Paul Penfield, Jr., NEEDHA President's Message, "Mission Statements," The Interface, IEEE Education Society and ASEE Electrical and Computer Engineering Division; Number 2, August, 1997; pp. 7 - 8.
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NEEDHA President's Message

Mission Statements

Paul Penfield, Jr.

The beginning of another academic year means the start of a new administration for NEEDHA. It has been my pleasure to serve for the past year as its President. I am confident the next President, Bill Brown of the University of Arkansas, will keep NEEDHA moving forward another year.

The beginning of the academic year is also the time to start again the annual cycle of activities. One such activity, at least in my university, is for department heads to write mission statements (in our case as part of the budgeting process).

Mission statements have always been a puzzle to me. In theory, it would seem useful to understand what you are trying to do and why -- surely we could do a better job of keeping first things first if we actually agreed on which things should come first.

In practice, however, it is difficult to write a good mission statement, and even more difficult to achieve departmental consensus. What often happens, especially in the case of new department heads, is that they dust off the statement that worked the year before, maybe change a few phrases, and use it again. Or perhaps they ask other department heads for their statements, and then follow the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (and besides, there is no copyright notice visible).

There are those who contend that it doesn't actually matter what the mission statement says. After all, most faculty understand what the academic enterprise is all about, and will instinctively do the right thing if given a chance. And besides, nobody actually reads the statements. Perhaps the greatest benefits come from the discussions among the faculty and students while the mission statements are being developed.

But things are changing. Soon ABET will require, under Engineering Criteria 2000, a mission statement for each program being accredited. Not only that, but ABET will look for evidence that this mission is being achieved, and if not what is being done about it. So all of a sudden mission statements are important.

Design Principles for Mission Statements

What makes a good mission statement? Having had my eyes glaze over while reading a lot of bad ones, I can offer a few ideas. To make these pithy enough to catch your attention, I have deliberately oversimplified them. However, I admit that I have not actually used these ideas successfully myself -- my mission statements have been as bad as any others.

Make it short and sweet. Don't let it get boring. Say what you must, and then stop.

Any mission worth doing can be described simply and easily, so that it is understood by outsiders, who will appreciate its significance even if not its details. Don't even include many details. Leave yourself flexibility.

Avoid saying your mission is to be the best, or be excellent, or be in the top 20 (however measured). Phrase your mission in terms of the things you will want to be judged on, not the judgments you hope for. The best performing artists concentrate on their performance, not on what they want the critics to say.

A good mission is one that is actually within your means. Say what you want to achieve, and then describe the guiding principles or beliefs that will be used in the implementation, enough to make the mission credible.

A good mission statement should let the reader infer what is NOT included in the mission.

The statement should, ultimately, be written by one person, but be widely agreed upon within the organization.

Some Ideas to Consider

Is the mission of a university teaching? Education? Research? Public service? All of the above?

Let's think about various types of organizations. The mission of a company is very simple -- it is to make money. The mission of a university is equally simple -- it is to make the world a better place. In this context, the mission of government is to write the rules so that companies, while making money, do no harm, and universities, while making the world better, do not go broke.

Experts in Total Quality Management (TQM) say that companies can understand their mission better if they identify their customers. Why? Because customers bring in what a company should value the most, namely money. As for universities, who brings in what is most precious? Probably not customers in the usual sense. This difference may help explain why TQM and other business methodologies have never caught on in academia, but it does not excuse us from a responsibility to develop a corresponding set of methodologies for universities.

In their mission statements, universities can distinguish themselves from other organizations whose mission is also to make the world better (e.g., symphony orchestras), because their primary method is education. According to this model, research is not a primary mission of a university. Neither is teaching. Both are done because they help educate the students.

Universities can differentiate themselves in several ways. Some (e.g., state universities) may have a geographic bias. Some may choose to specialize in, say, technology, or business, or the performing arts. Some may emphasize undergraduate education, or doctoral education, or some mix. Some may cater to particular student demographics.

Departments and programs can describe themselves not only by their discipline (e.g., electrical engineering, or computer engineering) but also by specialties (e.g., power systems, semiconductor fabrication, systems engineering, opto-electronics, software systems, etc.). Educational programs might also be characterized by special features such as industrial experience, accessibility to working engineers, etc.

Our students need a good preparation for life, including the ability to communicate in written and oral form, the desire to continue learning throughout life, a respect for other people, an understanding of different styles of knowledge, an appreciation for the diverse cultures on earth, and the personal strength to cope with life's difficulties. Both our students and society in general benefit if they have the skills and attitudes to become leaders. These are general aims of all college and university education. They apply no less to students specializing in electrical engineering, both undergraduates and advanced students.

An engineering education should also help students prepare for careers. Here are three initial career objectives that might be supported:

  1. Science and engineering science (SES). This activity is the discovery of new knowledge or the codification and transmission of knowledge (i.e., research, scholarship, and teaching). Science differs from engineering science in that it does not require (although it may have) relevance to engineering.
  2. Engineering, architecture, and applied science (EAAS). This activity is the creative application of knowledge to practical problems.
  3. Other professions, such as management, law, medicine, public service, or journalism.

This taxonomy is for initial career objectives only. Individual careers may evolve over time, and combine these types of activity and others in various ways.

A career in SES requires one to be at the frontier of knowledge, in order to discover new knowledge, appreciate new knowledge that others discover, and incorporate new knowledge into what is taught. A doctorate is needed, and perhaps post-doctoral experience as well. A research program on campus can provide appropriate experiences for doctoral students and for the faculty, who themselves have SES careers.

For careers in EAAS, master's degree programs are appropriate. A baccalaureate program is suitable for an entry-level position, or as a foundation for further study. The students need experience in real engineering, either in industry or on campus.

Graduates with both an engineering degree and a doctorate have great career flexibility.

Baccalaureate programs can prepare those interested in other professions for further study. An electrical engineering program, with its heavy dose of science, mathematics, and technology, may offer a better education for today's world than more traditional four-year liberal arts programs.

Writing the Mission Statement

With all these ideas, it might seem straightforward to select those that appeal to you, and copy them into your statement. You will find this easier said than done. And you will find it difficult to get the agreement of your colleagues, because each will want to express the concepts in his or her own way.

Discussions about mission are apt to become very heated. Why do academic people argue with such vehemence about mission statements that, at least up to now, have not made much practical difference? Perhaps because the stakes are so low.

But now, with ABET making the stakes higher, we may find ourselves taking mission statements more seriously.

Paul Penfield, Jr.
Head, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
penfield@mit.edu

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Created: Jun 12, 1997  |  Modified: Dec 31, 1998
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