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Wicked Elephants in the Classroom

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tosha Cantrell-Bruce
August 19, 2022

Have you ever had an elephant in your classroom? I have. In this essay, I will discuss how helpful an elephant is in ethically identifying and solving public problems. I will share an integrated approach to applying ethical critical thinking. The article will conclude with suggested steps for other professors to consider.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the concepts of administrative evil and wicked problems. Recently I read a book by Sue Hammond and Andrea Mayfield published in 2004 titled The thin book of naming elephants. These experiences helped me form an integrated approach to introducing ethical concepts in my public, nonprofit and public policy courses.

Administrative Evil

Three factors about administrative evil stand out from the course I took with Dr. Guy Adams. First, administrative evil can exist along a subjective, not moral, continuum from taking long lunches because you worked hard that morning, to prioritizing access to public services for certain clients. Second, each deviation from established norms changes future norms. Third, most public servants believe they are working to support a cause and serve the public.

Wicked Problems

Wicked problems can be challenging for students to grasp because they are difficult to define and solve. This requires a professor to find ways to help students understand the influence ethics have in the public and nonprofit sectors.

Identifying wicked problems requires unmasking administrative evil and naming the elephant—the root problem—in the room. For example, would using a loophole to circumvent a revolving door policy to rehire a retiree be an administrative evil? What is the root problem of this example? What solutions could ethically address this problem?

When discussing ethics with my students, my goal is to explore how administrative evil, wicked problems and naming the elephant in the room can inform decision-making.

A Framework That Works

In my courses, we have found using the Cynefin Framework useful in categorizing amorphous problems. This framework, introduced by David Snowden in 1999 and discussed further with Mary Boone in a 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, acknowledges that problems are unique and deserve different decision-making processes. The categories of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic problems require my students to name the elephant in the room, see where the problem fits within the framework and provides them with enough information to stimulate individual analysis and solutions.

By using this combined approach, I incorporate problem identification and decision-making without detracting from other learning outcomes.

Incorporating An Integrated Ethical Approach

There are numerous ways my colleagues could use this approach, and I encourage further discussion to improve how we prepare our students.

How might we embed ethical pieces into our courses without overwhelming our students and overloading our syllabi? For the sake of this article, I humbly suggest the following:

  1. Consider reframing learning outcomes from critical thinking to ethical critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a popular learning outcome across disciplines. Critical thinking becomes ethical critical thinking by incorporating examples and processes used to identify ethical dilemmas and their solutions.

  1. Use the elephant-in-the-room approach.

Invite the elephant into the room to help students discuss wicked problems and unmask administrative evil. Scaffold activities to allow students practice applying this integrated approach. Support deeper exploration of the ‘elephant in the room’ that students may be hesitant to identify. This allows students to gain experience and confidence in naming problems and identifying solutions.

  1. Connect problem identification and decision-making to administrative evil.

Day-to-day public servants rarely commit administrative evil with intent. Despite their intent, the damage to our public constituency still occurs. Another way to process this relationship with students is to brainstorm wicked problems, debate the typology of the problem and the consequences of recommended solutions. These conversations further expand on ethical critical thinking.

  1. Explore types of power and how they can influence administrative evil.

Society is ripe with examples where types of power have impacted decision-making such as a malfunctioning O-ring, public health crisis and controlling access to services. Help students work through how power influences these situations. The inclusion of power provides an opportunity to discuss surplus populations, the populations overlooked or negatively impacted by public administration decisions.

  1. Discuss the undiscussable.

Identifying problems, solutions and the power involved in administrative decisions often requires discussing the undiscussable. These are the problems and decisions only whispered about in hallways or posted anonymously on social media. Preparing students to discuss these issues equips them for work in public service.

Being Prepared

The process and steps shared in this article highlight the existence of administrative evil, wicked problems and naming elephants. These steps help students explore their perspectives on public issues and practice problem-solving that enhances their abilities to be more adaptive to the elephants found in the public and nonprofit sectors.


Author: Dr. Tosha Cantrell-Bruce has taught public and nonprofit administration for 13 years. She currently builds courses and teaches online for several universities each semester. She is a member of ASPA and the Section of Public Administration Education (SPAE). Learn more and connect with Tosha Cantrell-Bruce at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-tos

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