University Missions are Not Created Equal

An analysis of mission statements reveals differences in priorities by institution type

What is the purpose of education? What is the purpose of the university?

These questions are deceptively difficult to find a consensus answer to. Yes, many will undoubtedly provide some response along the lines of “the purpose of education is to prepare you for _____________” or “the university prepares people for careers.” But one’s response to these questions will undoubtedly be shaped by their philosophy on education and how they think about the role of the modern university in society.

Like many other academics, I believe in education for education’s sake. Attending university is about learning, cultivating one’s mind and intellectual prowess, and developing an appreciation of the astonishing beauty and wonder our world has to offer us. University is supposed to expose us to the variety the world has to offer. I believe education is an end in itself: education as a means to something specific is not necessarily the point, at least not entirely.

In my efforts to understand the incentive structure surrounding teaching at our nation’s research universities, the type of university I spent my entire educational training at, I began to wonder about the mission of universities. Given that most universities are non-profit institutions, their goal is to serve a particular mission, something that guides their efforts (or is supposed to anyway). Given the lack of systematic incentives for teaching excellence I pondered the question of whether the focus of education as an end in itself has been lost at our major universities.

I looked up the mission of my alma mater, Oakland University (I certainly never looked at it in the decade I had been there), to find the following:

Oakland University cultivates the full potential of a diverse and inclusive community. As a public doctoral institution, we impact Michigan and the world through education, research, scholarship, and creative activity.

Education is not the end, but rather it is a means to impact the world. I wondered if other universities were like this, too.

I decided to do a qualitative analysis of mission statements to see if there were any interesting patterns. Spending my entire adult life in the higher education world, I was familiar with some basic themes of university: education, societal impact, and character development. These themes were used to devise four categories for coding:

  • Education as End: Education, knowledge, or intellect as a goal not explicitly tied to another goal

  • Education as Means: Education, knowledge, or intellect tied to another goal in which education is a mechanism to achieve that goal

  • Society Impact: The explicit goal to serve, impact, or better broader communities

  • Citizens Product: The explicit betterment of the student as a holistic person and leader in society

My testing sample consisted of the top 10 universities across liberal arts colleges, private research institutions, and public research institutions (according to 2021 US News rankings) for a total sample of 30 universities. You can download the coding file here.

I read through the mission statements and coded words and phrases associated with each of the four themes. For each university I summed the number of phrases in each category. Then, for each university type (e.g., Research, Private) I calculated the proportion of each theme by taking the sum of each category within the university type and dividing it by the total number of coded phrases for that university type. The result is a measure of the proportional focus on each theme expressed as a percent – education as an end, education as a means, society impact, and citizens product – for each of the three university types.

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There are a few notable patterns from this (admittedly, limited) analysis. First, education as an end is substantially reduced at public research universities, relative to its dominant focus at liberal arts institutions. This may not be particularly surprising given what liberal arts institutions are known for.

Second, although public research universities have a minimal focus on education as an end, our nation’s public research institutions have a clearly disproportionate and dominant focus on society impact, mostly through research. Even the very existence of research universities impacts the communities they are within by providing thousands of jobs and producing substantial economic benefits to the local communities.

Third, the liberal arts ideal of developing the holistic person and producing Good Citizens is evident, enjoying a dominant focus in their mission statements.

Fourth, holistically speaking, liberal arts institutions and private research institutions appear more balanced among the four foci, relative to public research universities that clearly standout for their disproportionate focus on society impact.

It appears, then, that there is something to be said about the inclination that research universities, especially public ones, are focused less and less on education as an end in itself, and more on using research and education as a means to have an impact on the world. Given that the faculty at these institutions are required to obtain funding and produce research to be retained, the argument that teaching is disincentivized at these types institutions is well-aligned with these patterns.

There is nothing inherently wrong or less valuable about these differing priorities, it’s simply aligning one’s priorities with those of the institution they attend or work for, so long as that matters. The modern higher education ecosystem has diversified considerably since its meteoric rise in mid-century America. We’ve seen the vast expansion of community colleges, proliferation of broad access bachelorette institutions, the dominance of power-house research universities, and the relatively new expansion of online offerings, micro-credentials, and coding schools. With this diversification, we should expect increasing variety in the missions and foci of institutions.

So, then, what is the purpose of the university? There seems to not be only one.

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