RD41 - A Study of Factors that have Contributed to Mission Change in Public Colleges and Universities

Executive Summary:
The missions of public colleges and universities, and changes therein, are matters of interest and discussion across the nation and within the Commonwealth of Virginia. Philosophical and economic concerns are being expressed regarding perceived trends toward increased homogeneity across, and comprehensiveness within, public institutions of higher education. And as resources have become increasingly scarce, attention to the significance of mission and its components has steadily risen.

Via the Appropriation Act of 2003-2004, the Virginia General Assembly required the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to conduct this study of factors that have contributed to mission change in the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities. Toward this end, national research literature was reviewed, institutional personnel and legislative representatives were interviewed, and archival and current state- and institutional-level documents and publications were analyzed. From this information, a preliminary list of factors was developed. These factors were then grouped and classified, resulting in three categories of general elements that lead to specific institutional actions regarding mission. Finally, the complexities and inter-relationships among the elements and between the elements and the possible institutional actions were described.

The preliminary list of factors contained numerous, rather commonsensical items (e.g., presidential leadership/ambition; need for resources; demographic changes; and labor market changes) that added little in-and-of themselves to a fuller understanding of the mission-change issue. A more extensive list of factors was gleaned from the interviews with institutional administrators. When grouped, this extended list of factors yielded three categories of factors related to mission change: context, (change) agent roles, and catalysts. In various combinations, these categories of factors were seen as contributing to institutional mission-related actions.

Overall, this research finds that Virginia’s public colleges and universities have, for the most part, maintained their public purposes and their core missions, especially over the past decade. That which appears superficially to be “mission creep” or “mission drift” is usually strategic mission adjustment and/or evolutionary mission adaptation to new realities in institutions’ external environments. This study’s specific conclusions include:

I. The factors that contribute to mission change are generally external factors that are difficult to avoid or ignore. Historically, external catalysts and agents drove changes in the core missions of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Even today, in situations in which initiatives to enhance and focus institutional missions originate internally, these efforts most often represent reasoned institutional responses to new and emerging environmental realities.

II. Modification of mission is much more common than change in core mission. Very little mission change or significant institutional transformation has occurred since the mid-1990s. Recent modifications have taken the forms of mission articulation, enhancement, focus, adjustment and adaptation while maintaining institutions’ core activities, purposes and values.

III. Overall, mission modification by Virginia’s public colleges and universities has been purposeful, responsive and beneficial. In recent years, that which has been perceived as mission creep or drift has generally been much more purposeful and responsive—to social, public and economic needs—yet reflective of institutional mission and type.

IV. The decentralization of the policy process and procedures has impacted state-level approval of mission changes.

A. The role of SCHEV as a gatekeeper in relation to public institutions’ missions, and changes therein, has become less overt. SCHEV has not published specific policies and procedures regarding mission-change or statement-change proposals in decades, and no longer requires that mission statements be submitted with other requisite documents.

B. The General Assembly and SCHEV represent dual pathways to academic and/or organizational modifications that can eventually result in incremental or cumulative changes in central elements of public institutions’ missions. Singular approvals of new academic activities, organizational structures, and/or physical facilities have culminated over time in the de-facto approval of change(s) in mission.

V. Public colleges and universities are supportive of coordinated mission review. Those in leadership positions within Virginia’s public colleges and universities are supportive of, and willing to participate in, state-level coordination efforts that would support the diversity of the system and lessen competition between the institutions.

VI. Virginia’s public colleges and universities are becoming more reflective and responsive within their own niches, and thus, more diverse. While more institutions may be offering similar degree programs, they are doing so largely within their missions via different methods and perspectives and for different reasons and goals. The evolution of Virginia’s diverse system of public higher education has resulted in a collection of institutional missions that addresses a significant range of the social and economic needs of the Commonwealth and its citizens.

The findings and conclusions of this study indicate that drastic measures to address mission change are not necessary. That which is most warranted is a concerted effort on the part of the General Assembly, the State Council and the public colleges and universities to give due and proper consideration to the issue of institutional mission during discussion and consideration of all institutional issues. This study’s specific recommendations include:

Recommendation 1: The General Assembly should consider of the cumulative ramifications of its decisions when it acts on matters pertaining to individual public colleges and universities. These legislative decisions and actions can subvert SCHEV’s coordinating role and mission review responsibility. Moreover, the legislature should remember that, via the passage of one new initiative for a campus, it might be opening a door for the institution to pursue a new mission direction or future mission expansion in support or fulfillment of the new initiative.

Recommendation 2: In collaboration with the General Assembly, the State Council of Higher Education should consider mission impact in all of its deliberations and/or actions on institutional matters (e.g., academic program proposals; organizational changes). SCHEV should require that institutions’ mission statements—and any proposed changes therein—be included with, or incorporated into, institutions’ strategic plans and strategic plan updates, which must be submitted to SCHEV on four-year cycles (updates two years after plans). Further, SCHEV should require institutions to project any potential impact of proposed changes on their approved missions.

Recommendation 3: The State Council of Higher Education should provide an unambiguous articulation of its coordination function to its multiple constituencies and partners in the policy arena. Its provision of system-level information and analysis enables constituents to better perceive and understand the diversity of Virginia’s public institutions and system. For public colleges and universities, the availability of such information and analysis enhances their ability to know and project—in their formal mission statements as well as their plans and publications—how and where they provide unique service to the Commonwealth. The public institutions may then be better able to participate in an active and reflective manner in the maintenance of the diversity of the system.

Recommendation 4: The State Council and the public institutions should work together to better demonstrate (and advocate for) the institutional diversity within Virginia’s system of public higher education. Individual institutional missions as articulated by their professionals are clear and distinct. Efforts should assist institutions to communicate their unique contributions to the Commonwealth to external constituents. Although the Reports of Institutional Effectiveness (ROIE) provide considerable useful information to multiple constituencies, the organization and presentation of the information contained in the ROIE can lead to inaccurate comparisons and conclusions that cloud the differences between and among Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

Recommendation 5: Virginia’s public colleges and universities should continue to be vigilant in their efforts to match their activities to their core missions; their individual efforts to be “market smart” at the institutional level should not preclude the Commonwealth’s need that they be “mission centered” at the system level.

Recommendation 6: The public colleges and universities should also extend the social and economic forecasting that they conduct at the institutional level to the state/system level in a collaborative, coordinated manner.

Through their dual commitment to quality and the Commonwealth, Virginia’s public colleges and universities constitute a coordinated system of public higher education that is envied across the country and around the world. Two major reasons for this high regard and stature are: (1) SCHEV’s adherence to its Code mandate to “preserve the individuality, traditions and sense of responsibility of the respective institutions;” and (2) institutions’ individual and collective responsibility to their missions and their constituencies. Only through working together to better understand and articulate the individual institutional missions as part of a unified system-wide mission can the General Assembly, SCHEV and Virginia’s public colleges and universities best serve and advance the interests of the institutions, the system and the Commonwealth.