In their own voice: a narrative account of students' perceptions of the fairness of decisions made in a university setting



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Justice is often perceived by its opposite, injustice. It may be difficult to identify when one has been treated fairly, but injustice is more apparent — more visceral. It may cause feelings of anger, disappointment or disbelief. Coming to an understanding of how these judgments are made is therefore made more complicated, and illustrates the need to understand the bases of these judgments. In the arena of higher education, the making of fair decisions serves many functions. From a practical standpoint, decision makers want to make decisions that will receive positive responses from the campus community, meet their own ethical standards, and that can serve as a model of ethical decision making to the people whom the decision affects. This study used qualitative methodology to collect and interpret those elements that college students identify as shaping their perceptions of fairness. Specifically, the present study used unstructured interviews to collect stories in the tradition of narrative inquiry. These stories were analyzed using grounded theory. The findings suggest that students know very little about processes and, perhaps as a consequence, are very mindful of outcomes. They have high expectations of the objectivity and fairness of processes, but also expect that decision-making processes that are truly fair will lead to the outcomes they desire. This study is one of the relative few to assess college students’ perceptions of the factors in the process, outcomes and interactions that are most salient in students’ determinations of whether or not a decision is fair. Further, it sought to explain how students’ perceptions of procedures, outcomes, interactions and punishments guide them in making determinations about the fairness of each. In total, this study represents one of the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary investigations of perceptions of fairness to date, and does so in a unique arena that has far reaching implication for society as a whole.