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Mission statement malaise

Friday, July 15, 2011

Be honest.

Who really likes a mission statement? Most of them are unreadable. Something Virginia Woolf supposedly said about something else: “My mind feels as though a torrent of weak tea has been poured over it.” That’s how I feel when I see a mission statement.

You have a mission statement because you’re trying to make a public statement about what you are doing and why. You’re telling the world that you know what you’re doing, and this is it.  It is a tradition, and in my opinion good practice, to make some kind of explicit statement about what you’re going to do when you embark upon a new project. Well, you don’t have to, but if you do, you’re probably going to get better results. You can have some vague and amorphous clouds of something or other floating around in your head and call it a day (and many do). But I once heard a design instructor say, “You’re not thinking unless you have a pencil in your hand.” Which I took to mean, get it out of your head and on the paper. It’s all potential in your head. In our heads, we are all rulers of the universe. It’s on paper, and in the world, where our real status is exposed.

When you’re trying to articulate what to do, the particular is better than the general, and usually more interesting. For example, you can say “I want to be more alert and productive at work.” But until you also say, “Tonight I’m going to get eight hours sleep and follow that up with a veggie omelet for breakfast, and I will NOT run down to the breakroom for donuts and gossip,” the idea of your future alertness is not very well-shaped.

Yet…most mission statements I’ve seen are the opposite of specific. It’s as if someone took those vague puffy clouds of intention out of their heads and plopped them onto a piece of paper. “The University of Tumbolia’s mission is to be a center of educational excellence in the 21st century and provide its students with the core skills for lifelong learning and success.” A lofty mission, and as hard to grab hold of as a summer cumulonimbus three miles up in the air.  Frankly, reading things like that makes my head feel like it’s full of weak tea.

So I’m torn. We decided we needed a mission statement for our information literacy program, not just because everyone else has one, but because we thought it would help focus our energies. But writing a mission statement turns out to be an energy-sapping experience, leaving us with no raw materials for any focusing activity. We ended up by saying things like, “At OU-Tulsa, all students will receive information literacy instruction” or “All students will be information literate” or something like that. We’re back to the amorphous clouds of weak tea vapor.

We want a mission statement that differentiates us from the herd, something that tells the world, “This is why we are such an awesome institution!” At the same time, we want a mission statement that reminds us what we are trying to do, something that will help us snap back to our real task when we find ourselves, inevitably, mission-creeping in another direction, pulled by exigencies and emergencies into areas where we really didn’t intend to go, or even worse, going back to the old routines because it’s easier and we’re exhausted.

The difficult arises partly from our inability to identify a real, solid, particular outcome that applies to all our students. There are a dozen or more separate curricula on campus. We don’t have many undergraduates. We have distance students. We have medical students. We have social workers and engineers. There is no course that all students, or even a majority of students, take in common. Any precept we lay down for one program might be utterly irrelevant for another. So…we can’t be specific. How, then, do we write a short, sweet, interesting, useful mission statement about our information literacy program? Should we even try? Is there some other way we can say to ourselves, our students, our faculty, and our colleagues, “This is our mission!” without sending everyone to sleep?

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