Globalization and the emergence of online technologies have created an increasingly competitive environment for today’s higher education institutions. And yet, institutions of higher education are tending to look more and more alike. Reporting in the August 11, 2015, issue of Gallup’s online Business Journal, Nate Dvorak and Brandon Busteed noted:
In a recent study, Gallup found that the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.
The authors note that, while statements such as “We prepare the leaders of tomorrow” and “We nurture lifelong learners” may represent the broad aspirations of an institution, they “offer little guidance to current and future students who are trying to select one institution over another.”
Dvorak and Busteed recommend three steps through which “leaders can create clear and compelling statements that distinguish their institution from all others.” First, establish a distinct statement of purpose that affirms “the institution's reason for existing from a historical, ethical, emotional and practical perspective.” Second, define the institution’s brand identity in a way “that distinctly states what the institution offers, why it's different and why it's worthy of students' consideration.” And, third, engage the culture—including the student experience, as well as the institutional and academic cultures—in a way that reinforces the purpose and identity.
In short, the purpose, brand, and culture of the institution should reflect the outcomes of the institution’s work: its research and outreach efforts and, most importantly, the competencies and pre-dispositions that graduates take with them into the community.
There was a time in American higher education when institutions were differentiated by purpose and mission. At the height of the industrial revolution, for instance, state land grant universities had a clear purpose of improving agriculture and preparing professionals for the new industries and social agencies arising from industrialization; state colleges—founded as “normal schools”—were created to prepare teachers for public schools to help the children of immigrants become full participants in the American society and economy; and private colleges and universities were focused on graduating future leaders in religion, business, and politics.
Of course, those purposes have evolved dramatically over the past 150 years; today, it is difficult to distinguish among these institutions, especially if one looks only at their curricula. Ultimately, the curriculum itself must embody the purpose and advance the identity of the institution. In The Next American Revolution, Grace Lee Boggs cites John Dewey’s adage that education is “a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” She notes that, in a post-industrial society, “more learning needs to occur outside the classroom. Education should involve real problem solving.” A commitment to active and collaborative, research-based, problem-centered learning environments is critical.
If, as the post-industrial era matures, colleges and universities are to be vital parts of the social and economic health of the communities they serve, colleges and universities should, as Dvorak and Busteed suggest, engage their institutional cultures to re-articulate their curricula based on a fresh statement of their unique purposes and their brand identities. In the process, they will be more able to reconnect with their communities and with the emerging global culture.