February 2019

Mission Statements

Today, I went to a church service. The pastor asked the audiences: “do you know what is the purpose of your life?” I thought it is a difficult question as a person needs to have a deep understanding of one’s core values and summarizes them into a few sentences. Writing a mission statement is not an easy thing for a person, and I would expect that developing a mission statement for a university could be much more challenging. For example, how can the statement reflect multiple goals pursued by different groups in a university? Who has the responsibility or privilege to draft and edit the statement?

I searched several universities’ mission statements and selected the ones answering the above two questions.

The first mission statement comes from Harvard College (https://college.harvard.edu/about/mission-and-vision):

The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation.  Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created.  From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.

In the poem “Mutability”, Percy Shelley said: “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but mutability.” The university’s willingness to embrace transformation and diversity answers the first question. As an international student, I think students gain openness by exposing to diversity in education as well as their daily life. Without sufficient diversity, the social pressure tends to make people afraid to pursue a new life path different from the majority, because their behavior or ideas are viewed as “problematic.” This tendency will kill creativity as it limits the options in human’s imagination.

The second one was made by an entrepreneur and abolitionist called Johns Hopkins, who believed in improving public health and education. The mission statement of Johns Hopkins University is (https://www.jhu.edu/about/history/)

To educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world. — Johns Hopkins University

Source: https://www.jhu.edu/about/history/

It summarizes three stages of a scholar very concisely. In my understanding, learning is obtaining skills and knowledge that already exist; researching means addressing the problems which have not been solved; and the purpose of research is to make the world a better place. However, I do have a concern about the last point. Benefits of research are hard to evaluate in a short time. For example, many inventions endured public ignorance for decades before people recognize their values. Given the limitations of our vision, how to deal with emerging research projects that do not have obvious social benefits? Should the value of a study be determined by the desire of the society? I’m not sure. How do you think about that?

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4 comments to Mission Statements

  • bencoleman

    Interesting post. I found it interesting that Hopkins’ statement seems explicitly student-focused (its goal is to help its students learn, then help them spread that knowledge more or less) while a lot of the other mission statements I’ve read on others’ blogs is more universal, and more about a sense of global mission and the improvement of society writ large. Which approach do you think is better? I like the Hopkins one personally, perhaps just because it’s different.

  • Renata Vieira Carneiro

    I really like the mission statement of Johns Hopkins University. It’s concise and it says a lot at the same time. Sometimes after reading a very long mission statement I would have to go back and check again what was the focus or main purpose of the statement. Long statements can be repetitive and confusing.

  • aydakianmehr

    John Hopkins university mission statement is interesting. Its aims are sharp: educating students with best quality in order to make benefit for the whole world! in comparison with Harvard and other universities it has a clear and to the point mission statement.

  • I agree with some of your points. The worst feedback is the kind that gives you no direction.