Mission Statements: A Definition, an Assessment, a Call for Action

Christopher R. Foley

Institutional mission statements provide various constituencies--students, faculty, legislators, etc.--with the institution's educational goals and guidance concerning the achievement of these goals. This paper argues that mission statements at many institutions are hollow and do not provide this guidance. An explanation of why a good mission statement is vital to a college or university's work is included, and the content of an effective mission statement is explored. Institutional missions should be living documents accurately reflecting the goals and the philosophies of a given college or university. The paper concludes with a call for the reexamination of and new research on college and university mission statements.

Every institution of higher education in America is different in some way: religiously affiliated, land-grant based, public, private. However, all of these institutions are similar in that they each have educational goals. A major difference from one institution to another is the philosophy guiding the educational experience. One institution could place an emphasis on research, while another is more focused on teaching. No matter what the emphasis, it is important for a college or university to clearly communicate its goals. This communication is typically conveyed through an institutional mission statement.

Often the guiding philosophy of education and the guide for institutional direction, the mission statement is very important and influential to the function of a college or university. However, the topic of mission statements is not widely researched in higher education literature. In some ways, mission statements are now in the "philosophical basement," where they can do no good. This document is, in part, an attempt to shed some light on this forgotten aspect of higher education. The reader may also notice the author refers to colleges and universities as if they were living beings capable of making their own decisions and performing their own actions. While this may seem odd, every institution of higher learning does have a distinct personality, and although they are not truly "alive" and actually consist of a group of individuals controlling the school's actions, it is important to recognize colleges and universities have this "personality." As a result, bear in mind there are people making decisions at every institution which gives a school its character, but for the purposes of this article, try to think of colleges and universities as different people with differing ideas concerning higher education.

This paper will examine mission statements and provide a general definition, some examples of how missions are used, an example of the assessment of a mission statement, and end with some questions about their use, evaluation and research, effectiveness and presence within the academy.

Definition and Content

The mission of an academic institution is important, especially if it is to guide and direct the proceedings of a school. John Quinley (1991) expressed this idea when he wrote,

The mission is a beacon that provides strategic direction for the institution. It is also the blueprint which provides the basic conceptual framework for the entire organization. A mission which provides appropriate direction and linkages can serve as the base for subsequent measures of institutional effectiveness. (p. 1)

Utilizing a mission as a central focus, a college or university can create a foundation and build on it to maximize effectiveness.

If a mission statement is used to maximize an institution's effectiveness, the content and presentation of the statement becomes important. Quinley (1991) suggested a number of components that could be included in a mission statement. Three particularly important components of mission statements are examined here: purpose, values, description of skills (Quinley, 1991).


The first component of an effective mission statement is an "overall purpose statement that captures the essence of the institution" (Quinley, 1991, p. 4). The essence of an institution is usually best described as the type of "personality" the school has, as mentioned in the introduction. For example, one school may stress close interpersonal advising relationships relying on small classes and dialogical teaching styles. Another school may have a focus on a research based agenda where large lectures are the norm and student/faculty interaction is left up to the students' willingness to reach out to the professorate. The description of the overall essence is often taken for granted, but if this component is absent, the statement may have a very hollow ring, and the overall goal of an institution may be lost, especially if a new student or faculty member is expecting one thing and then gets another.

Values, Beliefs, and Intent

The second component is a "statement expressing institutional values, beliefs, or intent" (Quinley, 1991, p. 4). The two situations described in the previous section are also helpful here when speaking of values or intent. The first institution values contact and dialogue. The atmosphere is more personal and more consistent with liberal arts education. The second situation is more pragmatic and fits more readily into professional school education. Each school places value in one of these two styles of educating, and this style, or "intent" needs expression.

In another example, religiously affiliated institutions have beliefs and values public institutions do not; the presence or absence of these beliefs plays an important role in shaping the academic experience and the environment of an institution. Through the inclusion of these values and beliefs in the mission statement, a college or university clearly communicates the philosophy behind the education provided at the institution.

Other beliefs, especially moral beliefs, are necessary components of the mission statement. The moral fortitude of an institution needs clear expression for all members of the school and surrounding community. Much has been made of the lack of moral strength within the academy (Sykes, 1990; Smith, 1990), and as a result, institutions should clearly state any beliefs they feel are noteworthy or especially important to their educational mission.

Outcomes and Goals

The last component provides "a description of the core skills, knowledge, experiences, and attitudes in the form of educational outcomes, ideally to be acquired or developed by the institution's students" (Quinley, 1991, p. 4). The outcomes of the education provided is highlighted in this portion of a mission statement. If a school is interested in developing critical thinking skills, then this aspect of the educational experience should be included. If the school is primarily interested in providing professional training for future work, then job preparation should be clearly expressed in the mission statement.

Outcomes and goals can also serve as a good reference point for students, faculty, and administrators. Students may use this component to focus themselves on their educational goals; faculty may determine what they are to provide educationally; and administrators can formulate policies to achieve these goals.

These three components are essential to a successfully written mission statement, and as such, should be clearly and concisely articulated. The clear presentation of these concepts then becomes essential to the mission's overall effectiveness on campus and in the community. Many individuals may have a need to understand the mission of an institution for a myriad of reasons. For example, students searching for a college or university may search for specific qualities within an institution such as religious affiliation, engineering focus, technical training; a clear mission statement may aid them in this exploration. Faculty members could use the mission statement as a reference point or justification for their teaching methods, if teaching is an area of emphasis in the mission. Legislators may have a desire to know exactly what kind of education a public institution is providing for their constituents, especially since taxpayer money funds these colleges and universities. Again, a clear and concise mission statement can provide important information for all of these individuals.

Uses of Mission

Mission statements also influence and shape the overall campus environment and culture. In Involving Colleges (Kuh, Schuh, Whitt & Assoc., 1991), the authors outline five characteristics "involving college" mission statements share:

(1) they are relatively clear and coherent; (2) they support high, but reasonable, expectations for student achievement undergirded by an ethic of care; (3) they determine and legitimate distinctions among individuals and groups; (4) they enable multicultural and multiracial student subcommunities; and (5) they provide a unifying focus for all members of their communities. (p. 42)

Kuh, Schuh, Whitt & Associates (1991) determined that these five characteristics were common to these institutions and their mission statements. These five characteristics are focused on promoting student involvement on various campuses. Many specific programs at these colleges and universities are outlined in Involving Colleges (Kuh et al., 1991), and all are established and supported by the mission. For example, Miami University established an extensive residence hall advising program to enhance first-year student involvement in and adjustment to the university's community (Kuh et al., 1991). This program is consistent with an "involving college's" mission to include students in campus life.

Another example of programs existing as a result of an "involving college's" mission is found at Xavier University in Louisiana. Xavier University's mission is to provide a quality liberal education "clearly and firmly rooted in, and reinforcing, its black heritage and Catholic character" (Kuh et al., 1991, p. 48). These beliefs also encourage Xavier students to better the community in which they live (Kuh et al., 1991). The commitment to this aspect of their mission is seen through the development of "programs that expect and inspire success, and provide the skills and support necessary to succeed" (Kuh et al., p. 56). The Xavier programs outlined in Involving Colleges (Kuh et al., 1991) are summer high school preparatory classes designed to prepare students for college level work. By enhancing the education of those in high school, Xavier is preparing the student for a successful college career. These Xavier programs, along with the others mentioned in Involving Colleges, make it clear that "involving colleges" have a mission to actively include students in their communities. The mission plays a vital role in shaping this involvement.

Mission statements are also used to provide stability for changes, or even serve as a catalyst for change (Mouritsen, 1986, p. 48). One change is occurring at the University of Rhode Island. The University of Vermont's student newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, recently published an article addressing proposed changes in the structure of the curriculum at the University of Rhode Island. The article touched on a current trend that "everyone [colleges and universities] is seeking a new 'vision' or mission" (The Vermont Cynic, October 21, 1993, p. 11). The article goes on to relate the new focus proposed at the University of Rhode Island; it calls for "smaller classes, more student/faculty interaction, individual learning plans, and cross-disciplinary study" (p. 11). Also, the new plan has a set of "seminars [that] could decrease faculty time for research and focus a greater commitment on undergraduate teaching" (p. 11). All of these changes are influenced by the mission of the University, especially given the possibility of reducing the faculty's time for research. One can easily see this change will be difficult if research is a clearly stated value in the university's mission.

The change occurring at the University of Rhode Island will need justification, just as any major institutional change needs justification. One method of justification is integrating the mission's values and goals into the decision and the overall decision-making process. Mouritsen (1986) stresses this important concept:

Of crucial importance is the manner in which agents of the institution choose to respond to change. If the response is incorrect, there is a real danger not only of damaging the integrity of the institution but also of sowing confusion and distrust among its members. For this reason, careful attention must be given to how institutional agents integrate their responses to change, as it relates to the institutional mission statement. (p. 48)

The effectiveness and success of an institution are largely dependent upon the consistency of its actions. The mission can provide stability and consistency during any major change.

Changes involving difficult political issues can be supported by the mission statement, especially if moral standards are clearly outlined within the statement. College and university divestment in South Africa was a change supported by the presence of strong mission statements. Mouritsen (1986) mentioned the concerns raised about colleges and universities investing in South African companies given most missions profess a disapproval of racial bias. This situation was, and still is very sensitive considering South Africa's past history of blatantly institutionalized racism. Many institutions have withdrawn or reexamined their South African investments as a result of members of the academic community standing for their school's mission.

Finally, mission statements are a benchmark for the quality of education students of a college or university receive (Kuh et al., 1991). Quinley (1991) even suggested the mission statement be crafted so it is "possible to turn every sentence of the mission into a question regarding effectiveness" (p. 4). With this idea in mind, students, faculty, and administrators should be able to read their institution's mission statement and determine, to some degree, how well the college or university is performing. Using the mission statement in this way, a college or university can gauge progress and assess their effectiveness in meeting their stated goals.

Mission Effectiveness Assessment at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College

A college or university should strive for a high level of consistency between its actions and stated goals. The assessment process is an important concept in evaluating this consistency and a mission statement can be an effective tool in this assessment process.

The most complete study found in the literature, using the mission as an evaluation tool, is from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO) in Miami, Oklahoma. This work takes the form of a self-study conducted by NEO and published in 1986. The study was performed to determine if the mission and service of the college were meeting the needs of the students attending NEO. The researchers gave particular attention to the accuracy of the mission statement and the ability of the college to fulfill its stated mission.

NEO provides a special service to its students. The College is primarily focused on providing freshman and sophomore level classes for those wishing to transfer to four year institutions or obtain an associate degree. NEO also provides occupational programs for those interested in entering the work force. The mission of the College also mentions the importance of serving the Miami community ("Self-Study," 1986).

After establishing their mission and goals, NEO conducted an extensive study on the College's ability to meet these goals. Many areas were examined: resources, educational programs, support services, student and alumni satisfaction. The most important information from the survey came from students, alumni, an examination of transfer success, and a private industry report concerning community involvement.

Student responses provided an excellent measurement of NEO's effectiveness in carrying out their mission. A total of 963 respondents were asked to respond to NEO's performance in the following: meeting current educational needs, personal security on campus, satisfaction with quality, timeliness of educational content, and communication abilities of instructors. Nearly 50% of the individuals surveyed responded to these areas of inquiry with "almost always," the highest satisfaction rating. Also, the report mentioned these responses, combined with the "next best" response, demonstrated an even higher level of satisfaction from the students ("Self-Study," 1986, p. 92). The College recognizes its success, but the authors of the report quickly suggested "anything less than 100% on the 'best answer,' leaves room for improvement" ("Self-Study," 1986, p. 92).

Alumni responses to the quality of their educational experience at the College were also positive. Some 77% of the respondents would "do it all over again," while 11% said they would not, and 11% were undecided ("Self-Study," 1986). The vast majority of students and graduates indicated they are satisfied with the education NEO provides.

The next area of assessment examined NEO's ability to prepare its students for successful transfer to four year institutions. The results from the investigation suggested "the longer a student is at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, the better his [sic] grade point average will be at the senior institution" ("Self-Study," 1986, p. 75). In this study, the "senior institutions" were Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, and Central State University. The level of achievement for NEO transfer students, in comparison to the students at the "senior institutions," was not addressed; however, the preparation NEO provides was meeting the mission statement's goal for preparing their students for successful transfer.

The last area of evaluation involved a study of the College's ability to serve the community of Miami, Oklahoma. An independent study conducted by the Fantus Company, a major consulting firm, focused primarily on the community's "suitability for securing business and industry" ("Self-Study," 1986, p. 63). The data clearly indicates the College was serving the community in accordance with its mission.

The study examined many areas and provided excellent feedback for NEO to use for organizational and planning purposes. All of the information was fairly consistent with the expressed goals of the mission statement, although members or the NEO community recognized there was still room for improvement. Assessments of this nature are important for institutions of higher learning because they provide the opportunity for colleges and universities to evaluate their effectiveness with respect to their stated missions.

A Call for Research

Through the research conducted for this paper, the author feels many colleges and universities pay little attention to their mission statements and do not use their statements as foundations for analysis of the institution's effectiveness. This conclusion is supported by the severe lack of available information and research concerning these areas of interest. The academic community is suffering from this lack of information.

Are any institutions paying attention to their mission statements? Are colleges and universities afraid to find out their actions and beliefs do not coincide? Have these statements become so generic they are timeless and do not deserve to be reviewed, revamped, or restructured?

The University of Vermont conducted a study in 1991 on the University's community. The authors of the report stated "the common goals and a common philosophy for the University are not clearly defined in a way that enables the university community to identify shared values and beliefs around which individuals can focus their efforts" (Campus Community Task Force, 1991, p. 1). The authors then report the mission should "permeate all campus activities: hiring, training, University events, decision making" and that it "should be an integral part of everything that occurs on campus" (Campus Community Task Force, 1991, p. 1).

Yet, Birnbaum (1988) says mission clarification will not help higher education management. However, in "The Implicit Leadership Theories of College and University Presidents," Birnbaum (1989) identifies goals for university presidents as "mission-driven" (p. 131). Birnbaum's two statements and the Vermont study all provide differing views regarding mission statements. These statements contradict one another. This confusion prompts the suggestion that the academy search for some answers to some very important questions, such as: Is anyone curious to see whether mission statements help or hinder the management of colleges and universities? Who is right, can both be right, and why? Is a mission statement still a good idea, or is it just an ornament for institutions to include in their handbook so it appears as if the institution has a purpose? If so, then how can the academy make mission statements more relevant and useful?

In Involving Colleges (Kuh et al., 1991), a protocol was developed to evaluate an institution's effectiveness. The first section was dedicated to assessing the presence of the mission and its effectiveness (Kuh et al., 1991). Is this the only protocol available? Is it effective? What results has it produced? Has anyone even used it?

As the world of higher education changes, so must the educational mission at many institutions. As these changes take place the academy will need advice, guidance, and tools to make these alterations efficiently and effectively. There are many questions that remain unanswered; however, research and assessment of today's college and university missions can help the academy to answer some of these questions and some of tomorrow's questions as well.


Birnbaum, R. (1988). How colleges work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Birnbaum, R. (1989). The implicit leadership theories of college and university presidents. The Review of Higher Education, 12 (2), 125-126.

Campus community task force: Final report (1991). Unpublished study conducted at the University of Vermont.

Kuh, G., Schuh, J., Whitt, E., & Associates. (1991). Involving colleges. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mouritsen, M. (1986). The university mission: A tool for the university curriculum, institutional effectiveness, and change. New Directions for Higher Education, 55, 45-52.

Quinley, J. (1991). Assessing the college mission: An excellent starting point for institutional effectiveness. Charlotte, NC: Central Piedmont Community College. (ERIC Reproduction Service No. ED 333 913).

Smith, P. (1990). Killing the Spirit. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Sykes, C. (1990). The hollow men: Politics and corruption in higher education. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway.

Self-Study, 1985-1986. (1986). Miami, Oklahoma: Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. (ERIC Reproduction Service No. ED 296 684)

URI may have a new mission. (1993, October 21). The Vermont Cynic, p. 11.

Chris Foley is a 1993 graduate of the University of Virginia where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Chemistry/Biochemistry. Presently, Chris studies Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration at the University of Vermont, and he is a Hall Advisor for Wing Hall.