Why Do Universities Exist?

I just wondering if you know the mission statement of your university. Did you read it before applying to?

I have to answer no to that question. I did not read the mission statement before applying to my current university or neither my previous university. As a student, I read it because it was part of an assignment or it was time for strategic planning. Unfortunately, often times, these statements go unnoticed on the universities website.

When I think about a mission statement, my first thought is a statement about the hopes for the institution. However, I am wrong!!  According to Provost Ralph W. Kuncl1,

“A mission statement is an authentic way of saying what’s important about an institution. An explanation of what you do and why you do it.”

“Take this mission statement back to the committee and tell them to rework it. I’d like to mention education”

So, I decided to compare the mission statement of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which is one of the top US universities, with the mission statement of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

The mission of the Caltech is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.

Caltech University is a private doctorate-granting university located in Pasadena, California, United States. First, I had to figure it out what doctorate-granting means because I had no idea (Sorry! Everything is new for me!).

“Doctorate-granting universities are institutions that awarded at least 20 research/scholarly doctorates in 2013–144

At first sight, what really surprised me is that in such a short paragraph I could capture the what (investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology) and the why (to expand human knowledge and benefit society) of Caltech. I have to confess that I looked at other universities statements and they were either very long or too short.

The fact that they related research with education really caught my attention (research integrated with education). I usually see these two words separately. However, I believe that there is a strong relationship between research and teaching.

Research creates knowledge and what we teach is the body of knowledge. The mere process of explaining students a concept or a phenomenon makes us realize that something is missing or not suit enough. Teaching also helps us to develop others skills that are also necessary for research such as, mentoring and learning to give feedback3. Even, if some professors are not researchers, sharing research findings adds something new to the class material. What is really important is to show students why these results are important, the impact that these may have for the specific field. Nowadays, companies care about research. So, for students become vital to be updated with the new findings.

On the other hand,

The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to Virginia Tech mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

Virginia Tech is a public land-grant, research university located in Blacksburg (main campus), Virginia, United States. Again, let’s start with the basics.

A land-grant university is a higher education institution that has been established as a result of a “grant,” of land or cash from the federal government. Schools were originally focused on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering (without excluding classical studies)5

Once again, I could capture the what (discovery and dissemination of new knowledge) and the why (to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development…) of Virginia Tech.

What really stood out to me is the fact in addition to teaching and research, outreach is also part of its mission. At present, outreach is considered as an active learning because, under this approach, students learn by doing. This experimental learning not only has a positive impact on student’s life but also adds a significant value to the class. It gives them the opportunity to apply what they learned in class to a real world context. In addition, students discover or strength additional skills that will help them to succeed in their future careers.

Despite one university is public and the other one is private, the “why and what” of their mission statement is very similar. At the end, both seek to contribute to the social development by creating new knowledge throughout research and education. Nevertheless, each of it has special features. Meanwhile, in Caltech, interdisciplinary work is highlighted, in Virginia Tech, the service is emphasized.

What I have seen so far, at least here at Virginia Tech, is that the university really cares about meet its mission statement. I am saying this because in my previous university in Colombia, the mission statement is only used when it is time for strategic planning!


1https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/06/20/colleges_pare_down_mission_statements_to_stand_out
2https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2018
3https://greatresearch.org/2013/11/01/the-relationship-between-teaching-and-research/
4https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnegie_Classification_of_Institutions_of_Higher_Education
5https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land-grant_university
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3 Responses to Why Do Universities Exist?

  1. Pingback: On Meaning and Mattering: Engaged Scholarship | Studently

  2. Catherine Einstein says:

    Your beginning statement about never reading the missions statement of your university made me think–neither have I and I don’t know anyone who has. But I also feel that I am a great fit at my university and share not only the universities values but my department and my individual professors values as well. When I have talked about students who have transferred schools because they weren’t a good fit, I don’t know if them reading the statement before they accepted or even before they applied would have made a difference. Unless you visit a school and talk to the professors, faculty, and students, the actual differences among schools isn’t always obvious. Even the missions statements we read in class often referenced the same things. Although I do think missions statements are important, I wonder who exactly this statement is written for.

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