Universities’ mission and vision statements serve as public pronouncements of their purpose, ambition, and values. So what does analysis of worldwide institutions’ statements reveal to us? Julián David Cortés-Sánchez has conducted a large-scale content analysis and found a trend towards global influence, an unsurprising emphasis on research and teaching, certain geographical patterns, and a noticeable focus on either the individual or process depending on whether a university was public or private.
When I was an undergraduate student at the school of management, a professor told my classmates and I that mission and vision statements were about as useful to an organisation’s performance as a decorative poster behind the front desk. Years later, that scene came to mind as I wondered if the tools most used for strategic planning were indeed as useful as a Starry Night replica hung in a company’s main hallway. Since the 1980s, scholars from the strategic planning field have published profusely on this topic (e.g. Pearce, Campbell and Bart). In the case of mission statements, one of the first meta-studies concluded that there is a positive, albeit small, relationship with financial performance in private firms.
Mission and vision statements – what are they trying to solve?
Based on seminal studies, a mission statement should respond to four essential questions:
- Why an organisation exists.
- What it believes in.
- The policies and behavioural patterns that guide its operations.
- The strategy for achieving its purpose.
Meanwhile, a vision statement should express:
- A declaration of interdependence.
- A determination and publication of what makes the organisation unique.
- Values and principles.
- A “puller” into the future.
- The headwater for the organisation’s priorities, plans, and goals.
Mission and vision statements of universities
So, how do universities make use of mission and vision statements? In the English-language literature on the subject there are several national studies that explore the relationship between rhetorical elements and institutional type (public vs. private); how the mission and vision statements of public and private universities differ in content, and if there are any differences reflective of propounded institutional aims; and how universities interpret and respond to the changes in the institutional environment, claiming their organisational identity through mission statements.
As high-profile examples, consider University College London’s mission and vision statements:
- Mission: “A diverse intellectual community, engaged with the wider world and committed to changing it for the better; recognised for our radical and critical thinking and its widespread influence; with an outstanding ability to integrate our education, research, innovation and enterprise for the long-term benefit of humanity.”
- Vision: “Our distinctive approach to research, education and innovation will further inspire our community of staff, students and partners to transform how the world is understood, how knowledge is created and shared and the way that global problems are solved.”
In a recently published preprint, my colleagues and I conducted a content analysis of 338 mission statements and 291 vision statements of universities across the world using Voyant Tools, a web-based text reading and analysis environment that uses more than 20 visualisation tools to analyse a text corpus. Our aim was to identify the mission and vision statements’ keywords, most and least frequently used terms, and universities’ similarities (i.e. isomorphism) and differences according to continent, size, focus, research output, age, and status (i.e. private or public).
Among several findings, we noticed:
- A trend towards global influence in vision statements.
- An overall push for research and teaching.
- An absence of quantitative elements.
- No similarities between terms used by private firms and universities
- Mission statements tend to be longer than vision statements, but South American statements tend to be longer
- Public universities were more focused on individuals (students) while private universities were more focused on process (teaching).
Figure 1 shows the five most frequently used terms were: “research”, “university”, “world”, “knowledge”, and “education”. The vision statements analysed (right column) showed that universities sought a role in the world as global universities:
Figure 1: Ratio of terms in mission and vision statements. Source: Julián David Cortés-Sánchez (2017) “Mission and Vision Statements of Universities Worldwide – A Content Analysis”; based on QS, 2016, and university websites, and processed by Voyant Tools. Click to enlarge.
The only quantitative objective found in both mission and vision statements was years (e.g. “To be one of the top 25 research universities in the world by 2020”) with no mention of a specific quantity of students enrolled, papers published, or patents registered. By way of comparison, in the case of private firms among the most frequently used terms were: “sincerity”, “excitement”, “competence”, “safety”, “security”, and “social responsibility”. Despite the fact that mission and vision statements were tools adopted by the higher education sector from the private sector, none of these terms was mentioned by any university.
The longest mission and vision statements were from universities in South America; with mission statements at an average of 33.1 words, and vision statements at an average of 32.2 words. The shortest mission statements were from Europe, at an average of23.3 words; with the shortest vision statements from Asia, at an average of 20.2 words. Therefore, mission statements are dependent on their institutional or, in this case, geographical environment, and some are written as a narrative or history to reach a broad audience and cultivate an emotional commitment to the organisation.
The status of the majority of universities of the sample was public (85%). When their mission and vision statements were compared with private sector universities – and putting aside the terms “research”, “university”, and “knowledge” – the highest priority term for public universities was “students”. However, “teaching” is more prevalent among private sector universities’ statements than those of the public sector. Private sector universities noticeably focused on process, while the public sector focuses on individuals. In addition, the private sector has a noticeable interest in “society”, as opposed to the public sector’s focus on “community”.
In practical terms, university planning offices can use these results and the digital open-access database we have developed to elucidate a global outlook on mission and vision statements’ trends or uncommonly used terms. This can help define the purpose of a university and its future course of action, embrace an overall isomorphism, or seek a distinctive strategy to differentiate one institution from the others. In addition, this research can be used by strategic planning scholars to conduct regionally or nationally focused studies.
This blog post is based on the author’s preprint, “Mission and Vision Statements of Universities Worldwide – A Content Analysis”, available in the Universidad del Rosario institutional repository.
Featured image credit: Feet on a road arrow by Gaelle Marcel, via Unsplash (licensed under a CC0 1.0 license).
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