Effective University Mission Statements

Emily Weber

Emily Weber

So far, the SVP team has done a pretty good job figuring out what doesn’t work for university mission and values statements. We’ve identified buzzwords that are so overused that they don’t mean anything, like when you say a word 50 times and eventually it doesn’t sound like a real word. You know what I mean: “global awareness” and “interdisciplinary learning” and “creation and dissemination of knowledge.” It’s not that these words are too vague; they’re too universal. Aren’t these things kind of the point of a university?

As a group, we looked at the 13 other universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, and only one or two stood out in their innovative approaches to the mission and values statements. So today I went on a hunt for keywords, phrases and organizational tools that do work. Here’s what I found.

Innovative Mission/Values Statements at the Word Level

At first I started looking for absolutely anything out of the ordinary. Something different from all the buzzwords about critical thinking and citizenship. I found, mixed in with the traditional phrases, a few interesting ideas:

University of Miami attests that it is “absolutely committed to freedom of inquiry—the freedom to think, to question, to criticize, and to dissent.” I like that a lot, but it was the only phrase that stood out to me as having real meaning. I wonder if this sentiment is something my university community would want to identify with.

Utah State University also did a great job addressing one of my buzzword pet peeves: diversity. The mission statement says it will “cultivat[e] diversity of thought and culture…” This is so important because diversity does not mean filling classrooms with students of different races or making sure there are equal opportunities for men and women. Diversity should be more about achieving differences of thought and background, which is admittedly harder to track than racial diversity but so much more worthwhile.

I turned to mission statements as a whole and was largely disappointed. I skimmed at least 75 mission statements of various lengths, and the only one that stood out to me as an example of a university that actually lives up to its mission was one of IUP’s Pittsburgh neighbors, Carnegie Mellon University:

Carnegie Mellon will meet the changing needs of society by building on its traditions of innovation, problem solving, and interdisciplinarity.

Okay, it still has that interdisciplinary thing, but these other terms, especially “innovation” and “problem solving” are unique. I didn’t see any other university state so prominently that it equips its students to solve the real problems of the world. And when I think of CMU and its legacy in the region and the world, I really do think of capable problem-solvers. This is short and sweet, but it’s truer than most mission statements twice its length.

The other university mission that appealed to me is American University in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t find a page for its mission, values, vision, etc. but its history page could serve as a stand-in for this. The page begins with this statement:

“A global outlook, practical idealism, a passion for public service: They’re part of American University today, and they were in the air in 1893, when AU was chartered by Congress.”

There’s a lengthy university history, but it concludes with this statement about the university’s present-day commitment to its past:

 “AU’s academic strengths are grounded in its core values of social responsibility and a commitment to cultural and intellectual diversity…it’s a vision for the twenty-first century, but it’s grounded in ideals that go back to John Fletcher Hurst and the dream of a university that makes a difference in the lives of its students, its community, and the world.”

I like this idea of connecting the university’s extensive history with its current values. A university should be connected to its roots, and values don’t change so extensively in a few hundred years that it doesn’t make sense to look to the past. This page elegantly went from the present to the past and brought it back to the present and the future. I hope we can create something like this as a result of IUP’s Strategic Visioning Project.

Other Approaches to the Mission and Values Statements

Rather than sticking with just the words of the missions and values, I also looked at how universities categorize/organize their mission statements and how they integrate their mission/values into university life itself. Some explicitly state this and clarify the role of their values in everyday university operations (Duquesne University and Marquette University have offices dedicated to promoting and realizing the mission and visions), and some hint at it by where they put the page on the website and how prominently it’s featured.

Some examples:

  • University of Utah has a general mission statement but then breaks down into a teaching institution, a research university and a contributor to public life. It has mission statements and descriptions of its commitment to each of these areas, and it also effectively uses the page and images to communicate these ideas. This is an approach that could work for IUP, since we wear multiple hats, too.
  • Duquesne’s Office of Mission and Identity site breaks its mission, university goals, religious tradition and resources into four separate pages. The university goals page is then broken into five separate categories, each with its own page. This is much cleaner than a long page of information.
  • Marshall University states a mission for itself but also for its faculty, staff, administrators and students. It gives each of these groups its own bullet list of 3-6 actions and attitudes to strive for. I like this approach because an entity as large as a university has so many people with vastly different goals and roles, and a general university mission and values statement might not address this.

– Emily Weber


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