Reflections on the Power of Mission

Imagining a Place

By Larry D. Shinn    //    Volume 23,  Number 1   //    January/February 2015

Most AGB lists of the core responsibilities of boards begin with the expectation that boards will “ensure the mission is current and aligned with public purposes.” While boards typically delegate the process of mission evaluation and revision to the administration and faculty, it is trustees who ultimately decide the current and future direction of their college or university. At a time when the financial model of most colleges is being challenged, a focus on the power of a college’s mission to help position the institution for an uncertain future is absolutely necessary. In this brief recounting of the mission-journey of Berea College, useful lessons for all colleges may emerge.

Imagine a place where no one pays tuition and every student is required to work in a labor position. A place where the motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” creates an egalitarian culture for 1,700 students primarily from the Southern Appalachian region, with more than 20 percent African-American students and 120 international students from over 50 countries. Imagine a place where pre-vocational programs such as nursing, technology, and agriculture are equal partners with liberal-arts studies in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities that form the context for all learning. Imagine that this college espouses an inclusive Christian identity that welcomes students from all religious traditions of the world, as well as students with no religious commitments at all. Imagine then that this institution is situated in a small town in Kentucky where Bluegrass horse farms meet the Appalachian Mountains. There is such a place, and Berea College is its name. The following is a reflection on the power of mission in determining the success of a college’s past, present, and future.

The Founding Vision and Mission

Born into a slave-holding family in northern Kentucky in 1816, John G. Fee became a radical abolitionist during his years at the Lane Theological School in Cincinnati in the early 1840s. Fee’s Christian faith was one grounded in the Biblical notion of “impartial love,” which meant for him that men and women, blacks and whites, were fully equal in God’s sight and, therefore, must be treated as equals in American society and its institutions—a radically egalitarian vision even for abolitionists in those days. Fee’s creation of a half-dozen integrated churches in Kentucky in the 1840s caught the attention of the abolitionist politician Cassius Clay, who asked Fee to found such a church and community on 10 acres of uninhabited land 35 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky. Under Fee’s leadership, the nonsectarian and integrated Union Church was founded in 1853 and the Berea Schools in 1855. Berea welcomed black and white families from the region to form a distinct community where black and white homes were interspersed and the schools were fully integrated.

Forced to close in 1859 at the dawn of the Civil War, the Berea Schools were reopened in 1865 with the purpose of educating freed slaves and “the mountaineers of Eastern Kentucky and similar adjoining states” (now Southern Appalachia). The schools were also coeducational—as radical a premise then as being interracial was in the 1860s.

Given the culturally and economically marginalized students and families it chose to serve, Berea was always on the verge of financial collapse. Therefore, all students were required to work on the Berea farm, in the “Berea Industries” (woodcrafts, weaving, etc.), or at the many tasks required to support a self-sufficient community. By 1892, Berea had ceased charging its students tuition that they could not pay anyway.

The Berea Schools’ curricula were a blend of the practical and the classical. From the late 1860s through the early 1890s, Berea’s student body of 300 to 400 students was made up of approximately equal numbers of black and white students. The success of Berea’s dramatic egalitarian experiment of an integrated community and schools confirmed the premise that a powerfully conceived mission can create an institution that challenges the status quo. It drew strong detractors, as well.

In the early days, Berea students worked primarily out of necessity. The emphasis on vocational education was supported by an anonymous donor who gave money for Berea’s current Phelps Stokes Chapel (1,200 seats, completed in 1906) with the requirement that it be built as much as possible by students. Students made the required 750,000 bricks, provided most of the labor to cut and mill 33,000 feet of timber from Berea’s forest, and finished the wood for the chapel’s interior. A dean of labor, a position added in 1914, still directs Berea’s more than 100 labor departments.

The Mission Translated to Today

Berea’s Labor Program is a good example of how a focused mission can powerfully guide what a college should (and should not) do over long periods of time. The vocational school was shuttered in 1924, but there was still a value in every student being required to work as part of their education. In the words of a former president, “The work of the classroom joins with the work of the labor system in encouraging us to think as we labor.”

While tensions between working and studying have persisted throughout Berea’s history, the Labor Program Review passed by Berea’s faculty in 2003 explicitly affirms student labor as “learning, service, and work well done.” Consequently, all student-labor positions are now graded and assessed for their effectiveness in meeting those three criteria with an online evaluation system that allows review of all positions, students, and supervisors. And while entering students are typically assigned beginning-level labor positions (such as on cleaning crews, in food service, or as lower-level office workers), they apply for positions after their first year (for example, as faculty teaching assistants, in finance or development offices, or at local nonprofit agencies), often with an eye to their future careers. Student labor that was mostly a necessity in Berea’s founding days has become an integral part of a Berea student’s education today.

Serious assessment of a college’s mission is a sensitive and often controversial process, as an institution balances its historical founding principles with contemporary educational, economic, social, and political realities. Every college mission must be periodically tested for relevance, since the original premise for an institution (for example, single gender, liberal arts, or a given religious focus) may not be sustainable in subsequent cultural contexts.

In 1995, Berea College and its board engaged in a strategic planning process that utilized the Great Commitments mission statement (codified in 1962 and revised in 1993) to test, one by one, the college’s eight commitments (interracial, Appalachian, coeducational, and so on) and concluded that all were important to the education of Berea students in a 21st-century context. Berea faculty and staff chose the name “Being and Becoming: Berea College in the 21st Century” for the plan completed in 1996. With board approval, administrators and faculty members focused on the implementation of the strategic plan and, over the next 15 years, were able to:

  • Increase the number of African-American students from 5–8 percent to 20–22 percent of the student body;
  • Increase international students from 5 percent to 8 percent of the student body;
  • Improve first- to second-year retention rates from 65 percent to 83 percent;
  • Improve graduation rates from 46 percent to 65 percent;
  • Develop a statement of Berea’s inclusive “Christian Identity” for a 21st-century world;
  • Develop a Women’s Study major and add a second faculty position;
  • Create an expanded Appalachian Center with multiple programs in new space;
  • Seek GEAR-UP and Promise Neighborhood grants that now serve over 22,000 elementary school students in Eastern Kentucky counties;
  • Create a Center for Excellence in Learning through Service with new space;
  • Revise Berea’s Labor Program to enhance students’ “learning through labor.”

It is clear that a focused mission can powerfully guide an institution in achieving its goals and direct what it should not do. One example of the latter came with the global recession of 2008–09, when Berea College’s endowment-dependent (75 percent of income), no-tuition financial model was fundamentally threatened. When a planning process to address the crisis was initiated in 2009, Berea’s core mission removed from consideration the idea of charging tuition even as Berea’s staff was reduced by 13 percent and its budget by 16 percent. Focused mission statements not only prescribe but also limit options.

In the mid-1940s, Dean Louis Smith said, “Berea must both be and become… If we hold only to what has been, we achieve a high degree of obsolescence and in all likelihood ill-prepared mediocrities.” Isn’t this observation as true today as it was then? Should not we as college trustees, administrators, faculty, and staff “hold in trust” the challenge to carefully assess what must “be and become” as we revise our colleges’ missions according to the current time, place, and circumstance?

At Berea, a mission-focused approach— Applachian, co-educational, interracial, and ecological, and always with an emphasis on academic excellence and the liberal arts— continues under the leadership of my successor, Lyle D. Roelofs, who has engaged the whole campus and board members in an open and inclusive dialogue about the college’s Great Commitments in order to gain a deeper understanding of Berea’s mission in today’s world. As the Berea College example shows, a powerful mission thoughtfully articulated can position an institution well over time if its trustees, administrators, and faculty are willing to adjust that mission, sometimes dramatically, in response to internal or external forces that threaten its survival or invite its success.

A Timeline of Berea’s History and Mission
  • 1855 – Berea Schools founded, welcoming black and white students alike.
  • 1859 – Berea closes due to the imminent Civil War.
  • 1865 – Berea reopens as a coeducational institution to educate freed slaves and mountaineers of Eastern Kentucky and surrounding states.
  • 1897 – Berea President William Goodell Frost coins term “Appalachian.” White Appalachian student population tripled, black population held constant. Berea focuses on two-year vocational certificate programs for most students and classical degrees for the exceptional few.
  • 1904 – Federal “Day Law” prohibits black and white students from being educated together.
  • 1908 – Berea loses Supreme Court battle over Day Law and establishes Lincoln Institute near Louisville for K–12 black students. Berea College refocuses mission on economically disadvantaged white Appalachian students.
  • 1929 – Berea enrolls 2,779 students, 125 faculty and staff, and five allied schools (elementary, secondary, vocational, normal, and the “College Department”).
  • 1921 – Berea adds four-year B.A. degree.
  • 1926 – Berea adds B.S. degree for science and agriculture students.
  • 1924–1931 – Vocational and Normal schools close, become technology and education departments in Berea College.
  • 1950 – Day Law repealed. Berea College returns to founding interracial vision, after generations of serving Appalachia.
  • 1962 – Berea’s mission (interracial, Appalachian, coeducational, etc.) codified in writing as “Great Commitments,” which are revised in 1993.
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.