Mission Statements: A Thematic Analysis of Rhetoric across Institutional Type

Article excerpt

They're Everywhere! They're Everywhere!

Mission statements are ubiquitous in higher education. Accreditation agencies demand them, strategic planning is predicated on their formulation, and virtually every college and university has one available for review. Moreover, higher education institutions are constantly revisiting and revising their mission statements: as recently as the mid-1990s, the Association of American Colleges (1994), found that fully 80% of all colleges and universities were making major revisions in their mission statements, goals, curricula, and general education courses. It would seem that not having a mission statement begs the very legitimacy of a college or university. Of course, the crafting (and re-crafting) of such documents consumes considerable institutional resources, particularly that most precious resource: time. So, why bother? Some would argue that articulating a shared purpose is a requisite first step on the road to organizational success. Others are far less sanguine about such efforts and view them as rhetorical pyrotechnics--pretty to look at perhaps, but of little structural consequence. The purpose of this study is to begin an exploration of these hypotheses by first attempting to understand what institutions actually say in their missions and by exploring the relationship between these rhetorical elements and institutional type.

Mission Statements: Half-Full or Half-Empty?

A furor over mission statements swept over corporate America nearly three decades ago (Drucker, 1973; Peters and Waterman, 1982). As is the case with other management trends, such ideas inevitably--and belatedly--found their way into the academy (Birnbaum, 2000). Keller (1983), for example, in his seminal book on strategic planning, argues that mission statements are a necessary part of an institution's strategic planning process. Others point to the value of mission statements in expressing a "vision" for the institution's future (Lenning & Micek, 1976; Schwerin, 1980; Carruthers & Lott, 1981; Martin, 1985; Nanus, 1992). Much of the early research on the utility of mission statements is limited because, as Davies (1986) notes, it fails to recognize "the unexamined presuppositions upon which they are grounded" (p. 85). In short, the researchers take as gospel the notion that such statements are, to quote Martha Stewart, "a good thing" and that their assertions are clothed with threadbare anecdotal evidence.

More recent research on postsecondary mission statements has produced a more nuanced understanding of the role that ideology and purpose play in organizational life. This literature suggests that the process of articulating an institution's mission has two potential benefits. First, it is instructional. A clear mission helps organizational members distinguish between activities that conform to institutional imperatives and those that do not. Second, a shared sense of purpose has the capacity to inspire and motivate those within an institution and to communicate its characteristics, values, and history to key external constituents (Drucker, 1973; Keller, 1983; Parekh, 1977; Smith, 1979; Hartley, 2002). Researchers have also described the experiences of (typically small) institutions whose discussions about institutional priorities and future direction, codified in mission statements, have guided decision making around key issues such as program creation or termination. The mission statement therefore is rightly understood as an artifact of a broader institutional discussion about its purpose.

Of course, other practitioners and scholars see the mission statement glass as half-empty. They view mission statements as a collection of stock phrases that are either excessively vague or unrealistically aspirational or both. From this perspective, mission statements ultimately fail to follow through on or convey any noteworthy sense of an institution's current identity (Davies, 1986; Chait, 1979; Delucchi, 1997). …