Who Cares About the Mission?
DOES YOUR UNIVERSITY'S mission matter to your faculty, staff, and students? Do they even know what it is? Do they care?
In corporate culture, mission statements have frequently been lampooned. In fact, the website of the popular Dilbert comic strip features a game in which you can plug in nouns, verbs, and adjectives and generate your own meaningless mission statement, such as: "Our mission is to proactively provide access to emerging paradigms to meet our customers' needs."
Ask faculty on nearly any college or university campus to identify their school's mission and you will likely get a blank stare. If pressed, some might say their school's mission statement was written by a committee, has no relevance to what they do, and only surfaces during accreditation visits. Make no mistake, though. The most successful and most focused companies and campuses are defined by their mission and driven daily by a sense of that mission.
When I became president of <b>Fairleigh Dickinson University</b> (N.J.) in 1999, I joined a wonderful institution with talented faculty, illustrious alumni, exciting programs, and rich traditions. What I didn't find, though, was a coherent vision or idea uniting the community. I visited every department in the university, met with scores of regional business leaders, and held gatherings with alumni. I read about our history and studied the campus environment. What emerged was a proposed new mission: "to prepare world citizens through global education."
The mission, which was adopted by the Faculty Senate and Board of Trustees in 2000, fulfills several key criteria: It is linked to our traditions; it is responsive to the needs of our students in a global economy and an increasingly interconnected world; it is distinctive; and, many say, it is even a bit inspiring. While some universities now include an international element in their missions, we believe FDU was among the very first-if not the first-to make global education the cornerstone of its vision for the future.
It's easy to write a mission statement. Just ask Dilbert. The real challenge is to create a sense of mission across the institution. We decided to kick-start the process by investing in a few breathtaking initiatives. If we could conspicuously demonstrate something real, then other ideas and activities would follow. Here are three examples:
<em><b>The development of online learning.</b></em> This excited many in higher education, but most thought only in terms of reaching new students and creating new revenue streams. FDU took a different approach. If the internet could be used to reach out to the world, then it could also be used to bring the world to campus.
In 2001, led by our new Office of Global Learning, we introduced a groundbreaking distance-learning program and became the first traditional university to require that all undergraduate students take one online course per year. The initiative not only prepares students for a lifetime of learning on the internet, but it uses the internet to explore global issues and perspectives.
The first online course developed was "The Global Challenge," a university core requirement taken by all freshmen. Freshmen report that it is among the hardest courses they've ever taken; seniors say it is among the most valuable.
<em><b>The creation of our Global Virtual Faculty (GVF) program.</b></em> The program now features nearly 60 scholars and professionals from around the world. They partner with FDU faculty via internet chat rooms to bring international perspectives to our students. Examples of GVF include the senior political columnist from the Times of India, a Hungarian environmentalist, a former head homicide investigator from Scotland Yard, and an Arabic literature professor from Egypt.
<em><b>The renewal of our historic connections with the United Nations</b></em>. The most visible activity is the UN Pathways Lecture Series, which regularly brings ambassadors to campus for lectures and dinners. Several times each semester, we broadcast FDU-created panel discussions from the United Nations media room to our campuses. This is state-of-the-art interactive videoconferencing, with students asking live questions of the UN speakers.
Overall, more than 60 ambassadors, diplomats, and even heads of state have met and spoken with our students. In addition, FDU students and faculty enjoy special access to UN facilities and briefings because we earned nongovernmental organization status based upon our mission and commitment to global education.
These major programs have been effective and popular and have earned national recognition. We understood, however, that we must do more to change the campus environment. Sometimes small efforts can have a great impact. Many campus signs are translated in seven languages. Campus dining halls regularly feature food from different countries and cultures. Four visiting international faculty suites were added in our two new residence halls. We are constantly seeking to reflect the mission in everyday campus life.
Large systems are inherently stable and resist change. Creating a sense of mission, though, requires change. At Fairleigh Dickinson, we naturally faced some resistance to change-and we still do. But at the same time, like most institutions, we have many great people who are ready to create a new, exciting environment. How can we encourage them?
It begins with frequent and consistent communication. Presidents and other administrators must passionately convey the mission and discuss how others can contribute to that mission. In professional writings and presentations, we must heavily emphasize the mission. In personal talks and daily activities, we must advocate constantly for the mission. At Fairleigh Dickinson, everyone knows my message and my priorities.
The force of example can be powerful. I never ask anyone to do anything that I would not do. I co-authored a book, <em>Coming of Age in a Globalized World: The Next Generation</em> (Kumarian Press, 2006), which examines the impact of globalization and explores global education and world citizenship. I further developed and co-taught the course "Globalization and World Citizenship." I created a personal web page that is informative and demonstrates my international experience and commitment. If I want my community to live and breathe the mission, I better do that as well. And I better be persistent, consistent, and conspicuous in doing so.
But this is just a start. To fully build a sense of the mission throughout the community, administrators must empower individuals. We must set the direction but then encourage individuals to exercise their creativity. When individuals are trusted, their ideas are valued, and they are given permission to explore, then agents of change will emerge.
These agents of change must be supported and applauded. At Fairleigh Dickinson, our real progress has been forged by faculty. Each of the initiatives described above has been led by a faculty champion. By empowering those in the best position to innovatively direct programming, we began to transform both the content of the programs and the entire academic landscape.
I recall sending two faculty members to India to explore the possibility of an academic partnership. They had the freedom to choose a partner, to develop the curriculum, and to negotiate the agreement. The result was an exciting dual-degree program with one of the top business schools in India. In this program, students study in their home country and then at FDU and receive two degrees: one from their home institution and one from FDU. Now, through our Office of Global Partnerships, we have such partnerships-all led by individual faculty-with institutions in China, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, India, Monaco, and Turkey.
Fairleigh Dickinson was the first U.S.-based university to own an overseas campus when we opened Wroxton College in England in 1965. And when we wanted to explore the possibility of another international campus, we looked to faculty and staff to study potential approaches. Faculty and staff led the entire process. The result was the opening of our new campus in Vancouver, Canada, last fall. The campus primarily serves international students and offers degrees in business management and information technology.
Our mission is now eight years old. What are the results? Certainly, we are gaining a reputation for innovative academic programs. Beyond that, our total enrollment has risen 27 percent and we've delivered eight budget surpluses (after more than a decade of deficits). Support for our programs has grown greatly, and we are now in the middle of the most successful capital campaign in the university's history.
Some might look to replicate successful practices from one institution to another. The ideas and programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University are exciting, redefining, and successful. The "best practice" lesson, however, is not about UN Pathways, Global Virtual Faculty, or international campuses. It is the simple assumption that everything must be driven by the mission. If leaders and institutions work to make a mission real and can successfully create a sense of shared mission, then the possibilities will stretch beyond the horizon.
<em>J. Michael Adams is the president of Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey's largest private university (www.fdu.edu), and co-author of </em>Coming of Age in a Globalized World: The Next Generation, <em>available at www.nextgenerationbook.com.</em>