Mission statements: Compasses without needles

Management consultant Peter Drucker drew the nation’s attention to the fundamental importance of mission statements nearly four decades ago. Invariably, US colleges and universities have adopted them.

These statements tend to be politically correct declarations balancing the input from internal and external stakeholders. A mission statement’s purpose is said to formally affirm the institution’s purpose and goals. When adopted by a governing board it metaphorically becomes the institution’s compass.

Presumably, the mission statement should frame the institution’s subsequent strategic and tactical decision processes while unifying internal and external stakeholders’ support.

With at least a third of the nation’s post-secondary institutions at financial risk, it seems fair to explore how their mission statements may have influenced their path to endangered sustainability.

Do a web search for a few institutional mission statements. A quick read will reveal common flaws and, sadly, the bulk of the nation’s college and university mission statements do not provide the context for guiding sound tactical or strategic decision-making and accompanying long-term financial obligations.

The typical statement is framed in optimistic, open-ended, feel-good language that by implication permits the pursuit of nearly any good cause while constraining few, if any.

In 2003 William Massy, author of Honoring the Trust: Quality and Cost Containment in Higher Education, noted that since public and most private post-secondary institutions do not pursue profits, they instead pursue “the good”. These well-intended pursuits have all too frequently led down a financial slippery slope.

The pursuit of nearly all new goods is accompanied by additional financial obligations. Staff must be employed and supported. These expense accretions are more often than not added to the sum of existing expense obligations. With no end of good outcomes to pursue and with no constraints embedded in their mission statements, institutions have been free to incur ever-higher operating expenses.

The new expenses, when added to existing obligations, invariably have forced the need for additional revenue to balance the operating budget.

In the decades when US institutions could rely on increasing student demand, coupled with the public’s seemingly inexhaustible tolerance of tuition escalation topping annual increases in the Consumer Price Index, this free form approach to resource management was successful.

Mission creep

The term mission creep originally emerged within a military context. It describes an extension of the unit’s mission outside of its intended scope. The term was extended to US community colleges pursuing authorisation to offer baccalaureate degrees in the nineties.

It can be appropriately applied to the majority of the nation’s public and non-profit tertiary institutions currently facing financial challenges. I suggest that manifestations of mission creep have been clear in the nation’s institutions for decades.

While it could be legitimately characterised as natural evolution in response to ever-growing student demand, the morphing of the nation’s former teacher colleges into comprehensive regional universities (CRUs) also provides a textbook example of mission creep.

True to the teacher college mission, the CRUs were commissioned to prepare graduates for immediate entry into business, criminal justice, nursing and health in addition to common school careers.

Consistent with curricular standards, these additional career programmes required a general education foundation. The introductory and elective courses forming the general education core provided the justification for the familiar department organisations found in research universities and liberal arts colleges.

The humanities, physical science and social science units that had supported the former teacher colleges’ general education requirement progressively divided into single discipline departments – biology, chemistry, English, history, mathematics, music, psychology, theatre and ever finer subdivisions.


Department structures brought an array of additional fixed expenses in the form of new faculty, support staff, physical space, overheads and debt service with the addition of new undergraduate and graduate majors.

As operating expenses increased, additional revenue was required to balance the annual budget. The prevailing revenue enhancement formula included a mix of external subsidies from government and sponsors leavened with tuition increases moderated by increased enrolments. Enrolment increases, not unexpectedly, provided justification for increased external subsidies in subsequent budget cycles.

These once career-oriented institutions became comprehensive, offering both career and traditional academic programming. While the latter benefitted the CRUs by drawing ever larger enrolments, a recent study of Virginia’s psychology graduates suggests an unintended negative consequence.

In the 2008-9 academic year, Virginia’s institutions conferred more than 3,000 undergraduate psychology degrees. A post-graduation survey found that only 34% psychology degree recipients held full-time employment, only 13% percent held part-time jobs. It is unclear whether either category held positions directly related to their major or were taxi drivers, baristas or bartenders.

With more than 100,000 psychology degrees awarded nationally in the same year, the growing number of under- and unemployed graduates may be partially explained.

The Chinese Proverb “If we don't change our direction we're likely to end up where we're headed” may suggest the need for some mission statement wordsmithing to constrain the endless pursuit of the next worthy incremental project.

* William Patrick Leonard is Vice Dean, SolBridge International School of Business, Daejeon, Republic of Korea.