Diversity of mission?

During a strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University a couple of years ago, 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. But really they all said the same thing.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person argued 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 my present institution, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But what do we mean when we say that? How different are any of us, really?

Until now the key differentiator between universities, when all is said and done, has been money. When you have more resources, you can do different things. I suspect that many of us believe that if we had Harvard University’s reserves we’d be doing what Harvard does. But then again, some of us also increasingly think that, in today’s society, we need much greater diversity in higher education, not born out of necessity but based on genuine strategic intent. This probably sounds obvious enough to many, but in reality it isn’t. Diversity of mission to date hasn’t necessarily been based on strategic choice but on the recognition of inevitability. Those universities that stress their local role and teaching credentials are, I suspect, often doing so because they don’t have the resources to claim anything else with credibility. There’s nothing altogether wrong with that, because strategy is often in part about recognising what is achievable and then making that work for you. But there is an underlying hint that focusing on a local population and a teaching agenda is for the less well endowed and more modest institutions, and that therefore this agenda is in some ways not as good.

However, higher education now needs to find excellence in different contexts. We need to get away from the idea that, taking the UK as an example, Russell Group universities represent a ‘better’ and more excellent model of higher education. We need to have universities that aim to be world leaders, which includes leadership in research, but based on different strategic models. Some of this may be found in subject specialisation – the prioritisation of a smaller number of key areas – or in forms of teaching and learning innovation, or in support for economic development in a region (including perhaps a mission to address disadvantage), or in particular kinds of partnerships. But universities should not really be satisfied with a strategic model that is based on inferiority: we won’t have the resources to develop a global reputation, so we’ll concentrate on something more modest.

I have just tried to have a more up-to-date look at university mission statements, and interestingly many of those I looked at last time no longer publish one. But if they did, I hope that we might see the signs of a genuine commitment to diversity that is based on something more positive than being resigned to what is realistic, something that suggests that universities want to be excellent in their own way and have the confidence to believe in what they are doing, so that they would still do it even if they became very rich. In our fantasies, we shouldn’t all want to be Harvard.

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11 Comments on “Diversity of mission?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Do you not think that Harvard has an establishing ‘why’. The not so much what you are and how you are going about achieving that goal, but why you are in existence at all. A ‘why’ that’s very specific, and one from which all else flows.
    I think for most ‘u’niversities today everything they are doing is leading to that why.

  2. Fred Says:

    The problem could also be that too many universities are focusing in the same actual area but then the only differentiation is coming from a mission statement. However, talking about inferiority, the problem with universities is that there are very specific criteria that seem to count in (for example) league tables which in turn affect people’s perception. So focusing in (say) innovation in teaching may be a little bit problematic since it doesn’t help that much university’s reputation which again may affect recruitment (so resurces) in the long term. Russell Group for example is mainly focusing on research. They may be not the best universities in any other area but research heavily affects perception, then recruitment, resources and so on…

  3. Al Says:

    Mission statements were fashionable from Coveys “7 Habits…” popularity, but it came to be a bit too much, where there was too much publication and not enough preparation of the same.
    It is important to constitute some fundamentals though…

  4. anna notaro Says:

    Excellent post as it describes so well the conundra universities are currently facing caught between the need to be locally relevant and global players (glocal institutions) and to aspire to go beyond the determinism imposed by the economics…this demands a pich of realism but not resignation, a few spoons of fantasy but none of delusion, most of all it requires a recognition that, not dissimilarly from human identity, a university constructs its own by being *different* from anyone else:

    *That would be bad news for my present institution, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But what do we mean when we say that? How different are any of us, really?*

    but also by recognizing what makes us similar, part of the ‘community’ (if anything today’s emphasis on competition linked to the race for acquisition of economic resources to fund growth is eroding exactly this crucial element!). As it’s the case for any human community it’s the choice of core values at its base and the emphasis on each of them which makes it distinctive.

  5. cormac Says:

    I think part of the problem is the modern obsession with being ‘world leaders’. We can’t all be world leaders, by definition. Nor can every research centre be a ‘centre of excellence’, dread word.

    I really miss the old NUI thinking, where you had a system of colleges, all offering a good solid undergraduate foundation. It didn’t matter whether you went to UCD, UCC, UCG or Maynooth; all were considered good colleges , with plenty of mobility staff between them and uniformity of standard.

    Yes, the best and the brightest were encouraged to do their postgrads in the top American colleges (at least in science), who valued the Irish undergraduate standard. Many of these academics returned home afterwards, adding their expertise to the university pool. Now, each college is trying to *be* Harvard and MIT, which is like trying to win the world cup


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