How Now, Mission Statement?

What makes for institutional effectiveness?  If looking at a business organization, an array of well-recognized and well understood measures can answer the question.  Profitability, market share, growth, earnings per share – the list is exhaustive and recognized. The measures themselves are also constantly being tested, evaluated and critiqued, for the market provides multiple incentives to various stakeholders to wrestle with these questions to find new and better ways of defining and describing success.

But what about the effectiveness of an institution of higher education? Do we know it by its reputation? Graduation rate? Retention rate? Productivity of faculty? Or its assets? The bald truth is that we do not have good answers to the question. Rankings, such as US News or Petersons, offer particular perspectives and have been a much touted answers to the question of effectiveness. Rankings have captured the imagination of many a prospective student or parent. Ranking methodologies, though, are far from ideal and their impact is often admissions directed. Rankings tend to confirm judgments, not make them.

We tend to believe that we know quality research institutions. The elite research universities have the same purpose: they create knowledge and they tend to look similar. Invariably universities with ample endowments and a complex organizational structure consisting of multiple schools, each with its own mission statement, research universities occupy a special place in higher education. Their aims and characteristics are familiar across institutions. When it comes to research and the creation of knowledge, the pressures to define quality are isomorphic.

But most of higher education does not take place in research universities. Rather, most students, staff and faculty experience higher education at other kinds of educational institutions. The majority of students learn and are credentialed at institution of higher education that promote teaching and learning. This is the broad middle and foundation of academia in higher education. Implicit in these institutions’ missions and purposes is the prioritization of student learning and success.

Viewed from above, the different kinds of institutions – research and teaching – supposedly provide a broader array of kinds of educational experiences to meet the varying needs of different populations of students. Not everyone needs, wants or should attend a research institution; there are other, more effective ways, to educate people.

Varying missions mean varying kinds of reputations and measures of quality.

One might imagine that these differences would be captured in institutional mission statements. Higher education’s accreditation processes rest on this foundation. The six regional accrediting agencies each have processes that define institutional effectiveness in concert with the particular mission of an institution. It should be an elegant way to address the challenges of academic complexity while still preserving peer review.

The problem is that mission statements are notoriously unreliable when it comes to driving institutional priorities. More often than not platitudinous statements laboriously crafted by committees who have surveyed stakeholders and carefully adjudicated syntax, mission statements are usually the byproduct of culture, circumstance and presidential priority. Culture, in fact, is much more important in understanding academic and institutional priorities. Culture, though, is even more difficult than mission to pin down. Jerry MaGuire may have thought his memo was a mission statement, but it was really just a memo.

I wonder if mission statements are anywhere as useful or important as regional accrediting agencies suppose. They are needed, to be sure, as evidence of institutional awareness and attention to culture and priorities. But as measures or criteria of much more than that? Mission statements in higher education are usually lagging indicators of processed values, the reification into language of what is believed – not, necessarily, what should or could be.

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