Institutional Guardianship

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Leaders in nonprofit organizations, such as colleges and universities, are often tasked with ethical burdens. Yet, little is known about what these issues are and how academic leaders approach the ethical dimensions of their work. Through a pilot study involving in-depth interviews with thirteen deans at private, nonprofit liberal arts colleges in the US, this article documents a “guardianship framework” as a method by which higher education leaders serve the “best interests of the institution.” The article argues that this guardianship framework serves as a prism through which organizational life is experienced, and impacts how ethical decisions are identified and resolved. Previous research on ethical decision-making in organizations has focused primarily on business rather than on mission-based organizations. The surprisingly strong effect of a “guardianship framework” to decision-making adds to our understanding of how those who work in nonprofit, mission-based organizations, such as colleges and universities, employ a notion of ethics to their work.