Mission statements became really important to me when I learned what they are supposed to mean and do for non-profits. Ever since then, I’ve taken them pretty seriously. I use the mission of the Virginia Center for Housing Research as a guide in my work and I use the mission statements of other organizations to assess their work. That said, they’re up for interpretation so there is always ambiguity and their meaning may change even though their composition does not.
I’ve attended two universities as a full-time student: American University and Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech is a state school. American in a private school and a non-profit organization. Before today, I’d never looked at the mission statement for either and maybe I didn’t need to. I chose these Universities because I knew what they were about–they made it clear through their websites, promotional materials, and most importantly, their programmatic offerings– and then they influenced me, probably drew me in a bit deeper over all those years. Here’s what I’m getting at… both American and Virginia Tech are service oriented and so am I. And in my singular experience, both Universities live their missions.
You can find American’s mission here. They call it “Statement of Common Purpose, American University’s Mission”– I think the combination of purpose and mission allows it to be longer than a traditional mission statement. American says that it has a unique ability to “turn ideas into action and action into service.” And after providing some background information cuts to the chase: “The central commitment of American University is to the development of thoughtful, responsible human beings in the context of a challenging yet supportive academic community.”
Virginia Tech’s mission statement is clear and concise. There’s also a “Statement of Purpose,” but they didn’t bury their mission statement in it for the reader to find/identify. Relative to American, Virginia Tech gets more specific about how it will serve “the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community.” Tech says is will “expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.” The “economic competitiveness” bit strikes me particularly, because it shows that Virginia Tech subscribes to a less than universal ideology.
I had expected both missions to be pretty vanilla, something everyone could accept and get behind, but that’s not necessarily the case! I took another, closer look to AU’s mission. Did it have the same flavor? Did it subscribe to an ideology too, taking what could be interpreted as a political stance? And indeed it did, through its “commitment to social justice.”
From my perspective these two ideological leanings make relative sense. AU has a very liberal, leftist history and it comes through in the beliefs of faculty and many students. Tech’s history has a more conservative bent, and although service is one of it’s three pillars, the three are more equally balanced than at AU where service felt more central. Again, this is my interpretation and colored in part by my experience at each school.
And here’s where the ambiguity and room for interpretation is great: I get to make these missions my own and live them how they make sense to me. What’s more, I get to take some of the AU “social justice” mission with me and carry it through in my work at Virginia Tech. And while I focus on the “community development” bit of the Virginia Tech mission, I get the importance of the “economic competitiveness” piece and benefit from it. I’m thinking of the resources I have access to and Tech’s reputation that I benefit from. Further, I try to inject the economic competitiveness piece into my work to benefit the people I serve.
All in all, the depth of both missions, their reach and persistence as they live on through faculty and alumni is a really cool thing to think about. It’s crazy how much a short statement can mean when it’s a reflection of your life, past present and future.