• Maddison Collaborative Banner

The Madison Collaborative, James Madison University

By Jessica Mestre, Michigan State University

The Madison Collaborative: “Ethical Reasoning in Action” is an educational initiative at James Madison University (JMU) that seeks to develop the ethical reasoning skills of the entire student body. The Madison Collaborative (MC) is specifically guided by the mission of “prepar[ing] enlightened citizens who apply ethical reasoning in their personal, professional, and civic lives.”

With three overarching goals – (1) elevate the level of discourse about ethical reasoning, (2) provide a unifying framework for that reasoning, and (3) be useful in personal, professional, and civic application – MC aims “to transform JMU into a community recognized for producing contemplative, engaged citizens who apply ethical reasoning to confront the challenges of the world” (Vision Statement). The initiative involves both curricular and co-curricular components to activate faculty, administrators, and staff from across JMU’s campus in contributing to the student learning environment.

The Eight Key Questions Framework

The MC uses a versatile, accessible framework of Eight Key Questions (8KQ) to evaluate the multifaceted dimensions of a given ethical problem. The Planning Committee involved philosophy faculty and experts in the subject of ethical reasoning to carefully craft the questions, which are as follows:

1. Fairness: What action does justice, equality, or a balance of legitimate interests require?
2. Outcomes: What achieves the best short- and long-term outcomes for me and all others?
3. Responsibility: What duties and/or obligations apply?
4. Character: What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?
5. Liberty: How does respect for freedom, personal autonomy, or consent apply?
6. Empathy: What would I do if I cared deeply about those involved?
7. Authority: What do legitimate authorities (e.g., experts, law, my religion/god) expect of me?
8. Rights: What rights, if any, (e.g., innate, legal, social) apply?

Not only do the 8KQs serve as lenses through which to consider an ethical issue at hand, but they also lend themselves to a useful structure for assessing their effectiveness. The founding members of the MC identified a combination of cognitive and attitudinal learning outcomesthat range from simply recalling the questions to identifying and weighing the considerations raised by the 8KQs in various contexts (i.e., personal, professional, and civic, as stated in the vision statement). These learning outcomes are scaffolded to mimic the increasing complexity that they envision students developing as they gain exposure and practice with the framework and the offerings of the MC.

Origins and Development

Participants_1-300x200.jpgThe MC and its 8KQs stemmed from JMU’s 10-year re-accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). After an inclusive, deliberative solicitation and selection process, the MC was selected as the main focus of the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), “a proposed course of action for enhancing educational quality via student learning” (History). In an insightful video about the development of the project, the chair of the QEP Planning Committee – Dr. Lee Sternberger, Executive Director of JMU’s Office of International Programs – describes the QEP development process as an opportunity for people across the campus community to engage in dialogue “about who we really are” at the institution, and how that translates into the student learning environment. Students, faculty, staff, student affairs professionals, alumni, and parents all contributed to the conversation. Senior administrative members also participated in the final thematic selection. Visitors to the MC website can see another video in which JMU President Jonathan R. Alger enthusiastically endorses the “Ethical Reasoning in Action” QEP because the concept applies “in all the different areas of life across the university.”

Key Components

The 8KQs are integrated throughout the curricular and co-curricular student experience at JMU. During orientation, all 4,300 new students participate in an event called “It’s Complicated” in which they are divided into groups and work through a hypothetical ethical scenario using the 8KQ framework, supported by discussion facilitators. In the residence halls, the 8KQ serve as lenses for discussing issues like alcohol use and sexual assault (Sternberger, 2013). A nine-week online experience called “Madison Collaborative Interactive” is currently being piloted as a follow-up to “It’s Complicated” (W. Hawk, personal communication, April 1, 2015). The MC blogalso posts additional content related to ethical decision making. Finally, faculty incorporate the 8KQs in a range of coursework including both general education classes and classes for majors and minors.

Participants_2-768x513.jpgWorkshops have been an integral aspect of creating such a far-reaching initiative. A three-hour core module serves as the foundational training regarding how to apply the 8KQ (Sternberger, 2013). This engaging, challenging, thought-provoking workshop prepares faculty, staff, and administrators for additional developmental workshops that then focus on pedagogical or programmatic strategies for implementation. MC Chair Dr. William Hawk offers a diverse list of examples of where the 8KQs have enthusiastically been embraced across the institution: student affairs programming, judicial affairs, the Health Center, and academic affairs.

Assessment is another key component to the success of these efforts. The student learning outcomes described above allow the MC to measure the effectiveness of their efforts with a pre-test for first-year students during their first week and a post-test for second-year students at the institution’s assessment day in February (W. Hawk, personal communication, March 25, 2015). In addition to measures of 8KQ identification and affective measures related to ethical reasoning, students write a narrative essay about an ethical decision they have made or heard about and apply the 8KQ framework. Trained faculty then use a rubric to assess students’ proficiency using the 8KQs.

With such wide-ranging efforts, the importance of resources cannot be underestimated. Funding is an expectation as part of the QEP process; the MC is funded with an independent budget line through both academic and student affairs (W. Hawk, personal communication, March 25, 2015). This support funds personnel, workshop development, training opportunities, a speaker series, and research and program innovation grants, among other offerings. The MC is currently in year two of the five-year plan.


8KQ_Graphic-2.jpgThe Eight Key Questions and the efforts of the Madison Collaborative have met an overwhelmingly positive reception at James Madison University (W. Hawk, personal communication, March 25, 2015). Students appreciate having a framework for approaching ethical dilemmas. Faculty and staff also express gratitude for the opportunities the 8KQs have sparked in their work.

What is innovative about this program? The origin of the MC demonstrates how an aspirational, ambitious approach to an accreditation process can make immense strides in shaping the student experience. The initiative’s alignment with the mission, vision, values of the institution also set the MC up for success. The versatility and accessibility of the framework are also key components. Finally, the integration into both student affairs and coursework extends the impact of the MC’s efforts.

The practices described here clearly relate to the focus of the Character Clearinghouse: the moral development of college students. Question number four directly addresses character development by asking students, “What action best reflects who I am and the person I want to become?” Furthermore, the first question, regarding fairness, relates to this year’s theme of the Character Clearinghouse, “Widening Inequalities: Educating College Students to be Fair and Equitable in the World They will Lead.” The work of the MC demonstrates important and compelling efforts toward preparing future leaders for the ethical decision-making that they will undoubtedly encounter in a range of contexts throughout their lives.