Unlocking the Power of Mission

When was the last time you read your college’s or university’s mission statement?

It’s probably been a while. The mission statement tends to hide in the shadows — posted on seldom-visited web pages, or in sections of brochures that generally get skimmed over. Yet the very purpose of that text is to define an institution’s reason for being; to serve as the compass that keeps your people focused on, and moving toward, your shared educational and civic goals.



This incongruity isn’t surprising. Both inside and outside the world of higher education, our sense of “greater good” is often relegated by day-to-day pressures. It’s easy — and, seemingly, even sensible — to make your mission wait, while you put out the little fires that demand your immediate attention. But, when you’ve chosen a profession dedicated to educating the next generation of thinkers, workers, leaders and citizens, you’d be remiss not to wonder:

What is this relegation costing us? What is it costing our students? And, what is it costing our greater society?

In Part One of PBS’s recent series, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, narrator Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his former Yale classmate, congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, reflect on the opportunities that came to them in 1969, when the university opened its doors to women and African Americans:

SJL: I would’ve never had the opportunity [to attend Yale] — nor you, nor others — if there had not been that concerted effort to say, “Is there somebody out there that’s different from us? That would make Yale better?”

HLG: And America better.

SJL: And America better.



This mandate gave access to students who otherwise would have been locked out due to policy. It enriched and empowered those previously marginalized students, evolved the civic mission of the university, and enabled a boon of new talent and thinking that benefited our greater society. It was an act of progressivism driven by mission. And progressivism — which lives at the heart of liberal-arts education — is what moves people, institutions, and cultures forward.

To wit:


Our mission is to educate and develop promising students of all backgrounds through teaching, research, artistic creation and public service. Working with a diverse community of faculty, staff and administrators dedicated to intellectual advancement and exploration, our graduates meet the world with a sense of global responsibility and intellectual curiosity — preparing them for personal and professional success, while tackling the challenges of the modern world.


No, this isn’t Yale University’s mission statement. In fact, it doesn’t belong to any specific college or university. Rather, it’s an amalgam of mission statements taken from five random schools.* But, it reads a lot like Yale’s; and, it probably reads a lot like yours, too. Because even though each learning institution is unique, most share certain core civic values, including:

  • A commitment to teaching, research and artistic endeavor
  • A dedication to diversity — of student body, faculty and staff
  • The promotion of intellectual freedom and curiosity
  • Service to the local community, the nation and the world

In the last several decades, we’ve seen this progressive spirit expressed and extended in different ways.

For example, today, a record number of colleges and universities — more than 870 — have adopted “test optional” or “test flexible” policies in an effort to better represent the diversity among the greater population of students. The implications of this movement reach beyond gender, race and ethnicity. Standardized tests measure certain kinds of intellect very well, but tend to under-represent others. What about students who are intelligent, talented and capable/“ready” in different ways — ways that aren’t properly measured and reflected by such tests? In such cases, high school students who could be thriving in any number of college environments often find themselves locked out because of their SAT or ACT scores.


test-optional colleges


One of the most common arguments for standardized tests is that they provide an objective measure of a student’s intellectual abilities and “college readiness.” Not all high schools grade equally, so standardized tests provide a way to measure each student against national benchmarks. The problem is, if such tests are being used as filters to weed out the “not good enough” — rather than leveraged to provide one type of measure, which is considered part of a mosaic of information used to make a decision about a particular applicant — then we are, by implication, operating on the presumption that standardized tests measure the only important types of intellectual abilities and indicators of potential (or, at least, the most important types).

That presumption represents an enormous leap of logic, and one that leaves so many students marginalized. This type of injustice seems to undermine the progressive mission that’s intended to guide so many schools. Which raises the question:


For the progressive colleges and universities that continue to use standardized tests in this way, what’s holding them back from progressive change?


In researching this piece, I reached out to several friends and colleagues in admissions and enrollment to get their collective take. Their answers and sentiments varied, but each of them agreed on the following “likely reasons”:

  • Internal inertia/lack of institutional motivation to change (i.e., If it ain’t broke, why fix it?)
  • Internal politics that slow or stunt progress (especially at public colleges & universities)
  • Public inertia/perception (i.e., students and their parents perceive taking the SAT or ACT as a normal and reasonable part of “what you do” when applying to college)

If you work at a college or university, you may be nodding right now. You understand the Sisyphean labor of overcoming the inertia, the politics, the “red tape,” etc., that pile up to obstruct progress. But at what point do we decide, consciously or otherwise, that something is too arduous to even try?


The late Arthur Howe Jr., former Yale admissions dean

The recommendation to diversify Yale University’s student body was first made in the fall of 1956 by Arthur Howe, then Dean of Admissions. It would take another 13 years — and, in that time, numerous faculty committees, reports and recommendations, third-party corporate interventions, etc. — before an official policy would be approved and adopted.

History shows us that progress is most often the fruit of toil, struggle and patience. The difficulty of a task isn’t reason enough to abandon it. Moreover, we shouldn’t wait for internal or external pressures to motivate or justify our movement toward what’s right. Sticking to the status quo because one has “nothing to lose” is tantamount to placing bad bets that only seem safe, and doing so at the risk of someone else’s existential currency.

Our ideals mark only the beginning of our journeys. It is up to each of us to actively earn — through our real-life, day-to-day actions — the Concept of Self we conjured in our imaginations. So, as we take the new year by the reigns, let’s consider a re-commitment to the challenges we’ve accepted on behalf of our institutions. Let’s consider what progress can be made at our schools — and the people served by them, and the greater culture that can benefit from them — if we push ourselves forward … and unlock the power of mission.

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*Amherst College; Bard College; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Iowa; University of Southern California.

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