Saying More With Less

To focus institutions, some administrators have taken the unconventional step of creating exceptionally short mission statements, and placing them front and center.
June 20, 2011

Mission statements, despite being referenced as the philosophical essences of their respective institutions, don't get much respect on college campuses.

Often wordy and cumbersome, they don't get the airtime or T-shirt placement enjoyed by new advertising slogans or the classic Latin motto. Everybody in Cambridge knows "Veritas," but you'd be hard-pressed to find a sweatshirt with the 220-word statement that starts with "Harvard College adheres to the purposes for which the Charter of 1650 was granted." Instead, mission statements tend to get shunted off to a corner of the website, only to be brought out when it's time for strategic planning.

But University of Rochester Provost Ralph W. Kuncl wanted something else in 2009 when he began the process of creating the first universitywide mission statement in Rochester's almost 160-year history. He wanted something creative that would stick in people's minds, that they would think about every day at work. What he ended up with in May after a long vetting process was a 10-word statement that he thinks encapsulates everything the university stands for: "Learn, Discover, Heal, Create — And Make the World Ever Better." It has its own t-shirt now.

"A mission statement isn't about what you do day to day, and it's not a vision statement about the hopes for the institution," Kuncl said. "It's an authentic way of saying what's important about an institution. An explanation of what you do and why you do it."

Mission statements tend to be discussed more in the corporate world than in higher education, but Kuncl's effort to highlight Rochester's mantra raises questions about the role such declarations could or should play at colleges and universities. A strong mission statement, proponents say, has the potential to help set a university on a new course, solidify an institution's identity, or help faculty members, students, and others buy in to a university's goals.

It also raises questions about the best format for them. Ten words is significantly shorter than most college and university mission statements. Some of the pithiest, typically belonging to small liberal arts or community colleges, hover around 40 words. But for many diverse research universities, statements tend to extend into hundreds of words, multiple paragraphs, and bulleted lists. Should these be pared down to single sentences?

Christopher K. Bart, a business professor at McMaster University and an authority on mission statements, said such declarations are crucial for communicating to stakeholders what the role of the organization should be and to what it aspires. He has worked with a few universities to craft statements, including McMaster University and Mount Saint Vincent University. "They are supposed to be the cornerstone of any strategic plan," he said. "They answer an organization's most fundamental question, which is 'Why do we exist?' "

For for-profit companies, the answer tends to be to make money, Bart said. But companies have expanded past that point to consider developing satisfied customers, which tend to be a result of satisfied employees. Statements, then, are an opportunity to get employee buy-in on a company or organization's goal, to get all involved passionate about why they're doing what they do.

Bart said the ideal statement for all organizations is between 40 and 70 words, and clearly articulates the organization's desire to satisfy the needs of various stakeholders using aspirational and superlative terms. For the university, those stakeholders would include faculty, students, alumni, donors, administrators, and the community. "The definition I use is that a mission statement should describe the relationship an organization needs to create, build, and maintain with critical stakeholders," he said.

One can easily find numerous examples of declarations that fall outside Bart's parameters. The City University of New York's Borough of Manhattan Community College has a 338-word statement. The University of Wisconsin at Madison's mission stretches to 425 words. And the University of Texas system's multifaceted, bulleted statement tops out at 478 words.

Going long isn't always a bad tactic. Borough of Manhattan, Wisconsin, and Texas are large institutions with many goals and diverse stakeholders. Some companies have been very successful with long statements. Johnson & Johnson's 308-word credo is known for the fact that most employees can remember it. "To have a long one, you have to take on the responsibility to ensure that those words have meaning and value and are remembered by stakeholders, that they're not just words on a piece of paper," Bart said. What matters, he said, is that people integrate the statement into what they do on a daily basis.

There are upsides and downsides to brevity. A short statement can be ubiquitous, which can help it become ingrained in the university's day-to-day action. It can be placed on t-shirts, stationery, and other university documents. But that brevity also makes specific goals, definitions, and means impossible, leaving room for interpretation, misunderstanding, and debate. Bart is not a fan of short mission statements. He said they're often gimmicky -- more like advertising slogans than anything else.

Kuncl embraces the ambiguity that brevity creates. Because Rochester serves so many roles, he said, no mission statement could ever spell out everything. But terms such as "learn" and "heal" let stakeholders read into the mission the various responsibilities of the university. The ambiguity also stimulates discussion, which is part of the university's mission.

The university did not set out to craft a long statement, Kuncl said, and he wanted something creative. So instead of convening a committee of representatives from every corner of the university, he sought out the "most creative" individuals he could find. He asked for recommendations and compiled a list of 14 individuals with campus ties who were frequently referenced.

He brought those 14 individuals together at his house for dinner and asked them to come up with the first draft of the statement. When he returned to the room, he was pleasantly surprised when they presented him with an 11-word mission. The statement was parsed by various campus groups to get the final 10-word statement.

Michigan Technological University is another institution that took the short path. About 10 years ago officials adopted the mission statement "We prepare students to create the future." The statement is intended to convey several things about the university, including that it is teaching- and student-focused, and that it focuses on scientific, technical, engineering, and math fields, as well as innovation.

"When it's short, people can remember it and focus on it," said President Glenn D. Mroz. "On a daily basis, they can think, 'Am I really doing something to create the future?' " He said that in a survey 86 percent of faculty members said they had read the whole statement.

When the university reconsidered its strategic plan in 2009, administrators sought brevity there as well, keeping the document to two pages. Mroz said he wants to make sure that individuals are constantly thinking about the university's core objectives, and keeping them simple helps with that.


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