Higher Education Is on a Mission

True or false? Higher education changes slowly.

True or false? Changes in higher education are coming more quickly than ever before.

Both are true. And both indicate a need for campus administrators to review their mission statements on a regular basis to examine their values, their customers and their service to those customers. Simply stated, a mission statement needs to be current and appropriate for today.

"I think our mission statement is appropriate for the times," says V. Lane Rawlins, president of Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Wash., of his institution's mission statement. "We've made it very, very simple." Rawlins has been president of this public university with 22,500 students for the last four years.

"The truth is that, while there are a lot of programs, values and emphases in an institution, what we're really about is teaching and research," Rawlins continues. "We're owned by the people of the state of Washington, and they have certain expectations for our institution, which all revolve around the two central features of what we do: teaching and research. Our mission statement talks about that. I think it's a mission statement that's essentially ageless, at least as far as American higher education is concerned."

Contrast WSU's mission statement with Bryn Mawr's which, at three paragraphs long, is anything but brief. "It's a bit long, as all things are at Bryn Mawr," chuckles President Nancy J. Vickers. She also believes her institution's mission statement is appropriate for the times: "It does focus on the commitment to diversity at the college, rigorous education, high standards, deep intellectual commitment and training purposeful young women to make a contribution to the world. Those are all things I think are still very pertinent."

Keeping It Current

Bryn Mawr's mission statement is fairly fresh, having been scrutinized six years ago. "We revised it the last time we did an accreditation review," says Vickers, who has been president of this private, all-female undergraduate student body of 1,200 for the last seven years.

WSU just redid its mission statement about two years ago, along with a strategic plan. "Every 10 years or so a university ought to divide itself up into to a set of committees and ask if we're doing the right thing, if we're using our resources effectively, if we're rewarding our constituencies in the way that they expect," says Rawlins.

While administrators agree that mission statements and strategic plans need to be updated periodically, Rita Bornstein, president of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., takes it a step farther. "A strategic plan really should be done virtually every year since things change so quickly these days. It's more of a process than a product, and it shouldn't be considered something you do once a decade, like we just did." Indeed, this private, residential college with 1,700 students will likely update both its mission statement and strategic plan a little more frequently from now on.

The Same, But Different

Look at the mission statements of WSU, Bryn Mawr and Rollins are very different. Or are they?

"I think the mission statements of many schools are indistinguishable one from the other," Bornstein says bluntly.

Vickers explains: "They tend to be similar, at least at small liberal arts colleges. They tend to be quite basic and relatively simple, and they have to do with a commitment to a certain kind of education."

That said, when reviewing your mission statement, remember that there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Research the mission statements of the institutions you'd like to emulate. Borrow from them as you craft your own.

The same or different, what really matters is whether your mission statement is understood. "I think the real test is not whether what's written down is a perfect description of what the university is doing," says Rawlins, "but whether the people in the university really do understand what their priorities are. That's the test of the mission - if you have a clear vision of what you're trying to accomplish."

Coming Into Focus

One factor that may influence your mission statement is the age-old argument of liberal education vs. career and job training. Which defines your institution? More importantly, is your institution shifting from one to the other so that this change should be reflected in your mission statement?

The administrators in this article are all proponents of liberal education, and have worked hard to reflect that in their mission statements.

"I think that there are skill sets that can be effectively communicated in other kinds of environments, including technology-based ones," says Vickers. "But a small residential liberal arts college is about preparing the student to be a critical thinker, a diligent researcher, an effective communicator and arguer among peers and with professors - and that those are things that can't be readily delivered in the same way as certain skill sets."

It's no different at Rawlins' large, public institution. "What we've learned is that preparation for a job is not very good security," he says. "If you want security, you need to have broad skills, because most people are going to change their careers several times in today's world."

Vickers agrees. "I think there certainly is a portion of the higher education world that would consider the vision of liberal arts education to be old fashioned, but I consider it to be cutting edge because it's what permits young people to graduate with the confidence and sense that they can learn anything when it comes their way because they have the critical skills and communicative skills to deal with whatever befalls them."

Still, being a proponent of liberal education doesn't mean the argument goes away. "The tension between job training and broader basic training isn't new in our society," says Rawlins. "We go round and round in cycles. We're in a cycle right now where it's overemphasized. And I think that possibly the career/job training emphasis was greater in '70s and early '80s than it is now."

Bornstein echoes his sentiments: "I think parents of students believe that they want career and job training," she says. "The response to that is to educate our customers as to how the kind of education we offer prepares them for life and work."

"In some senses, it's kind of a false dichotomy," sums Vickers, "because the two are not mutually exclusive."

The Technology Revolution

Yet another factor that may influence the direction of your mission statement is technology. Higher education has experienced a strong wave of implementation of online education that appears to have leveled off. Still, it has changed the face of higher education at every institution and must be addressed.

"We've made a couple of forays in the direction of online education," says Bornstein. "It certainly is not a major thrust, and I don't think it will be. We're a very personal place - people centered - and to go too far in that direction would not be in accordance with our mission."

"We do not offer courses online for credit," says Vickers, agreeing with Bornstein. "We think that, if our mission commits us to being a residential liberal arts college, then that's what we believe in and the residential element is the closest connection between faculty and students - with faculty members treating students as young colleagues and taking them very, very seriously. Since we're so committed to that residential ideal, it has felt foolish to us to contemplate the notion of producing online education - or kind of counter to the core definition of who we are."

"That said, we certainly think of ourselves as a technologically advanced institution in terms of the education we provide," Vickers notes. "We have used technology as a way to enhance our core values, not as a way to replace them."

"The reality of the whole online business is that there are certain kinds of things you can do very well online," says Rawlins. "On the other hand, there are certain kinds of lab and classroom experiences where the interaction among the students themselves is a functional part of the learning experience.

"There are things you can do very well with online education," Rawlins concludes, "but don't think of it as a replacement for this complex, interactive process we call a university."

Perhaps it is time, after all, for you to dust off your mission statement - examine your values, your customers and your service to those customers. The good news is, there are many options from which to choose to set you apart from your competitors, as Vickers explains: "To my mind, the great beauty of American higher education is that it takes so many different forms. Unlike much education elsewhere in the developed world, it represents an extraordinary range of types of institutions and types of courses being taught to specific ends."