Generally, I have a soft spot in my heart for mission statements.  Done well, I (perhaps naively) believe that they can truly serve as guiding lights… a reminder to all within an organization or effort of the overarching, aspirational “why” behind the daily routine that makes up many little “what”s.  Once definition in the Oxford English Dictionary states:

“A task which a person is designed or destined to do; a duty or function imposed on or assumed by a person; a person’s vocation or work in life, a strongly felt aim or ambition in life. Also in extended use.”

I like some of the images conjured from that definition – design (sending a message of intention), vocation (rooted in “calling”) and strongly felt to name a few.  I like these because they remind us that, in the most ideal way, mission (and the language we put behind whatever it is) has the capacity to call us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and our own interests.  It is that image (and not the all too-easy and perhaps too commonly true image of mission statements as vague, hollow, buzzwordy, fluff) that I want to keep in mind as I think about the next few mission statements.  Copied below are those from the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M (two of VT’s peer institutions).

University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota, founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to benefit the people of the state, the nation, and the world. The University’s mission, carried out on multiple campuses and throughout the state, is threefold:

Research and Discovery
Generate and preserve knowledge, understanding, and creativity by conducting high-quality research, scholarship, and artistic activity that benefit students, scholars, and communities across the state, the nation, and the world.

Teaching and Learning
Share that knowledge, understanding, and creativity by providing a broad range of educational programs in a strong and diverse community of learners and teachers, and prepare graduate, professional, and undergraduate students, as well as non-degree-seeking students interested in continuing education and lifelong learning, for active roles in a multiracial and multicultural world.

Outreach and Public Service
Extend, apply, and exchange knowledge between the University and society by applying scholarly expertise to community problems, by helping organizations and individuals respond to their changing environments, and by making the knowledge and resources created and preserved at the University accessible to the citizens of the state, the nation, and the world.

In all of its activities, the University strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that embodies the values of academic freedom, responsibility, integrity, and cooperation; that provides an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance; that assists individuals, institutions, and communities in responding to a continuously changing world; that is conscious of and responsive to the needs of the many communities it is committed to serving; that creates and supports partnerships within the University, with other educational systems and institutions, and with communities to achieve common goals; and that inspires, sets high expectations for, and empowers individuals within its community.

Texas A&M

Texas A&M University is dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge in a wide range of academic and professional fields. Its mission of providing the highest quality undergraduate and graduate programs is inseparable from its mission of developing new understandings through research and creativity. It prepares students to assume roles in leadership, responsibility, and service to society. Texas A&M assumes as its historic trust the maintenance of freedom of inquiry and an intellectual environment nurturing the human mind and spirit. It welcomes and seeks to serve persons of all racial, ethnic, and geographic groups, women and men alike, as it addresses the needs of an increasingly diverse population and a global economy. In the twenty-first century, Texas A&M University seeks to assume a place of preeminence among public universities while respecting its history and traditions.

Vision and Values

People are Texas A&M University’s most valuable asset. The university strives to maintain an environment which encourages all employees to achieve their personal and professional goals and aspirations as we work toward achieving the university’s mission. In this environment, each person’s individuality and contributions are respected. Texas A&M University recognizes that all people have rights at work, including the right to be treated with respect and dignity, the right to be recognized and rewarded fairly for performance, and the right to a work environment free from discrimination and harassment. The university is committed to these rights. All people at Texas A&M University are expected to treat each other in accordance with these rights.

Texas A&M University recognizes the importance of communication, and is committed to an environment which stresses open sharing of information and ideas, and values input from all people. Texas A&M University will strive for a work environment in which all people accept responsibility to contribute to the success of the University, and are empowered to do so. Finally, for this vision to become reality and endure, it must be continually communicated, supported and upheld.

Also read our core values.

One of the things I really like about both mission statements, is that they both seem to honor that education and the pursuit of knowledge is inherently linked to the betterment of individuals and community… and not just from a financial perspective.  I also like that I can imagine most any faculty or staff member at either institution could “see themselves in the picture” (because of the significant focus on honoring diversity and an inherent human dignity of all peoples) as well as see themselves in action (because most any job task could be framed within the context of the mission statement itself).  Though some conciseness for both might be nice, I can see how both could serve as a “strongly felt aim” for any employee needing a bit of inspiration to remember that their daily activities are part of serving some bigger overall purpose.

When I add in VT’s mission statement, I have mixed feelings.  Here it is below:

Virginia Tech

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its 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.

Mission Statement approved by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, June 4, 2001; revised in 2006.

On one hand, I like that it is shorter and therefore more manageable and easier to distill for its essence.  I wish some of the “core value elements” about people and the society we believe in might show up but we do have the Principles of Community.  I can see where the separate stand-alone document might speak more or less to our institutional commitment depending on how you frame it.  I’m trying to convince myself that the word “convey” can have a more facilitative connotation and I’m still scratching my head about what “foster economic competitiveness” might actually mean.  But, even with that said, I still wonder if this statement too might help us remember the more aspirational aims of higher education…

What if we all, as part of new faculty/staff or even student orientation, were asked to situate ourselves in the picture the mission statement paints?  What if we were to identify our own contributions as part of the giant dynamic whole?  And… what if we, yearly perhaps, revisited both the statement and our potential place in the picture?  It could be like some intense twist on Where’s Waldo?  Even though I’m feeling a bit grumpy of where VT’s statement sits in relation to the UMN and Texas A&M statements… I still think it would be a pretty powerful exercise.  One that might get me more excited about even the frustrating parts of my roles on campus because of where we, as a whole, are headed.  I also wonder if it might, in small ways, remind us that we can’t just fulfill our small role in a vacuum… that we must see it, and do it, within the context of everything else going on around us… and to let that serve as guiding feedback.

What do you think?  Too naive and idealistic? Would it change your day to day at all?