Our mission is – well, what?

During the recent strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University, I did a presentation in which I set out a number of mission statements from a variety of universities. Some of the universities were old – ancient, indeed – some were new, some were teaching-intensive, some research intensive, some were in major cities, some served sparsely population regions. I produced the mission statements, and in a separate order, the names of the universities; I then asked those present to see whether they could correctly link the universities to their missions. And of course they couldn’t – these statements were entirely interchangeable. They all said they wanted their institution to be as good as you could imagine in teaching, research, community engagement and innovation; or some such stuff. Some were able to say this quite snappily, some needed several paragraphs and long words.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person suggested at my presentation, that nobody should bother with such stuff anyway; mission statements are put together without much imagination, and probably as an after-thought to strategic planning, rather than as a foundation for it. Or it could suggest that, despite all claims to the contrary, in the end all universities have a very similar mission, and the differentiating factor is not what they do, but how good they are at doing it. That would be bad news for DCU, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But if you ask DCU people what that difference consists of, the answer often is that we innovate and introduce things before others do – that we lead the way in pursuing change. That is of course good, but it doesn’t make us different; it means we do the same things, just earlier.

In the case of DCU, there are in fact some clear differences, and our strategic plan will develop that thinking a little more in an explicit way. But all this does raise the question whether the assertion that a university sector should contain some diversity is actually well founded. Is it really true that, let’s say in the UK, Cambridge University is different from the University of Lincoln in any way that cannot be explained by age, resources and influence? In other words, in the ideal world of each, would they be doing something radically different from each other?

Universities often repeat the mantra of diversity, but do we really know what that should require of us? And if we did discover a real basis for differentiation, would all of those seeking a different mission enjoy the respect of those who stick with a more traditional agenda? These are important questions which, I believe, university strategic planners do not properly examine, and to which I suspect they do not have an answer. It is a topic to which I shall return in due course, perhaps when we have published our plan.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

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