Mission Statements – Too generic to reflect their institution’s uniqueness?

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 world class research. It is the “oldest technical university in the English speaking world” and was founded to instruct students “in the application of science to the common purpose of life. Its motto is “Why not change the world”. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a mission statement. The closest was the President’s Vision & Priorities letter. I enjoyed this letter and agree intensely with its sentiment. One of the main themes is preparing students to solve complex and interconnected global issues.

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 general within the context of the university’s focus, and the subtleties through which the university’s uniqueness came through required prior intimate knowledge of the institution. However I now understand these mission statements to be not informative literature for those unfamiliar, but guiding principles for those working within the university and shaping its future. In this context, it makes sense for it to be general, and those subtleties I mentioned would come loud and clear to those within the institution.

18 thoughts on “Mission Statements – Too generic to reflect their institution’s uniqueness?”

  1. Thank you for this post and sharing your perspectives regarding mission statements. I have to admit that a similar situation happened to me. I thought that mission statements were more specific. However, as you pointed out the goal is to provide information about the principles, believes and policies in a very concise manner.
    In the other hand, I believe that including “creativity” in the statements reflects an institution that encourages critical thinking and innovation, which for me is essential to improve education.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and for reading the blog… I realized I made it too long after reading other people’s blogs. Maybe part of our expectation for it to be more specific is cultural… The article we were supposed to read did mention that Latin American universities’ mission statements are much longer.

  2. I really enjoyed your post. It actually makes me want to back and dive deeper to each of my mission statements. I also agreed, initially, that mission statements were too generic, unauthentic, and vague. While, I still think some of them are, I found that I connected more with the smaller private, more focused schools. They tended to be more about the students and their education. However, those private institutions are also the most expensive. I still think public university mission statements tend to be bit more broad, but as you mentioned, being better informed about the uniqueness of each school can help uncover the authenticity of each universities mission statement. Thank you for your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree, I liked the statements from smaller schools better. But those schools are highly focused. For bigger schools that have many disciplines (humanities, sciences, engineering, medical, law, business, …) I can see why they have to keep it vague if they want it to still be very short.

  3. When I read several mission statements, I also feel the same: these statements are too general and use many similar words. Your insight is very interesting. We need to know the institutions before understanding their mission statements. For external people, such as job seekers, reading mission statements may not be very helpful as they expected. Good to know that.

    1. Yeah, that is my best guess for why they are so generic. But other people in the comments and in class brought up other interesting possibilities. Specially about who the intended audience is. I fell like if we knew who the real intended audience is we could explain them better.

  4. You are right on track about the intended audience being one of the most important elements in the crafting of a mission statement. It seems the tropes, buzzwords, and platititudes are spoken by board members acting as authors as a means for marketing the University to their stakeholders. There is a conservatism in the statements that suggests not wanting to go outside of traditionally accepted values and ideas so as to not scare off any underwriters or prospective students and their families. I think this is why the statements can seem so generic even when the institutions are so unique to one another. That being said I do appreciate the reference to art in both the mission statements you shared. The two institutions I chose (VT and Cornell) did not emphasize the value of creative arts at all. It is encouraging that even great technical engineering schools are starting to recognize how important a well-balanced education is and starting to promote the convergence of right and left brain intelligence in there bureaucratic DNA.

    1. I hadn’t thought about it that way but it is also a very logical possibility. If the intended audience are people outside the system who need to be attracted in (e.g. donors) then wanting to conform to their expectations could explain why the statements are so generic.

  5. That’s a really well thought out blog post. I am surprised to learn the different strategies adopted by these universities to fulfill their mission statements. What really stood out to me is the strategy of proctors not staying in the classroom to help the students realize the trust placed in them and their work. Do you think this strategy really works, based on your personal experience at UMich?

    1. There definitely is cheating, like there is everywhere, but as far as I know (and everyone else I have asked from UMich Engineering) it never happened during exams. There is a certain weight and feeling of responsibility and pride when you are given so much trust. It seems to work, and it definitely did for me. I’m not completely naive though and I am sure that some people would have cheated if not for the understanding that most of the other students took this very seriously and would not hesitate to report you. Homework were a different case… students did not seem to take the Honor Code as seriously for homework for some reason.

  6. I like your post! I’ve also noticed that most mission statements tend to be vague; do you think this is because it’s inherently hard to distill the essence of a university in just a few sentences? One interesting point is how mission statements differentiate universities. If mission statements are vague, how does one elicit value or decide between two universities? Should larger universities adopt succinct statements like RIT’s?

    1. Those are good questions. My thought was exactly that: that large universities cannot cover their mission in such few words without being overly generic. RIT is very focused school with emphasis on engineering and creative arts and as such they can be more precise. But many other students have brought good alternative explanations. I think that to truly answer why they are so vague and how are they useful we first need to understand who is the intended audience and who writes them. And I am not sure about either of those.

  7. I really appreciated your post about vagueness! I do think that mission statements can be a little generic. You seem to be right in suggesting that while these statements may sound vague to an outside audience, knowledge of the university does help the mission statement guide members of the university in specific ways. Though I think that mission statements can be generic because they are meant to guide those with inside knowledge of the institution, I think they could better articulate the individuality of the university if they were longer. I don’t think this should turn into an exhaustive list of things that the university stands for, but I do think that they could briefly highlight four to five things that set them apart before spending a paragraph on each one describing how those factors operate in ways specific to thier university. For example, I think you could start with a vague summary of goals and values, but then later define what that would look like at a particular institution.

    1. I tend to agree with you. However you can find that extra information in many other places in a university’s websites, including their prospective students pages and videos. So the real question for me, and what confuses me still, is who is the intended audience and what is the intended use. If we knew this then we could discuss whether their current format is sufficient or desirable. The more I have thought about it the more hesitant I am to say that all these world class universities are ‘doing it wrong’ and prefer to reserve such judgement until I understand their current reasoning.

  8. I thought the exact same thing when I began reading through mission statements. I think in part, universities keep their mission statements broad so that they don’t limit their future decisions. However, I found that the mission statements that gave more unique details and goals made me like the university as a whole more than those with vague ones (not considering other factors). I think the transparency and honesty in a mission statement says a lot more about a university than I would have thought it would prior to looking into these more!

    1. I agree, I have a newfound respect for universities with more authentic and intriguing mission statements. But I am not sure how much of a role the mission statement alone would play in any decision I would personally make about a university. I saw many great schools with very dry mission statements (e.g. MIT, Michigan, VT)

  9. Very nice post! When I started reading the mission statements for my blog, I felt exactly the same and therefore, my blog post focuses on a similar concept. What I figured is that some universities have very clear and focused mission statements whereas most of the other ones are very similar and vague in ways of incorporating words related to collaboration, openness, diversity, intellectual growth etc. without focusing on the core values.

    1. Yeah, my biggest question is why those universities chose to be vague. There has to be a reason and many other students have presented some very interesting possibilities.

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