Musings on Mission Statements

Bluefield State College is a public, historically black college (HBCU) in West Virginia with around 1,500 undergraduate students. Its mission statement opens with a commitment to affordability and accessibility and focuses on nurturing and fostering student growth — “intellectual, personal, ethical, and cultural development.” Because of its history as a HBCU, I expected accessibility to be foregrounded. I also find their commitment to “informed citizenship” something expected for a public college.

Oberlin College’s mission statement opens with a pledge to transform and grow students in a variety of ways. Its focus on the evolution of students as individuals is similar to Bluefield’s, but what it claims to offer students reflects its liberal arts approach, including “artistic rigor,” sustained inquiry,” and “creativity.” Oberlin is a private liberal arts college in Ohio with an enrollment of around 3,000.

In a post for the London School of Economics’ “Impact Blog,” Julián David Cortés-Sánchez states that a meta-study of college and university mission statements reveals that most public universities focus on students while private universities focus on teaching or process. Oberlin doesn’t fall perfectly in line with the norm. They open with a focused statement on students before transitioning to talking about the environment and process.

Oberlin’s mission statement goes on to say, “It seeks to offer a diverse and inclusive residential learning environment encouraging a free and respectful exchange of ideas and shares in an enduring commitment to a sustainable and just society.” I found this section to be the most interesting portion of either in that it dictates the college’s expectations of campus climate. Oberlin aims to prepare graduates to “create change and value in the world.” I suspect this is a fairly unique mission statement, but it does reflect that Oberlin was founded by progressive ministers that supported integrated education and coeducation in the 1830s. It also has a tradition of supporting student political action and protest, which is reflected in the mission statement’s gesture toward social justice.

Cortés-Sánchez reveals that private colleges’ mission statements most often mention “society” while the public ones mention “community.” Bluefield and Oberlin follow this norm. I’m interested in finding out more about why this difference exists. To me, society represents a larger group comprised of many different parts while community is a smaller, more clearly defined group. One might assume that public universities are more concerned with society at large and the common good. Why, then, do they focus on community? Does the word community reflect an individual’s relationship to the world? Might community suggest a more service-oriented philosophy?

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4 Responses to Musings on Mission Statements

  1. Both of these mission statements where refreshingly student-experience focused. Almost all the ones I read had more grandiose missions (“serve the people of the world”, “shape the future”) and always talked about preparing the students for the future. These two in contrast talk about accessibility and campus environment. Both of these (having large goals for the future and caring about the present student experience) are important but I wonder which one belongs more in a university’s mission statement. Is this level of detail truly the “mission” of a university or is it part of how they fulfill their (more general/broad) mission? I have mixed opinions because in theory I think they should be more general, but I was getting tired of all those ‘buzzword-filled’ statements that seemed to say the same thing, and these were a refreshing change.

    • splummer

      I didn’t realized how specific these were until I started really reading the statements other people chose! That’s a really good point about what SHOULD be in a mission statement. How specific should it be? Or, by extension, how specific should a university’s mission be?

  2. xsharma

    You bring up a great point about what the word community can convey. I suspect mission statements are also used to ease certain concerns people may have about a university. If the concern about major public universities is that they are large impersonal places that lack a sense of belonging, then including the word “community” as a stated goal might be one make some people feel more comfortable.

  3. Oberlin’s mission statement goes on to say, “It seeks to provide a diverse and inclusive residential learning environment that encourages the free and respectful exchange and sharing of ideas in a long-term commitment to for a sustainable and just society.” This is the part that I find the best

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