What is the Role of Mission in Planning for Civic Engagement?

Mission statements are often dismissed as flowery pieces of public relations puffery, but when they are developed through institutional self-assessment and reflection, they can represent a graphic and specific consensus on the primary purposes and directions of an institution. In the past, most institutions had missions that sounded alike, but in practice they performed very differently. As pressures for accountability and performance assessment have increased, attention to the specificity of a mission statement – the visible, summative statement of the purposes and aims of a campus – has increased.

Traditionally, a mission consisted of some combination of the components of faculty work – teaching, research, and service. The flaw in most of those traditional missions is that they focused only on faculty work, and did not reflect consideration of the elements of student learning, societal expectations, or institutional relationships to the external environment. Exploration of mission is an excellent tool for inspiring campus discussions on the role of civic engagement, its relationship to other academic work, and the campus/community connection. The development of campus consensus on mission can inspire a higher sense of purpose, morale and motivation. In part this happens because the exploration builds new relationships, increases access to information and promotes shared responsibility. More importantly, campus concurrence with a specific and comprehensive mission eliminates competing ideas and focuses effort more effectively.

Ellen Earle Chaffee (1998) says that poor mission statements tend to merely describe “what we do.” Effective mission statements, those that can serve as guide posts for institutional decision-making, also articulate “who we serve” and the expected benefits or outcomes of their organizational activities. The mission statement says what the institution intends to accomplish, what markets or populations it serves, and reflects the philosophical premises or organizational values that will guide its actions (Rowley, Lujan and Dolence, 1997).

Basically, most institutions confuse vision (the future) with mission (purpose, actions, outcomes). Here are some ways to think about analyzing or developing missions, and preparing to explore and refine a mission, with special attention to exploring the role of civic engagement.

Does your mission need to be reviewed?

• How long has it been since the campus reviewed the mission? Has there been turnover in leadership?
• Is the mission statement used in budgeting or other decision-making?
• Does the campus community discuss competing visions for the future?
• Can anyone in your external community or region say what your mission is?
• Does the current statement say anything about your organizational values, your constituents, or expected outcomes?
• Does it explain why your campus is unique and different from other institutions?

What should be in a mission statement?

• Overall purpose, and historic roots of an institution
• General goals
• Constituent groups and stakeholders
• General programs and services
• Unique traits that distinguish the campus from others
• Philosophical foundation
• Expected outcomes that link programs and services to constituents

Before you review the mission, understand the real condition of your institution:

• Who makes up our campus community?
• What do we do best? What are we known for? What do we want to be known for? How do we know?
• What are our academic strengths? How committed are we to engagement?
• What are the features of our external environment? What does our region expect from us? Ask them!
• Whom do we serve? Who will we serve in the future?
• What is the alignment of our academic strengths with the issues of our region?
• How do our students characterize their learning experience? What do others find in our graduates that reflects our distinctiveness?
• What are our limitations? What do we not do well?
• Do we hold competing visions for our future? If so, what are they? How might they be reconciled?
• What are our shared values?