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Dec 20, 2021

Vision, mission, and other sacred nonsense

Few management concepts in academia are subject to such wide-spread misuse as mission and vision statements. Every university has a page with its mission and vision (and sometimes value) statements, buried somewhere deep, because they are so embarrassing. Why would otherwise smart people publish uninspiring clichés is a genuine mystery I will try to solve.

Mission statements only make sense when they are different from each other. Such statements should describe what this university does and does not do, with respect to other universities. The mission statement defines a niche. Clearly, Harvard College educates the elites, while Sac State educates the masses. Their mission includes a lot of cutting-edge research, while ours is focused on quality teaching. Their freshmen come well-prepared, while ours often need a lot of help. Curiously, people refer to “our mission” in conversations, in this exact sense. But they NEVER refer to the official mission statement, and I bet most of them do not know what it says. Similarly, “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” No kidding, it could be a mission of any university on the planet; what’s so special about Harvard? Why don’t we just say what we really think?

Vision is also meant to be a pragmatic tool. For example, if you are a residential campus in the region where young population declines, you need to make some choices. For example, you can bet on reaching out to non-traditional population through online or off-campus programming. Or you can learn to be a smaller university. Or else, you can specialize in something, become a niche school, market like crazy, and recruit students from a wider demographic area. Or you can attract international students. Picking one of these strategies constitutes a vision.

Another example: if you live in a state that continues do cut public subsidy to its higher education, you should diversify your revenue stream somehow. If you are losing to local competition, well, there should be a realistic answer to that. That is what a vision supposed to be – some idea where you are going if you want to survive. It can actually be a very useful tool, allowing an institution to focus its priorities, rather than trying to be everything to everyone, and pursue all strategies at the same time (which in the end equals to not having any strategy at all). But why does it have to be some tasteless, pompous nonsense, like this one: “So-and-so University will create an accessible and equitable undergraduate student experience, both inside and outside the classroom, that empowers all students to learn, develop purpose and passion, and grow as individuals to achieve their goals?” How’s this a vision? Can you envision it, can you literally imagine it?

One reason is the way these statements are written. There is always a committee that will word-smith to include everyone’s opinion. Consensus is always bland, boring, and verbose. Committees will include words not because they are brilliant, but because, well, Joe has to be given a token on respect, since he is a member of the committee. The bigger the committee, the more words per sentence. No one edits those statements for clarity, no one critiques them, or seriously tries to improve them. University presidents don’t feel like alienating their faculty by questioning such statements. Not one of the committee members would put anything like that in their own academic paper fearing ridicule for bad writing and lack of originality. But it passes for something profound as a piece of collective writing.

The other reason is the believe that strategy is a sacred text. By its very nature, sacred writing tends to be non-pragmatic, dense, and haughty. That is an unfortunate assumption that guarantees failure every time. The sacred speech requiring taboos, preventing us from clearly communicating our intent. Harvard cannot say “The most capable students in the world;” that would be non-egalitarian. Sac State cannot say “First generation, diverse students most of whom were denied an opportunity to attend a great high school.” That would also be non-egalitarian. Those are taboo words in the context of a sacred text. They do not belong in a mission or vision statements, which condemn such statements to impotence.

Mission and vision statements are simple pragmatic tools for planning purposes. If you thought a hammer was a sacred object, it would probably look pretty. A hammer would have pearl incrustations, and a golden head. It would not be ever used for such mundane purposes as driving nails. You need your mission statement to work because it prevents you from mission creep. You need your vision statement to work because it allows you to implement a strategy. You don’t want them to hang on your wall, pretty, but useless.

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