Every college and university has a mission statement. Just do a quick search — you’ll easily get thousands of results from universities across the world. But what exactly is a mission statement? Why do universities create them? And what is their intended use? Let’s start from the top.
Everybody needs purpose
The United States has the Preamble to the Constitution, the New York Yankees have Yogiisms, and universities have mission statements. Their overarching purpose is simple: to describe the core beliefs of the university and define the metrics by which outsiders can judge the “success” of the institution. Most universities aren’t out to make a profit, and private universities in particular need to justify their existence (unlike public universities, which by definition are meant to serve the public). Regardless of public or private status, however, the mission statement offers the world a means of identifying the purpose of the university: does it seek to inform tomorrow’s leaders? To advance the state-of-the-art across all disciplines?
To boldly go where no man has gone before? These are the questions that a mission statement seeks to answer.
Making a Statement
Let’s look at two examples from universities near and dear to my heart: Bucknell University (my undergraduate alma mater, though don’t ask me to sing the song) and Syracuse University (my hometown, though don’t ask me if I’ve ever been to a foot- or basketball game).
Example #1: Bucknell University
Bucknell is a private liberal arts university nestled along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, USA. Established in 1846, it’s a small school — about 3,600 students, all undergraduate. Their mission statement is as follows:
Bucknell is a unique national university where liberal arts and professional programs complement each other. Bucknell educates students for a lifetime of critical thinking and strong leadership characterized by continued intellectual exploration, creativity, and imagination. A Bucknell education enables students to interact daily with faculty who exemplify a passion for learning and a dedication to teaching and scholarship. Bucknell fosters a residential, co-curricular environment in which students develop intellectual maturity, personal conviction and strength of character, informed by a deep understanding of different cultures and diverse perspectives. Bucknell seeks to educate our students to serve the common good and to promote justice in ways sensitive to the moral and ethical dimensions of life.
Bucknell’s rich history and heritage will influence its planning for the future. Bucknell’s potential as an institution of higher learning extends beyond that of a traditional liberal arts college by virtue of its larger size and expansive programs. The University’s broader spectrum of disciplines and courses of study within a diverse and active residential campus community enhance the quality of all aspects of the undergraduate experience, both in and out of the classroom.Reprinted from Bucknell University
Example #2: Syracuse University
Syracuse is a private research university located in the heart of Upstate New York (in Syracuse, NY, USA). The university was established in 1870, and today consists of around 20,000 students (divided into 15,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduates students). Their mission statement (okay, so it’s technically their mission and vision statements, but let’s not split hairs) is:
Syracuse University aspires to be a pre-eminent and inclusive student-focused research university, preparing engaged citizens, scholars, and leaders for participation in a changing global society.
MissionReprinted from Syracuse University
As a university with the capacity to attract and engage the best scholars from around the world, yet small enough to support a personalized and academically rigorous student experience, Syracuse University faculty and staff support student success by:
- Encouraging global study, experiential learning, interdisciplinary scholarship, creativity, and entrepreneurial endeavors
- Balancing professional studies with an intensive liberal arts education
- Fostering a richly diverse and inclusive community of learning and opportunity
- Promoting a culture of innovation and discovery
- Supporting faculty, staff, and student collaboration in creative activity and research that address emerging opportunities and societal needs
- Maintaining pride in our location and history as a place of access, engagement, innovation, and impact
Now that I’ve proven I can use a search engine and copy-and-paste text, let’s dive in and explore what these blocks of text really mean and why it matters.
Because I’m a computer engineer by trade and feel the need to reinforce stereotypes, let’s start with some simple quantitative analysis.
DIY Text Analysis (or, “How not to analyze text 101”)
All of the following analysis was performed using a simple Python 3 script (found here). I don’t claim any innovations in text mining, natural language processing, or algorithmic design — just some simple statistics to see what, if anything, they tell us. Let’s start by just simply looking at the length of both mission statements:
- Bucknell University: 186 words
- Syracuse University: 135 words
Okay, so nothing major to see here. Both of these are a bit wordy perhaps — one analysis showed an average length of 33 words per mission statement, though it’s not clear what that length includes — but in fairness, it’s hard to sum up the guiding principles of any non-trivial institution.
Let’s change tack. Ignoring the 100 most common words in the English language, the words that these two mission statements share are:
Now we’re getting somewhere. We can see a couple of common trends: references to education, specifically within the liberal arts context; the notions of diversity and community; and talk of both creativity and professionalism. How about the top 5 most frequent words in each mission statement?
We start to see a clear divergence here between the two universities. Bucknell’s mission statement (aside from a slight case of narcissism) appears to contain more references to the student and learning. Syracuse, conversely, has a comparatively higher number of references to research, innovation, and scholarship in their statement.
Spirit of the Institution
All of this analysis is truly well and good, but it tells us nothing in the end about the actual mission statements themselves. For that, there’s no substitute for reading the words on the page.
Let’s start with Bucknell’s statement and break it down, sentence by sentence. Nothing pops out at first: Bucknell is a unique national university where liberal arts and professional programs complement each other. Alright, sure, but every university claims to be unique. Next: Bucknell educates students for a lifetime of critical thinking and strong leadership — both important skills — characterized by continued intellectual exploration, creativity, and imagination. Without reading too far into this, the first thought that comes to my mind is the emphasis on the individual here. Critical thinking, leadership, intellectual exploration, creativity, imagination — these skills require personal strength, conviction, and passion. They may affect others, but by-and-large they’re developed on a case-by-case basis and may take different forms for each student.
Let’s continue: A Bucknell education enables students to interact daily with faculty — an emphasis on personal connection — who exemplify a passion for learning and a dedication to teaching and scholarship. Bucknell fosters a residential, co-curricular environment — external activities matter here it seems — in which students develop intellectual maturity, personal conviction and strength of character, informed by a deep understanding of different cultures and diverse perspectives. This reinforces my earlier point — Bucknell’s mission statement seems to place a strong emphasis on the individual and individual accomplishment. This isn’t necessarily troublesome, but (I can testify that) it certainly impacts and shapes the university’s approach to undergraduate education.
The first paragraph of Bucknell’s mission statement finishes: Bucknell seeks to educate our students to serve the common good and to promote justice in ways sensitive to the moral and ethical dimensions of life. For the first time, we see mention of society and how Bucknell’s students are encouraged to act within society. Still, this comes after several lines — a significant portion of the mission statement — focused so heavily on the individual; it almost feels like an afterthought.
The second half of Bucknell’s mission statement doesn’t seem quite as inspired as the first, instead describing the view for the university. Let’s instead jump to Syracuse’s mission statement and see how it compares to Bucknell’s. It actually starts with a vision statement: Syracuse University aspires to be a pre-eminent and inclusive student-focused research university, preparing engaged citizens, scholars, and leaders for participation in a changing global society.
Immediately, a broader perspective stands out. This vision statement focuses far less on individual achievement and far more on communal progress. The first line of the mission statement goes further: As a university with the capacity to attract and engage the best scholars from around the world — no talk of individuals here, but rather a focus on maintaining a global presence — yet small enough to support a personalized and academically rigorous student experience — the first real mention of students’ education — Syracuse University faculty and staff support student success by…
The mission statement now lists a number of goals for the university. First: encouraging global study, experiential learning, interdisciplinary scholarship, creativity, and entrepreneurial endeavors. All of these activities — with the exception perhaps of creativity, mentioned in Bucknell’s mission statement as well — require group participation and support. Syracuse appears to place a much stronger emphasis on collaboration and community education than Bucknell — perhaps a reflection on its significantly larger size.
Next: balancing professional studies with an intensive liberal arts education. Not much different than Bucknell here, suggesting a common liberal arts underpinning. Fostering a richly diverse and inclusive community of learning and opportunity. Again, a focus on learning as a community, not just as an individual. Promoting a culture of innovation and discovery — research and scholarship appear to be much more important at Syracuse than at Bucknell (which I would agree with based on my experience).
The mission statement continues: Supporting faculty, staff, and student collaboration in creative activity and research that address emerging opportunities and societal needs. This isn’t even subtle — Syracuse’s mission is dramatically more centered on collaborative efforts than Bucknell’s mission suggests. Finally: maintaining pride in our location and history as a place of access, engagement, innovation, and impact. Pride in one’s own history is a common theme at every university — it serves a powerful purpose. Specifically, it binds together the past, present, and future generations, creating a sense of community and perspective. Random individuals from all walks of life enter university together, perhaps never having met persons from outside of their socio-economic/racial/ethnic/national identities; they leave a more cohesive, well-rounded whole, made better by their shared experiences and newfound commonalities.
Why it even matters
Bucknell’s mission statement focuses heavily on personal growth and achievement; Syracuse’s mission statement emphasizes scholarship and communal discovery. In the end, that doesn’t make one better or worse than the other. Instead, it points to the many different ways in which knowledge is taught, learned, and applied. Each university, through its mission statement, makes its case to the rest of the world as to how it will impact that very same world. What matters for you, then, is how your university’s mission statement meshes with your own goals, convictions, and beliefs.
If you’re reading this and are attending (or attended) an institution of higher learning, take a second to look up your college/university’s mission statement. Read it over. How well does it agree with your experience? How well does it mesh with your own expectations and goals? How well does your experience live up to the mission enshrined within that statement? Chime in in the comments with your thoughts.
Until next time. -AJC