After reading a blog post on the purpose of and trends in universities’ mission statements, I read several mission statements from institutions I would want to work in, and I was initially disappointed. A University’s mission statement is supposed to be a “public pronouncement of their purpose, ambitions, and values” and be a defining component of the institution’s identity. However, I initially found the combination of succinctness and common themes to result in statements that are too general and too similar, giving the impression of lack of sincerity and authenticity, and leading me to question their usefulness. Here I try to analyze the differences (however subtle) and uniqueness of some of these mission statements. Equipped with some knowledge about these institutions, I look at how their unique qualities are reflected in their respective mission statements. Through this process, I also came to realize the true purpose and usefulness of these statements (hint, the key lies in its intended audience).
I focused on research universities with strong engineering programs; the kind of institution I would like to work in. Let’s start with my own alma mater, the University of Michigan. Michigan is a very large public university with programs in engineering, humanities, sciences, and arts, and has several professional schools including a medical school and a law school. Its mission statement is as follows.
The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.University of Michigan
At first glance it relies on several common tropes: serving the community, preparing students for the future, and having a global impact. The statement seems generic and could apply to almost any large research institute if one replaced the name of the university and the state.
That being said, there are two phrases in which I believe the University’s true identity shows up. Firstly, the inclusion of “academic values” in the list of things it would like to conserve and apply. This would seem like a vague and odd thing to include, and I saw nothing similar in any of the other statements I reviewed. Michigan places great value on academic integrity, for instance, the Engineering Honor Code is based on the understanding that in the near future many human lives will depend on these students work, and as such it takes the position that someone who will be trusted with such responsibility in the future should be trustworthy in the present. As part of this trust, no professor or proctor of any kind is allowed to be in the room while students take examinations. The second phrase which reflects the university’s identity is “developing leaders”. The University as a whole places great importance on students being leaders in whichever discipline or industry they end up in. The phrase is part of the most common informal motto and part of its fight song: “Leaders and Best”. Students were always reminded that they are not there simply for acquiring knowledge but have a responsibility to use this knowledge to better society.
As a contrast to Michigan, I wanted to showcase a smaller, private research institute focused on engineering. I wanted to include Rensselaer, which is a school I admire for both its commitment and dedication to teaching and its
For a fair comparison I will use the mission statement of a similar institution. Rochester Institute of Technology is also a private university focused on both teaching and research and located in upstate New York. Its mission statement is as follows.
We shape the future and improve the world through creativity and innovation. As an engaged, intellectually curious, and socially conscious community, we leverage the power of technology, the arts, and design for the greater good.Rochester Institute of Technology
This statement seems very specific, especially in contrast to Michigan’s mission statement. However, in the context of a technically focused school, it is just as generic. I do not have an intimate knowledge of this institution, as I do with Michigan, but I can say that as far as all the other mission statements from technical universities that I reviewed I very much liked this one. It hits on several aspects of engineering that I personally value. First, although engineering is mostly science-based, the best engineering design is at the intersection of science and art. Engineering design requires creativity and aesthetics, as well as an understanding of the utility of the product in the society and culture it is intended for. Second, I also believe engineers should be socially conscious, and ensure their work is for the betterment of society. So, even though this statement is quite generic, it still hints to me, in subtle ways, that the university’s culture and goals are well aligned with my own values and vision for engineering education.
My initial disappointment was grounded in my misplaced expectations due to my misunderstanding of the purpose of a mission statement. These statements are not informative for those unfamiliar with the institution. They will not give you enough information to discern the differences between institutions with a common focus. All statements I reviewed were