"Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished.  If you're alive, it isn't."  ....Richard Bach.

Commentary of the Day - June 23, 2011: Mission (Statement) Impossible.   Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Finally, the backlash against college mission statements seems to have begun: in "Saying More with Less," Kevin Kiley investigates the turn to the single-sentence mission statement (Inside Higher Ed, June 20, 2011). Is this a response to the bloat of academic documents?  Perhaps it's just one more example of the influence of Twitter.  After all, if Tweeters can take on Finnegan’s Wake, as they recently did for Bloomsday, perhaps it's possible to do the same for college mission and vision statements, which are often just as complex as -- and  far less graceful than -- James Joyce's prose.  The examples in the article are still a bit unwieldy for engraving on a ring, but they will make great billboard slogans and are already lending themselves to tee-shirts.

The concept of the mission statement isn't all wrong:  it tells the world -- simply and clearly -- what a business does/offers.  There are, however, many problems with college mission statements.  First of all, as the article notes, students don't read them.  I have anecdotal proof of this: at some point every semester, I ask the students in my classes what our mission statement is.  They can't tell me.  Now, as several administrators at my school have pointed, our students don't like to read, but in this instance I can't really blame them.  Apparently, faculty members don't like to read either.  The most interesting line in Kiley's article might be the one following the description of Michigan Technological University's boldly taking "the short path" early on: "About 10 years ago officials adopted the mission statement 'We prepare students to create the future.' . . . [President Glen D. Mroz] said that in a survey 86 percent of faculty members said they had read the whole statement."

The whole statement!  But why only 86%?  What were the other 14% doing?  Waiting for the tee shirt?  Prepping for their classes?  Clutching their heads?

Not only have most mission statements become absurdly long, but it can also be an exhausting task to keep up.  In addition to the college's central mission statement, there are the mission statements of every department, major, concentration, minor, faculty committee, student club, and administrative office.  Hundreds of professional hours go into the crafting and revising of these -- for mission statements, like music and fashion, follow trends.  Thus the last decade has seen a shift from critical thinking to leadership to the newly emerging contender social justice.  A cynical read on this proliferation might be that all this wordsmithing is a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: it allows faculty to practice faux  governance while all about them, as Kipling said, the world is falling down.

And since nearly all colleges now have competing yet mission statements, they are virtually meaningless; it is becoming impossible to distinguish one philosophical precis from the next.  Here is a simple yet convoluted exercise: take the following words and arrange them, in any combination, into a mission statement: excellence, excel, lead, leadership, fulfilling, civic, citizen, service, social, society, world, global, justice, creative, creativity, engaged, engagement, awareness, responsible, responsibility.  Since no college is going to forego the promise of excellence and say instead, "We are, in fact, a mediocre college," why not  declare a truce and put an end to the arms-race of hyperbolic mission statements?  Consider, again, the mission statement of Michigan Technological University, which chiefly serves as a reminder that short mission statements can be as meaningless as long ones: "We prepare students to create the future."  As opposed to the past?

There is nothing wrong with a brief working mission statement that actually does some work.  In the writing classes I teach, I tell students that if they find themselves struggling after a page or a paragraph, or if they find themselves veering off topic, they should follow a tip from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.  Take a new blank sheet of paper or open up a new page and write "What I really mean to say is . . ." If the mission statement defines who we are and what we offer, then we should work hard at it -- and make the promises within it a reality for students.  The problem is that, as dozens of new articles appearing daily attest, higher education  is undergoing a long-delayed identity crisis, exacerbated by the financial crisis.

What college will be the first one courageous enough to say what critically thinking students will discover in their freshman year:  "We can’t really promise that you will succeed -- after all, you are coming very badly prepared -- but perhaps you will graduate if you work really hard," or "We're caught right now between being a liberal arts college and a professional school, but if you come here, you'll find some courses among our shrinking roster that may be useful," or "We, like most of higher education, are experiencing a real twofold crisis in terms of funding and vision.  But we'll try to help you to the best of our limited powers."

My own college may be on to something.  In the brave new wilderness of college marketing, our slogan for our evening program is "Stay sane."  It just might work, if we can actually help our students -- and ourselves -- to accomplish this.  Another possibility might be Stephen Colbert's "Truthiness" -- it has a classic yet contemporary sound and pretty much sums up the current situation.  And it fits on a ring. 

2011, Carolyn Foster Segal
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Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees completely with Professor Segal.  College and university mission statements, for the most part, have grown much longer and much less meaningful with time.  There are a few exceptions.  For example, the mission statement of Harvard College in two short paragraphs speaks volumes about what Harvard undergraduates should expect, and about what is expected of them.  On the other hand, the mission and goals statement of Cal State Fullerton, where I taught for some 37 years, is about as bad as they get.  Actually, the Fullerton mission statement per se, at three short paragraphs, is not overly long.  Though it fails to inform students and prospective students as directly as it could what they might expect when they enroll, and what is expected of them.  The problems with the statement are contained in the laundry list of eight goals and 48 strategies that follow.  It's highly unlikely that anyone on campus except those involved in the drafting of this monstrosity has ever bothered to read the whole thing.


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