Balancing University Missions

Large state universities share multiple missions, which can often collectively compete with scholarship. Politics, accreditation, income and racial disparities, learning outcomes and more place stress on balancing a university’s mission.

As missions and stressors increase and state support continues to decrease, research universities are finding it increasingly challenging to maintain quality. Historically, this has been accomplished with mission-specific efforts, but there is realized and potential crossover among the missions at many levels.

On Feb. 28, three leaders of higher education took part in a conference at Mizzou, sharing with MU faculty, staff and administrators ways to rethink the relationship among missions to identify new opportunities for synergies.

The panelists were Suzanne Ortega, senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of North Carolina System, Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor at the University of Kansas, and Cheryl Schrader, chancellor at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

According to event organizers Linda Bennett, a special assistant in the MU Provost’s Office, and Heidi Appel, senior associate director of the Honors College, the conference had two goals. One was to provide a forum to discuss the challenges that universities face when defining their missions. The second was to feature female leaders in higher education.

Ortega discussed the comprehensive strategic planning process that the UNC System recently embarked on and encouraged those in attendance to think differently about mission.

“Leading in this environment requires us to be really thoughtful and sensitive to the larger political context within which we find ourselves,” said Ortega, who was the dean of the MU Graduate School from 2001-05.

“You start with the notion that institutions have either three or four core missions: research, teaching, service and economic development,” Ortega said. “Then, you try to focus on what is each institution’s primary mission.”

Ortega feels that using that model established a good current mix of the institutions within the UNC System, while leaving room for change.

“My new thinking on mission is that it is not as easy as research, teaching, service and economic development,” Ortega said. “It is a combination and rethinking of the mix of these items that define who and what we are.”

Affordability and accessibility were raised as concerns by all three panelists.

“It is more than just the economy is not great,” Gray-Little said. “But there is an attitude about funding of higher education that is not as supportive as it has been in the past.”

In terms of accessibility, Kansas is in the process of implementing new admission standards that will go in to effect in 2016.

“This is going to affect access, but I hope that it will increase student success,” Gray-Little said. “We want every student that can be successful at our university to be there.”

 Schrader joined Gray-Little in discussing the balance of access and student success.

 “For every student that comes to your institution,” Schrader said, “you have to be able to support them on their road to success.”

 In addition to the access and affordability issues, Schrader posed the question of what role a research university should play in economic development. She also addressed the effect that advancing technologies have on higher education.

 “Our destination at MUS&T has never been clearer,” Schrader said. “We are looking at what we are going to do, but we are also looking at what we are not going to do—and that is much harder.”

Schrader encourages policies and practices so that everyone at the university can be focused on the mission.

“We need to be sure we don’t spread ourselves too thin, that we are laser-like and focused,” she said. “We have to be very strategic with our decisions.”

Schrader calls on public universities to create strategic partnerships with other academic institutions, their communities and industries, along with looking across the education continuum to work with K-12 educators.

“Ultimately, with each of these challenges, it will depend on the particular university to answer them in a way that suits that university and their climate and their culture,” Gray-Little said. “But these are challenges that all of us face.”

Ortega closed her presentation by encouraging those in attendance to lead from the heart.

“Believe in and have a passion for the change that you are advocating,” she said. “You can have a rational argument, but you are not going to get a lot of people helping you move the institution forward if you don’t show that you are passionate about what you are advocating.”