AGB President & CEO Update: Mission Critical (Systems)

By Henry Stoever January 6, 2023 Blog Post

Happy new year! I trust you enjoyed a peaceful holiday.

Colleges and universities are expansive communities that make hundreds of important decisions based on board-approved strategies, policies, priorities, and practices. The foundation of these decisions should be grounded in an institutional or system mission, which defines its purpose and pathway to achieving that purpose. Although all colleges and universities have a mission, its value wanes if boards do not ensure that strategic discussions and decisions are aligned with the mission.

System and institution missions deserve thoughtful attention, periodic review, and the opportunity to evolve and align with the current environment.

Why it matters: Reviewing and updating the mission statement are critical because the mission guides strategic decision-making. While gaining consensus on an updated mission statement can be difficult, stakeholders can work together to create a mission that meets the moment.

  • As stated in AGB’s Higher Education Governing Boards: An Introductory Guide for Members of College, University, and System Boards, establishing, disseminating, and keeping current the mission of the institution are among the primary responsibilities of the board.
  • The mission statement should serve as a beacon to guide long-term, strategic planning and more immediate challenges. To remain agile in a shifting higher education environment, the mission statement may need to be updated.
  • While the mission or purpose of the college or university is enduring, the board, in collaboration with the chief executive, campus leaders, and stakeholders, must ensure that the mission is kept current to reflect the context of the present environment. Mission and context drive vision statements and strategic plans.

The board advantage: Governing boards can be laser-focused on the mission and ensure each strategy and priority is aligned with the mission.

  • While governing boards are ultimately accountable for the outcomes of established priorities, they must ensure they delegate operational responsibility to the chief executive while working together to ensure mission fulfillment.

Consider these recommendations: 

Review and update as necessary. Mission statements must change to fit the needs of the time but cannot change so often that the process causes unnecessary confusion or reputational whiplash.

  • Periodic review is important, and the mission statement may also need to evolve to align with market trends, student needs, research priorities, mergers and affiliations, or other major shifts that may impact strategies and resource allocation.
  • Accreditors expect colleges and universities to ensure alignment between strategic priorities, faculty-driven curricula, campus programs, and mission. The board should review the mission and keep it current if for no other reason than to comply with accreditation standards.
  • A leading practice is to include the mission statement at the top of the agenda for every board meeting. The document serves as a reference in grounding the work of the board.

Keep the mission statement clear and succinct. Precise statements help the mission stay at the forefront of stakeholders’ minds. If the mission statement is easier to remember, it is easier to incorporate into the work of the board, administration, and campus community.

Invite key stakeholders to the process. To ensure alignment with key campus leaders and groups and to embrace leading practices of shared governance, boards should invite prioritized stakeholders to engage in strategic discussions and solicit their feedback and suggestions in an official setting. Leveraging the time-tested values of shared governance, boards can demonstrate transparency and inclusion to ensure not only that board members are aware and informed of stakeholder sentiment, but also that they can make well-informed, strategic decisions.

Define metrics to measure mission fulfillment. The mission is an overall, fundamental statement of identity and purpose, and boards need to ensure that their institutions are working to fulfill the mission through the goals and objectives of a measurable and properly resourced strategic plan.

  • Boards should ask the chief executive to specify what dashboard metrics, trends, and other indicators need regular oversight to achieve the mission. They can also make clear what metrics they think matter to mission fulfillment.

Understand where students are in the mission statement. For decades, colleges and universities around the world have worked to reinvent campus priorities and programs to better center the student experience in their work.

  • Colleges and universities benefit society in many ways, such as by inspiring students to think creatively and to engage in civil discourse, by conducting research that drives innovation, and by serving as a knowledge-sharing community. These elements, as well as the need to educate and empower students for successful lives, may also be a part of the mission statement.
  • Consider how some institutions incorporate students into their mission as part of our Board Responsibilities for Student Success initiative.

Systems and coordinating boards must go the extra mile. Public institutions and systems have to ensure that each campus is aligned with both the system’s vision and strategic agenda.

  • For systems, a comprehensive mission statement ideally should go further than the sum of its parts, and each campus’s mission should reflect its commitment to a distinct place in the system.
  • In several states, coordinating boards and their higher education agencies have responsibilities for supporting institutions and holding them accountable for state goals, as well as authority to review and approve changes to institutional missions. Such authority ensures that appropriate institutional boundaries and mission distinctions are maintained so that “mission creep” among institutions is kept to a minimum.

Go Deeper:

Question for Board and Committee Chairs

  • How often does the board review and discuss the mission statement?

Questions for Board Members

  • When was the mission statement last reviewed and, if necessary, revised? What is the process for changing it?
  • How does the mission statement differentiate the system or institution from others?

Questions for Chief Executives and Leadership Teams 

  • What data can the administration bring to show progress toward the mission?
  • How are deans, department chairs, and faculty consulted to review and potentially develop the mission, or informed of possible changes?
  • How do you first share the mission with new board members? What context do you share?

As always, thank you for your time, attention, and commitment to higher education.