A Mission Statement

A few months ago, I led a week-long orientation on campus for new faculty. We had over a dozen new tenure-track faculty join our institution and, as the director of the teaching and learning center on our campus, I helped to acclimate them to the university and to get them prepared for the coming school year. Early in the week’s activities, I shared with the new faculty the structural aspects of the university. This presentation included an introduction to the different administrative offices across campus and their respective roles. Embedded in the presentation was an overview of our institution’s mission statement and how it factored into their work as faculty.

I have to say that probably like most institutions, our university’s mission statement is unremarkable. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of the details but it involves some educational jargon about promoting life-long learners who can contribute to a global society. I’m not knocking it or anything. The statement definitely includes values and aspirations that should be cherished. It’s just that as a mission statement it’s a little like eating a meringue cookie; it’s tasty without being all that satisfying or filling.

Having participated in “mission statement” writing at another institution, I know how these statements are written. Since they’re intended to be aspirational and encompassing, they have to be written broadly enough that every constituency and campus community can see their needs and values reflected in it. It’s a challenging process that prompts lots of debate and wordsmithing. The meanings of words are discussed and different nouns and verbs are examined and vetted. It’s a challenging process, especially when you involve lots of civic-minded academics. Some may have different agendas or focus areas. Many come from different backgrounds. And they’re all charged with developing a statement that will define the aims and values of the institution. Crafting a mission statement is definitely hard work. And the end result doesn’t always reflect the hard work. But sometimes it does.

Last August, I attended a panel discussion with academic leaders from a bunch of different colleges and universities. The panel met to discuss the future of higher education and the role that online education would play. Midway through the discussion, one of the presenters, Julie Greenwood, recited her institution’s mission statement verbatim, and then explained how embracing the mission has fundamentally changed their school. Greenwood is the Vice Dean for Educational Initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU) and oversees online programming across all ASU campuses. It’s funny because as she recited her school’s mission statement, I found myself totally buying in, too. It was easy to understand and get behind.

Here’s what ASU’s mission statement says:

“ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.”

As an educator, I find a lot here that resonates with me, but I’m especially drawn to how inclusive it is. If we’re going to be defined by something, let’s be defined by the students we include and the processes and supports that we create to help them be successful. That’s a mission statement that I can get behind.

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