David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
The Mission Here, Man

October 29, 2015

Inside Higher Ed today has a story about liberal arts' colleges cutting so many programs that it is difficult to define them any more as even liberal arts anymore.  The teaser Inside Higher Ed uses on its home page is the question, "has [such a college] changed its mission?"

Why is the mission such a sacred cow within higher education?  The Higher Learning Commission's criteria for accreditation starts with the issue of an institution's mission, focusing on establishment that the mission is 1) broadly understood within the institution and guides its operations; 2) articulated publicly; 3) is shown to be understood by the institution as related to the diversity of society; and 4) a demonstrated commitment to public good. (Full HLC accreditation criteria can be seen here.)

Important elements such as evidence of learning, integrity/ethical standards, finances, and general support for students, faculty and staff, come after the mission criterion.  Maybe I shouldn't read primacy as anything more than simply something has to be the first criterion, but it seems bothersome to me that what a college "wants to do" is the first thing appropriate to accreditation.  I suppose it reinforces a noble element to higher education, hearkening the higher good of a calling.  I am not sure any other definition of "mission" can justify why there must be a relationship to a diverse society.

David A. Longanecker in November 2008 published a concise article for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education about the growth of missions within higher education.  (Don't be put off by his subtitle: Higher Education's Battle Between Creationism and Evolution.  This is no Tennessee vs. Scopes' debate.)  Longanecker points out that "the impetus for more intentionality in defining missions evolved because of the rapid growth in the demand for higher education" (p.2) during the second half of the 20th century. "Public institutions with less prestigious missions sought to expand their missions to service a greater share of the demand" (p. 2).

Eseentially, Longanecker asserts that "mission is actually a finance issue" (p.1), meaning that "expanding institutional missions, however, comes at significant cost, which every legislator should be aware of and should weigh against the prospective benefits of expanded mission" (p. 3).  It all sounds rather complicated, and not particularly helpful to the rapidly changing world that higher education serves.  Early in his article Longanecker reminds us that initially colleges and universities fit within a couple of fairly straightforward "missions," a scenario that I see with great trepidation for our future: Institutions whose missions reinforce a society of haves (traditional education) and have-nots (career-based education).

Why can't a college or university try to be all things to all people? To go back to the HLC criteria, if an institution can verify its integrity, can ensure its students are learning, clearly supports its faculty and students, and is a good steward of its finances, who cares about the expansion of the mission?  Why is a mission even necessary?  At some point our idealism about college needs to be removed from our expectations about what college can do and will do to serve its citizens.

But enough of my yakkin'. What do you say? Let's boogie.

Because, most importantly, and to no one's surprise, this puts me in the mood to rewrite a song, with all apologies to The Eurythmics (the video link if you have never heard it is here):

Mission Here, Man


Well, I was born from an original charter.

I was born from a simple land grant.

And if I had a dollar bill

For all the politicians' rant,

There'd be a mountain of money

Piled up to aid students who can't.


My founder made me good.

My founder made me strong.

He said, "be true to our goals

And the students will come along.

But's there just one thing

That you must understand:

You can fool with the vision

But don't mess with the mission here, man."


Don't mess with the mission here, man.

Don't mess with the mission here, man.


With the mission here, man,

We got HLC on our side.

We got business and industry

Along for the ride.

Uncleary eyes from the criteria.

We're a place with a mission

And an academic senate.

There was a program review

And some left angry.

"What's the mission here?" was asked of me.

I said, "stop what you're doing,

And get down on one knee.

I've got to remind you to see"


That you don't mess with the mission here, man.

Don't mess with the mission here, man.




Longanecker, D. (November 2008).  Getting What You Pay For.  Mission Differentiation Vs. Mission Creep: Higher Education's Battle Betwen Creationism and Evolution.  National Conference of State Legislators.  Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://www.wiche.edu/info/gwypf/dal_mission.pdf.