Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Conflicted Realities of Community College Mission Statements

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Conflicted Realities of Community College Mission Statements

Article excerpt

Taking a hard look at a staple of strategic planning.

The mission statement has been highly revered in business and management literature for over four decades. From the early management writings of Peter Drucker (1974), widely considered to be the father of modern management theory, to those of Renato Tagiuri (2002), currently a professor at the Harvard Business School, mission statements have been thought to improve institutional performance. Over the last 40 years, the mission statement has been consistently viewed as an indispensable management tool for organizations in both the public and private sectors. In addition, there is a plethora of popular management literature that puts mission identification as the first and most important task of an organization's leadership (e.g., Brinckerhoff 2000; Bryson 2004; O'Hallaron and O'Hallaron 2000). Strategic planning theory in higher education holds the mission statement in the same high esteem (e.g., Kotler and Murphy 1981; Morris and Poulton 1991, 2008). By some estimates, mission statements have risen to the level of mythology in what they have done and can do for organizations. Even more optimistically, some contemporary writers say that mission statements have not yet reached their full potential for unifying organizations and driving them forward (Sidhu 2003).

Almost in spite of this confidence, a second voice has arisen that questions whether the organizational performance promised by mission statements has actually materialized (Davis et al. 2007; Newsom and Hayes 1990-91 ; Sidhu 2003}. Moreover, there is little empirical evidence that clearly demonstrates a relationship between mission statements and organizational performance. What does exist shows only a weak or tentative relationship (Bart and Baetz 1998; Meacham 2008; Pearce and David 1987; Sidhu 2003). A counterargument to the exuberant supporters of mission statements posits that the weak or tentative relationship to positive organizational performance is not a result of the mission statement as a strategic concept per se, but rather the result of poorly formulated or ineffectively implemented statements. To explore these issues, a number of researchers and authors have focused on the construction, content, and implementation of mission statements in a wide variety of organizational contexts (e.g., Abrahams 2007; Kreber and Mhina 2007; O'Gorman and Doran 1999; Pearce and Roth 1988).

Despite the emerging debate over their value, mission statements have now become compulsory. All six accrediting commissions include mission as a criterion for accreditation. Thus, the purpose of the study described in this article was not to affirm or refute mission statements as a management tool; for the present and into the near future, they are a required element of higher education planning. Because the rhetorical question is not "if" but "how," higher education organizations - such as community colleges - must continue to examine the practices surrounding their mission statements and understand how these statements are used in forming strategies to improve the quality and efficacy of their institutions.

Consequently, the purpose of this study was to explore the role and efficacy of community college mission statements in the strategic planning process. Role refers to the function of the mission statement within the institution's planning framework, both actual and desired, and efficacy refers to how well the statement fulfills the desired function.


This qualitative study used an instrumental case study design. Nine nationally dispersed community colleges were selected for participation through a combination of purposeful and maximum variation sampling criteria. The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) assisted in identifying community colleges with a reputation for excellence and innovation in strategic planning, which fulfilled the first sample criterion. …

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