Mission Statements – What can we learn from them?

Mission statements are an indispensable part of any college or university. To be sure, let us turn to an ordinary description of a mission statement. According to Dictionary.com, a mission statement is defined as: “a summary describing the aims, values, and overall plan of an organization or individual.” With this definition in mind, I would expect to see more similarities than differences between mission statements of various universities. Indeed, all universities or colleges should agree on one level, in terms of their aim to serve society in one way or another.

To cover as much ground as possible, I looked at 5 different mission statements[1] (3 in Canada, 2 in the United States). In narrowing down my focus to two (distinct) mission statements, the criteria I set forth are: both the West Coast and East Coast must be represented, because I grew up exclusively on the West Coast but am now on the East Coast; and both Canada and the United States must be represented, because I grew up in Canada but have dual citizenship (i.e., United States and Canada). To satisfy these criteria, the two mission statements I chose to focus on are: McGill University and University of California[2].

What stood out to me was how much more the 3 Canadian universities emphasized the quality of their programs, as opposed to emphasizing the service or assistance a university is to provide to society in general. That is, the 3 Canadian universities I considered are very similar in that they claim how excellent their programs or learning environments are in a seemingly haughty manner. Among the 3 Canadian universities, the reason I chose to focus on McGill is I think it is the most arrogant in terms of expressing the (supposedly) high quality of the education they provide: “offering to outstanding undergraduate and graduate students the best education available” (my emphasis). Whenever the word ‘best’ appears, I almost automatically become critical and start to question things. However, University of British Columbia (UBC) – where I did my undergraduate studies – is not that much better in how they express their mission (or what they call “Vision and Values”[3]): “As one of the world’s leading universities, The University of British Columbia creates an exceptional learning environment.” As a graduate of UBC, I ironically cannot attest to the learning environment being “exceptional”! Instead, my honest assessment is that the quality of the learning environment at UBC was rather meager (and highly unwelcoming) for the most part. The only noteworthy difference between the 3 Canadian universities is University of Toronto provides a comprehensive overview of the various purposes and values it sees itself satisfying, whereas McGill and UBC do not go into detail about their mission (or vision).

On the other hand, the 2 universities in the United States that I considered rightly emphasize their service to the community or society: “to … advance social and community development, …, improve the quality of life” (Virginia Tech) and “other kinds of public service” (University of California). Though, the reason for choosing to focus on the University of California is I think it most plainly captures the important role of a university: “The distinctive mission of the University is to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge.” That is exactly how I see the university doing its part to maintaining the society’s well-being!

In spite of the apparent diversity between the 5 mission statements I chose to look at, one useful lesson I have learned is what makes each university so different from one another is in how they describe their role in society. In other words, a mission statement is better depicted as a university’s attitude toward their service to the community than as a description of the university’s role in society. As mentioned previously, it is uncontroversial that a university does some type of service to society. Therefore, the more appropriate question to ask is: in exactly what way(s) do the universities serve the community? To end this brief discussion on mission statements, the onus is on the universities or colleges themselves to explicate a precise answer to this question in a lucid manner.


mission statement. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon. Dictionary.com, LLC. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/mission statement (accessed: August 31, 2013).

[1] An alternative categorization is: 2 in the West Coast, 3 in the East Coast.

[2] This mission statement actually stands for a family of universities rather than a single university; hence, it applies to all 10 campuses that constitute the ‘University of California’ system. This further demonstrates my intention to represent as many perspectives as possible given the few mission statements I have to work with.

[3] That is another thing that annoyed me: apparently, the terminology varies greatly depending on the university. Moreover, “vision” or “values” is sometimes used in place of “mission statement.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply