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(Institutional) Purpose: Who Are You? Why Do You Exist?

Tomorrow's Academy

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What would (your institution) keep doing no matter what?


The posting below looks at the critical importance of having an institutional purpose.  It is from Chapter 9 – Purpose: Who Are You? Why Do You Exist?, in the book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, by Linda Suskie.  Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Academia

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(Institutional) Purpose: Who Are You? Why Do You Exist?


A quality college knows what it is, where it is going, and how it wants to get there. Put another way, it can answer the questions that journalists traditionally ask:

-       What? Why? Who? The answers to these questions state the college’s purpose: its essential activities and distinctive traits, its values, and its target clientele, respectively.

-       Where? The answer to this question states the college’s key goals: its destinations, using the analogy of a road trip from Chapter 3.

-       How? When? The answers to these questions are the college’s plans to achieve its goals: to reach its destinations.

A clearly delineated purpose is the foundation of your college’s journey. It focuses the college community and its resources in ways that give your college its best shot at enduring quality. Without a clear sense of purpose, critical resources can end up going to nonessential, sidebar projects. As Richard Morrill has said, “Institutions and their major units need above all to define a compelling sense of purpose that authentically reflects their narratives of identity and core capabilities, and that translates into an ambitious agenda for action. The work of strategy is always about integrating the powerful intrinsic values and motivation that come from a strong sense of educational purpose with the need to gain advantage in a competitive and precarious world of limited resources” (2013, “Collaborative Strategic Leadership,” para. 1).

Or, to cite a quotation widely attributed to W.H. Auden, “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.” A quality college knows what it is good at. Some examples:

-       The home page of Hamilton College, a private liberal arts college, says simply, “A national leader in teaching students to write effectively, learn from each other, and think for themselves” (

-       The mission of California State University East Bay, a public university, includes offering “culturally relevant learning experiences” (2012, p. 1).

-       The mission of Central Penn College, a propriety college, is to prepare students to obtain “employment or advancement in their chosen field, continue their education, and be contributing members of society” (2011-2013, “Mission & Vision,” para. 1).

-       Oakton Community College’s stated purpose in part challenges its students “to experience the hard work and satisfaction of learning” (1998, para. 3).

-       The mission of Wilmington University, a private non-profit university, notes its commitment to “relevancy of the curriculum” (n. d., “Mission,” para. 1).

A college’s purpose is articulated by defining its essential activities, its distinctive traits, its underlying values, and its target clientele. These are not necessarily discrete; a college’s underlying values or target clientele may define what makes it distinctive, for example.

Jargon Alert!


Mission simply means purpose. A mission statement is a statement of purpose.

Essential Activities: What Would You Keep Doing No Matter What?

The stated purposes of the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities fall into three broad categories: education, research and scholarship, and service. Within these three broad categories, most colleges try to do many things: provide a variety of academic offerings, engage in research and scholarship on a broad array of issues and ideas, and offer wide-ranging services to the community.

To gauge which of these are your college’s essential activities, imagine the unimaginable: that your college’s budget is cut in half. What would happen? Some programs, services, and initiatives would have to end, but there would be some for which you would say, “No, if we stop doing this, this would change what we are; we would no longer be the college we purport to be.” What kinds of degree programs would you continue to offer? What would be your balance between teaching and scholarship? What kinds of community service would you continue to provide? Why?

Limit your essential activities.  Many colleges are stretched too thin, offering too many programs and services, too many courses, and engaging in too many research and service activities. There is simply no way so many things can be done well.

Jargon Alert!

Mission Creep

Mission creep is expanding the array of a college’s essential activities to the point that it is doing a broad array of things passably, rather than focusing on those things that it does excellently and that its stakeholders most need.

Focus on what your stakeholders need most. If your college’s fundamental purpose is student learning and success, consider focusing research support on investigating effective teaching strategies (the scholarship of teaching, discussed in Chapter 6). One model in this regard is the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013). If your college aims to serve your community, consider focusing your college’s service activities on addressing key unmet community needs and using research to solve real-world problems (the scholarship of application, also discussed in Chapter 6). Chapter 5 talks more about meeting stakeholder needs and the public good.

Distinctive Traits: Why Should Anyone Enroll or Invest Here?

Distinctive traits are what set your college apart from its peers and competitors. Today’s higher education environment has become incredibly competitive, especially for small regional private colleges. Why should a student enroll at your college when there are other perfectly good colleges offering similar programs? Why should a foundation award your college a grant for a new initiative when there are other equally good colleges trying to do something similar?

Diversity is one of the historic strengths of U.S. higher education, and some U.S. colleges are truly unique. Gallaudet University, for example, is the only liberal arts college in the United States with a mission to serve the deaf and hard of hearing (2013, “Mission Statement,” para. 1). But many colleges have no clearly distinct identity, and in today’s competitive environment these colleges may be struggling for students, funds … and their eventual survival. As Bev Taylor has said, some colleges “are going to need to do some serious work to get themselves noticed” (Pearce, 2013, para. 6).

Each of the colleges I mentioned earlier has not only a clear sense of purpose, but a distinctive sense of purpose. The focus of each – service to society at Central Penn, writing and thinking at Hamilton, curricular relevance at Wilmington, and so on – is the kind of distinctive trait that attracts both students and support.

Underlying Values: What Are the Rationales for Your Decisions?

Values are the fundamental principles that underlie how your college makes decisions and goes about its business. Think of how your family and other families you know spend their money. If you have any discretionary income, you all have different priorities for how it is spent. Some families think it is especially important to have as nice a home as they can afford. Others think it is especially important to drive a relatively new car. Others place a high priority on their children’s education, wearing the latest styles, traveling, or simply saving for a rainy day. Few families have enough money to do all these things, so each family sets priorities that reflect its values.

Values come into clearer focus when families face financial changes. Either a pay cut or a pay raise leads to changes in what families do with their resources. What you decide to cut from the family budget or what you do with a windfall says a lot about your values.

The same is true for colleges. Look at how you spend your college’s budget: how you decide what to fund and what to cut. What do those decisions say about your college’s values? Some colleges’ stated values are so generic – integrity, respect for diverse viewpoints, and the like – that, although they are important, they cannot help inform decisions. Quality colleges articulate distinctive values that sharpen their sense of purpose and help them make decisions. Central Penn’s belief that “the end purpose of education is to make this world a better place for others” (2011-2013) informs its decision to sponsor a college-wide community service day each term.

Target Clientele: Whom Do You Aim to Serve?

If your college’s primary mission is education, your primary clientele is your students, and your target clientele is the specific kinds of students you aim to serve. Does your college focus on serving full-time students or part-time commuters? Traditionally aged students straight out of high school or older working adults? Students from your immediate region, or contiguous states, or across the nation? Students who are largely self-directed learners or who need extra support? Students who are well prepared to succeed in college or who need to come up to speed?

I find too many colleges silent on their target clientele. Students want and deserve to find a college that will be a good “fit” for them, but too many colleges seem ready to take all comers. Except for highly selective colleges, how many are willing to tell students, “Yes, we can admit you, but we’re not sure we’re a good match with what you’re looking for”? The University of Phoenix, which offers much of its curricula online, offers a self-screening for prospective applicants ( to help them gauge their readiness for success in an online environment.   

Use Systematic Evidence and Collaboration

Nowhere are the cultures of community, evidence, and betterment more important than in deciding what your college is all about. Collaboration is discussed in Chapter 7, and using systematic evidence is discussed in Chapter 17.

How to Articulate Your Purpose

Unless your accreditor requires otherwise, no law says that your college’s purpose must be articulated in a particular format. I have often suggested articulating the four elements of purpose – essential activities, distinctive traits, underlying values, and target clientele – into one statement. But Karen Hinton (2012) suggests keeping the mission statement to just a few lines that delineate essential activities and putting values, target clientele, and distinctive traits into separate statements. This may make sense, because many accreditors require assessment of each aspect of the mission, and it may not be appropriate or feasible to assess a college’s underlying values or distinctive traits. On the other hand, however, some values and distinctive traits, such as, “to help students learn through hands-on experiences” or “to prepare students to arrive at ethical decisions,” represent assessable aims.

For More Information

Your go-to source for information on strategic planning in higher education, including delineating purpose, is the Society for College and University Planning ( It offers a variety of resources, including books and events. Diane Cordero de Noriega’s “Institutional Vision, Values, and Mission: Foundational Filters for Inquiry” (2006) is a wonderful, succinct introduction to articulating your college’s purpose.



California State University East Bay. (2012, June 19). Changes to mission and transition from mandates to shared strategic commitments. Retrieved from,%20Commitments%20and%20ILOs,%202012%20June%2019.pdf

Central Penn College. (2011-2013). Mission, vision & core values: The principles that guide Central Penn. Retrieved from

Central Penn College. (n.d.) 2014 Catalog, Vol. 91. Summerdale, PA: Author.

Cordero de Noriega, D. (2006). Institutional vision, values, and mission: Foundational filters for inquiry. In A. Driscoll & D. Cordero de Noriega (Eds.), Taking ownership of accreditation: Assessment processes that promote institutional improvement and faculty engagement (pp. 37-51). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hamilton College. (2013). College purposes and goals. Retrieved from

Hinton, K.E. (2012). A practical guide to strategic planning in higher education. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

Kuh, G.D., & O’Donnell, K., with Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality & taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Morrill, R. (2013, Winter). Collaborative strategic leadership and planning in an era of structural change: Highlighting the role of the governing board. Peer Review, 15(1).

Oakton Community College. (1998, October 20). Our vision, mission, & values. Retrieved from

Pearce, E. (2013, July 30). The burning question: Why has college enrollment dropped? MSN News. Retrieved from

Wilmington University (n.d.). Wilmington University mission, vision, and values. Retrieved from