Changes in the culture of higher education have led many institutions to use their mission statements as guides for day-to-day university activities. The growing centrality of university mission statements puts ever more attention and importance on the mission statements and their maintenance. Fort Hays State University (FHSU) undertook a mission redesign in the 2011-2012 academic year and developed a process for reviewing and proposing new university missions.
The mission review process developed at FHSU focuses on stakeholder input, comprehensive analysis of input, and inclusion of all stakeholder communities. For any institution seeking to revise and update its institutional mission statement, this process can serve as a baseline framework for the information search, feedback solicitation, mission draft development, and presentation.
A thorough review of recently published literature on mission statements in higher education yielded approximately 10 articles that provide the corpus for the following literature review.
Based on their research, Morphew and Hartley (2006) reasoned that a university mission statement “helps organizational members distinguish between activities that conform to institutional imperatives and those that do not” (p. 457). They further identified that a university mission conveys “a shared sense of purpose [and] has the capacity to inspire and motivate those within an institution and to communicate its characteristics and history to key external constituencies” (p. 457).
Meacham (2008) rationalizes a third benefit: “An effective mission statement ensures stability and continuity across changes in administration” (p. 21). Morphew and Hartley further concluded that mission statements have irreplaceable normative value—mission statements are necessary because every institution has one (p. 458). Masterson (2008) and Morphew and Hartley (2006) converge on the importance of the mission to accurately symbolize the value of the institution to external constituents, including state regents and state legislators.
Conceptualizing the university mission statement is more common than rationalizing its existence. Several authors offer reasonable descriptors that accurately characterize various elements of the university mission statement phenomenon and include:
- “The mission statement will represent a campus-wide consensus on values and aspirations, expectations for student learning, and academic priorities for many years ahead” (Meacham, 2008, p. 24).
- A mission statement is “an invisible hand that guides a college or university’s diverse personnel to work independently and yet collectively toward the realization of the organization’s goals” (Kotler & Murphy, 1981, p. 479).
- “The sustainable mission for our time must be a spark plug for new ideas as well as a steady beacon” (Gow, 2009, p. 27). “As a marketing tool, the mission statement must be fresh, crisp, punchy—polarizing but oxymoronically non-threatening: the three-word mantra as cute bumper sticker. As an expression of core beliefs, the mission statement must be clear, comprehensive, and courageous—a set of pillars that support the workings of the school down to the smallest detail. And as a justification for the school’s existence, it must be stirringly idealistic” (Gow, 2009, p. 28).
- Mission statements should reflect an organization’s purpose and the means for accomplishing that purpose (Green, Medlin, & Linn, 2005).
Gow (2009) imparts an important reminder for institutions seeking to precisely craft a mission: “Words do not and cannot define an institution. Jake Giessman notes that there is a gestalt understanding about the unique character of the school. And gestalt defies articulation. Mission statements aggregate truisms; the more finely crafted the words, then the more they may lose precise meaning” (p. 30).
Open feedback process model
Accomplishing a revision of core “founding” documents requires an inclusive process and attention to high-quality outcomes. One of the core issues is the necessity for the institution to identify its key stakeholder groups from which it will solicit input. At FHSU we focused on faculty, staff, students, the local community, and alumni. Large employers, industries with which the institution is connected, or other specific constituencies may be identified by other institutions adapting this model.
Phase one—formation and authorization—identified the stakeholder groups that would serve as the focus group for data collection as well as forming and charging the mission review task force. The most important stakeholder groups—alumni, faculty, staff, and students—were specifically surveyed in later stages of the process. The task force included the past two and current presidents of the faculty senate, the president of the Student Government Association, the registrar, the university counsel, the athletic director, the director of university relations, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the director of the Virtual College. The assistant provost for quality management served as chair.
Phase two—the research portion of the process—included collecting literature and comparing peer institution mission statements with the existing FHSU mission. The task force found spare relevant academic or best practices literature on university mission statements. A number of pieces exist on business missions, but they required adaptation to the unique collegiate environment.
During phase three—open comment—the task force solicited comments from stakeholders using a variety of media, including Facebook, Twitter, and the university Web page. Using the best practices and open comment, the task force adapted Green, Medlin, and Linn’s (2005) survey into an instrument that was distributed to all four stakeholder groups at the beginning of the fall 2011 term.
The survey included the existing mission statement and 20 questions that asked respondents which unique characteristics of the university should be reflected in a mission statement.
More than 1,500 respondents completed the survey, more than half of whom were alumni. Respondents indicated that the existing mission was too old and out of alignment with the significant presence of FHSU’s Virtual College. A push to include FHSU’s global presence and an excitement for the use of technology emerged through the survey.
Phase four—focus group comments—provided the opportunity for the task force to convene several groups to solicit further comment from faculty, staff, and students. This phase involved developing and administering the focus group instrument.
Phase five—data analysis—centered on analyzing the data from the open comment phase, survey, and focus groups. All open- and closed-ended responses were analyzed. Open-ended comments were categorized via factor analysis to determine trends that may be separate from the closed-ended responses.
In phase six—draft statements—the task force used aggregated data from the previous phase to draft initial mission statement proposals. After testing the draft on a high-level university institutional effectiveness body, the task force developed supporting documents to explain specific wording choices. The task force wanted to have the support of the faculty and staff senates as well as student government, and all three bodies endorsed the revised mission statement as did the executive leadership of the university.
After presenting the draft and justification document to stakeholders, the task force moved to the seventh and final phase, approval. The approval phase was largely a board of regents process once the proposed mission was accepted by administrative leadership. This phase culminated within two months of the acceptance by executive administration. The entire process took just over one academic year.
Based on this process, we recommend the following important practices:
- Seek stakeholder input. Business institutions may find it useful to draft a mission statement internally at the highest organizational levels, but universities have a unique stakeholder environment and the regular reliance on open comment was vital to crafting a quality document. The stakeholder feedback at earlier phases also helped create more buy-in from various stakeholder groups as the draft was considered.
- Seek specialized constituency input on drafts. Once the drafts were completed, the mission review task force organized specific open comment forums for constituency groups: one for on-campus and one for beyond-campus community members. At each forum, the task force presented the report produced from survey responses that categorized responses into key areas. The draft mission statement was not presented at the forums to preclude public micro-wordsmithing from occurring; instead, the criteria that emerged from the survey were presented.
- Identify entities whose support is needed. The state board of regents would ask if any on-campus groups had concerns about the proposed mission statement for the university and if any lack of support would be seen as a weakness in the proposed statement. Therefore two key constituency groups were identified on campus: the faculty and staff senates. Each advisory body has the authority to issue resolutions supporting or opposing activities on campus and proposals issued by the administration. The task force presented the draft mission statement to the faculty senate and prepared by adding an explanation document to the draft. The faculty senate met in special session to consider the draft and after deliberation offered a resolution of support of the proposed mission. The staff senate also sent a resolution of support in favor of the draft. The mission review task force identified allies in both senates, worked with leadership, and provided documents and testimony while securing that support. Other stakeholder groups (alumni, community) were involved in various stages of the process and were considered secondary stakeholder groups.
Gow, P. (2009). Missions, mantras, and meaning. Independent School, 69
Green, K. W., Medlin, B., & Linn, G. (2005). University and school mission statement revision: A structured process. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 9
Kotler, P. & Murphy, P. E. (1981). Strategic planning for higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 52
Masterson, K. (2008). Narrow your focus to broaden your reach. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54
Meacham, J. (2008). What’s the use of a mission statement? Academe, 94
Morphew, C. C. & Hartley, M. (2006). Mission statements: A thematic analysis of rhetoric across institutional type. Journal of Higher Education, 77
C. B. Crawford is the assistant provost and Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science both of Fort Hays State University. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org