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Alexandra Piacenza
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

Will you know what to do when you see something wrong? Find out when you should speak up and how you can do the right thing.

At university, if you witness another student doing something wrong, something against dorm or college rules, something illegal or even dangerous, you will have to make a difficult ethical decision. Will you speak up and say something?

Deciding to “tell" on someone who is doing something wrong is a personal choice — one that could have serious consequences for the person you are reporting.

Not acting when you see behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated can also have big repercussions for you, especially when the action has negative consequences you could have prevented. Here are some of the dilemmas you may face and some tips for assessing how to act:


Seeing someone cheat on a test may be relatively easy to dismiss — it’s more or less a victimless “crime" (except perhaps when the class is graded on the curve) and likely to have its own comeuppance.

However, if you see a good friend cheating on a test, don’t be afraid to ask him what led him to cheat. He might be nervous about his grades, and you could help him study.


Witnessing physical or cyber-bullying, where someone is clearly being hurt, calls for an evaluation of the extent of the mistreatment and the seriousness of the results. You don’t need to put yourself in danger between a bully and his or her victim, but you can speak to a dormitory Resident Assistant or campus counselor.

Five Ethical Choices You Will Have to Make in College, published by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, points out that the child abuse perpetrated at Pennsylvania State University by Jerry Sandusky need not have continued:

“One of the saddest things about the situation was imagining how the worst of the tragedy could have been averted by a simple ethical act: speaking up. If one of the coaches or janitors or student assistants who reportedly knew that Sandusky was molesting children had spoken up (and kept speaking up until Sandusky was stopped), much of the abuse would have been avoided..."

Drugs and Alcohol

Dangerous situations that have the potential for tragic consequences call for your immediate and undivided attention. However “uncool" it may seem, common sense, as well as compassion, should prompt you to call “Foul!" and get help when someone too impaired to drive is getting behind the wheel.

Additionally, if you suspect that someone may have alcohol poisoning, don’t be shy to take him to the hospital. The dangers of binge drinking are real, so if you suspect that someone may need help, go get it!

When is the right time to act?

When in doubt, apply the “Ethics 1-2-3" guide below, adapted from The Ethical Development of College Students by David A. McKelfresh and Ray Gasser, both Directors of Residence Life at state universities:

# 1. Is it legal?

Will I, or the person in question, be violating a civil law or institutional policy?

# 2. Is it fair?

Is this action fair to all concerned? Does it promote a balanced, win/win outcome?

# 3. Will I feel good about it later?

Will I be proud? Would I feel good if my hometown newspaper published my decision? Would I feel good if my family knew about my choice?

(Check out Ethics and College Life Part 3: How Will You Use Social Media?)


Grasgreen, A. (2011, July 15). The Ethics of Student Life @insidehighered. The Ethics of Student Life @insidehighered. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from

Five Ethical Choices You Will Have to Make in College. (2014, January 1). Five Ethical Choices You Will Have to Make in College. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from

McKelfresh, D. A., & Gasser, R. (n.d.). The Ethical Development of College Students. Housing Pros. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from