University mission statements are the cell phone user contracts of higher-ed prose. Committee-generated and loved by none, they sit awkwardly on webpages and internal reports, awaiting readers to justify their mean existence. Like minor subsections of the latest five-year plan, mission statements are dreamed up by politburos and ignored by apparatchiks. They are tedious, nondescript. They don’t matter at all until, suddenly, they do.
Earlier this year, 10 UNC-System institutions asked the Board of Governors for permission to change the statements that allegedly “capture the core focus” of their operations. Initially approved by the Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs, the alterations in question went before the full Board in July and were authorized as part of the consent agenda. (“Consent agendas” typically feature non-controversial items expected to pass without debate.)
Do a number of the changes make concessions to wokeism? Absolutely.Are the changes sought and secured by the 10 requesting schools earth-shattering? Of course not. Do a number of them make annoying concessions to wokeism that could one day affect actual university decisions? Absolutely, yes.
Let us begin with the outlier. Despite its possession of a well-funded diversity office, Appalachian State University made the surprising move of shying away from DEI shibboleths and inching toward a non- (or less) ideological position. App State’s old mission statement, a 300-word monstrosity, required the institution to “embrace diversity,” “promote a spirit of inclusion,” and “create healthy, just, and sustainable societies.” Its new one, coming in at a slimmed-down 89 words, pledges only to create “globally minded, responsible members of society.” All other references to leftist preoccupations have been stricken.
Alas, no such sanity can be found elsewhere on the list of recent changes. UNC Charlotte, for example, scrapped an ambitious line about “internationally competitive programs” in favor of a cheap promise to build “a diverse and inclusive institution.” (Maintaining international competitiveness takes actual work.) Winston-Salem State University, which previously claimed to ground its offerings “in the tradition of liberal education,” has apparently decided that such thinking is passé. Their new goal, not yet updated on the website but duly approved by the Board of Governors, is to “produce equity-minded … citizens,” a naked admission that the institution has ceased to educate and will henceforth create an army of activists.
Intriguingly, two other historically black schools in the UNC System have done their own tinkering with woke-adjacent terminology. North Carolina A&T, which recently secured the highest enrollment ever for an HBCU, has added to its mission statement a vow to provide “a preeminent and diverse educational experience.” The precise nature of the “diversity” in question is not specified. Fayetteville State University, meanwhile, has removed the broad claim that “FSU is an institution of … diversity” and now mentions instead its more targeted commitment to serving “students from rural, military, and other diverse backgrounds.” Reading the new prose, one wonders if FSU has decided to lean into its historically black identity by eliminating a phrase that could be seen as inviting racial (as opposed to experiential) diversity.
What is missing from UNC-System mission statements, past and present? For one thing, absolutely no reference is made in any statement to diversity of thought, a crucial ingredient if institutions really desire “that debate or deliberation … not be suppressed.” (The quote is from the “Chicago Statement,” which several UNC-System faculty councils have affirmed.) Yes, UNC Asheville and UNC Pembroke come close with references to “free inquiry,” but that is like wishing for cake in a world without sugar. How “free” is inquiry likely to be if every member of a campus community is monolithically progressive, the state toward which hiring committees and admissions boards inevitably proceed if left to their own devices?
No reference is made in any mission statement to diversity of thought.Also absent from nearly every mission statement is the word “jobs” or any derivation thereof. While UNC Pembroke and the UNC School of the Arts have kept references to training students for “careers,” only Fayetteville State University added such a declaration where none existed before. Hymns to the globe—“globally minded,” “global society,” “global communities,” et cetera—are seemingly everywhere on the list. Yet the fundamental task of preparing students to do useful work is largely unsung.
Finally, there is the matter of money. Newly added to UNC Charlotte’s and Western Carolina University’s mission statements are pledges to maintain “affordability,” a laudable goal that ought to be present throughout the System. Sadly, however, these two schools are alone. In no other mission statement, past or present, does the issue of costs come up.
Up to this point in the essay, I have been having it both ways. No one reads mission statements, but mission statements nevertheless matter. They are written in bureaucratese, but even small changes can have outsized effects. The reason for this tension is that mission statements do their greatest harm or good internally, away from the prying eyes of the public. This is the case in part because of the so-called Reaffirmation Process, in which universities retain their good standing by explaining their operations to an outside group.
Accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the institutions of the UNC System must not only report a material change in mission statement to that body but justify the alteration by describing its impact on university processes. To wit, universities must
- Describe the impetus and rationale for the mission change;
- Assess the impact on the number and mix of programs in the institution’s portfolio;
- Assess the impact on the number and composition of the institution’s faculty in the short and long-term;
- Assess the impact on staff members;
- Describe the impact on the non-academic operations of the institutions, e.g., business services, facilities and maintenance, intercollegiate athletics, etc.
Having worked in higher education for a decade and a half, let me assure the reader that “not applicable” will not suffice as an answer to any of these prompts. Indeed, if responses fail immediately to come to mind, university administrators may well create “impacts” merely to have something to report. And what if the new mission statement is not different enough to warrant a disclosure to SACS? Nevertheless, the new language will find its way into internal proposals, revisions, guidelines, and directives. If not quite “endless,” the ramifications are certainly pronounced.
In sum, universities that add silly phrases to their mission statements (or delete wise ones) will find that the alterations trickle down to their real day-to-day work. Should the System’s largest institutions, N.C. State and Chapel Hill, decide to update their own prose, they should keep that lesson in mind.
Graham Hillard is the managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.