When Advisers Wear Multiple Hats, Conflicts Can Arise

Sep 28, 2011

Activities advisors can play important roles in helping student organizations find success and function smoothly. But can these advisors remain impartial when representing two different groups with conflicting goals or problems?

By Jessica Lyons


The Role of Activities Advisors

Although student organizations typically create executive boards made up of some of their members to actually run things, an advisor is there to help the groups along the way. The advisor could be a staff member of the school's student activities department or a professor.

Advisors provide support by attending the organization's functions and meetings, helping answer questions or solve problems that may arise, encouraging students and, in general, assisting the organization in reaching its goals. Because of their close work with the students, advisors have the opportunity to develop strong relationships with the organization's members and play a helpful part in making the organization succeed.

The Risk of Conflicts of Interest

The work of activities advisors could get a little complicated when they are working with two different organizations that are having a problem with one another. For instance, if a special interest club has concerns that the student government is giving funding based on friendship and not fairness, it could be difficult for the student advisor to adequately help in the situation if he or she is the advisor of both organizations.

There is also potential for conflicts of interest when the advisor has to decide between aiding the organization and making the school happy. An organization may decide that they strongly disagree with a university policy or action and that they want to take a stand to try to change it. Although their advisor should be there to help the group reach its goal, he or she could receive pressure from the university to instead convince the students to drop the issue.

How to Handle Conflicts of Interest

When a problem arises between two organizations that an advisor works with, the advisor should consider removing themselves from handling that particular problem. He or she can try to find two impartial advisors to step up and represent each organization as they try to come to a solution. Another option could be having student mediators work with the two organizations to resolve the problem.

In situations where the school wants something different from the students, it could be a bit more difficult for advisors to find impartial replacements. The hope would be that schools wouldn't put pressure on advisors and would instead work with the students on their own to address any concerns. If that doesn't happen, though, advisors might want to consider looking off-campus for some type of mediator.

Colleges and universities might also want to consider creating policies within their student activities department to specifically address how these kinds of conflicts of interest should be handled. This could help advisors feel more comfortable knowing there is a clear procedure to follow and it might help students feel more confident that there will be impartial parties available to help.

Some students are giving back to their communities through their participation in student organizations.

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