—are multi-dimensional. Their lives tell a complex story that ultimately brought them to your institution, to your office, and ultimately to you.  The reason that they have come to you is because you hold institutional power. You have the responsibility (within the scope of your job, education, training and empowerment) to interpret both your policies and their situation to determine if the right course of action is to uphold the policy or make an exception that will further their growth and development as well as advance the mission of your institution.  No matter how carefully crafted our polices may be, they cannot fully account for all of the unique situations students may find themselves in that may not correspond to the concerns the policies are intended to address. 

A clear process 

So just how can we successfully navigate the moral issues that are associated with making exceptions to policy?  First, it helps to have a clear process in mind.  The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University suggests a five-step process for making ethical decisions:  (1) recognize the ethical issue, (2) get the facts, (3) evaluate alternative actions, (4) make a decision and test it, and (5) act and reflect on the outcome.  The first step is usually not a problem.  We know we want to be fair and do right by our students and our institutions.  In the second step, we also typically bring a healthy skepticism.  We don’t simply believe everything a student says.  We take a critical look at the claims being presented and how well the related facts are documented.  It’s in the third step that things can get tricky.  On what basis do we judge the various alternative actions we might take? 

Taking a fresh look at the time-tested approaches to ethical reasoning may be helpful.  Utilitarianism frames an approach that seeks to provide the greatest good for the greatest number.  From this perspective the results are most important and your task is to weigh the possible benefit to the possible harm that can result from your decision.  For example, you may determine it is appropriate to waive a fee because the benefit to the student facing documented hardship outweighs the cost to the institution.  With another approach, known as deontology, the primary concern is to act on the basis of appropriate principles or rules regardless of the outcome.  A principle we may draw upon could be that students should not be penalized when they face extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.  Acting on this principle, you may decide to approve a late withdrawal for a student facing serious illness after the withdrawal deadline.  Similarly you may draw upon deontology to deny requests for exception based on the principle that all students should be treated the same. 

A third approach, known as virtue ethics, attempts to encompass concern for developing the habits that result in wise decisions and actions that further human flourishing. Operating from this perspective, you will be concerned about how your decisions are cultivating virtue within both yourself (your team or institution) and students.  Using this perspective, you might wrestle with questions such as these:  Would making this decision compromise your integrity?  Does it diminish your courage?  Does it deepen your compassion?  However, your concern will also be for the process of cultivating the student’s virtue.  Is the student taking responsibility for her past and future actions?  Does this action result in removing a challenge from a student that will help him grow in character if he faces inevitable consequences?  Will removing this policy barrier free the student to learn and make appropriate progress towards graduation?  By using virtue ethics as a basis for decision, you may approve allowing a student to return after suspension because she demonstrates maturity by taking responsibility for the actions of her younger self and can now communicate a clear plan of action that will ensure future success. 

Space in this article does not allow for an adequate exploration of these and other ethical approaches.  However, grappling with them over time and in various situations will help you become more adept at using them to make decisions (step four) and reflect on their outcomes (step five).  Through reflection and practice your capacity to make good exceptions to policy will grow as will your confidence that the decisions you’re making are avoiding moral minefields. 


References/further reading:

Johnson, C. E. (2007). Ethics in the workplace:  Tools and tactics for organizational transformation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kant, I. (1785/2005). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (T. K. Abbott, Trans.). In L. Denis (Ed.). Toronto, ON: Broadview Editions.

MacIntyre, A. (2007). After virtue (Third ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.