Mission-writing Adversities Overwhelm
Sanjay Paul

The article appeared in The Etownian, Jan. 28, 2010.

The big thing in academia is outcomes assessment. (Another big thing is salary increase, but that’s for another day.) Are you sure your program — your major curriculum, or your core curriculum or your coffee-making division — is doing what it is supposed to do? Do you have a mission and clear goals for your program? Are these goals associated with outcomes that can be observed and measured? Are your goals consistent with the goals of your institution? (Fat lot of good it will do if your coffee division brews the kind of coffee that does not advance the mission of your college.)

These are but a few of the questions with which any mission-writing group must contend. As we in the business department sat down to revise our mission statement, we were immediately riven by dissent. What sort of refreshments should we provide at these meetings? Candy? Bakery products? Wine and cheese? In the end, we decided on pretzels, and in so doing already advanced one of the goals of the College (No. 3: Use financial resources prudently, especially when it comes to eats).

So as we munched on the pretzels (and washed it down with imported wine), we congratulated ourselves on our fiscal rectitude. Would the philosophy department or the biology department have shown such restraint, we wondered? Would the mathematicians or the occupational therapists? It didn’t appear likely.

But we couldn’t be sure. Without data, perhaps culled through Surveymonkey, we couldn’t know what these other departments were up to. For all we knew, said a management prof, the mathematicians were even more frugal than we were. On what basis were we disparaging our colleagues?

A somber silence fell upon the group. Yes, yes, we demurred, the mathematicians could be more fiscally responsible than the business faculty. We took another sip of the imported wine to down the bitter taste caused by the sudden revelation.

Many such conversations occurred that afternoon. And on many other afternoons, as the business faculty met regularly to complete its mission-writing mission. Pretzels were consumed by the bushel, wine by the cask, and an air of languor permeated the proceedings throughout. Occasionally a professor, usually a management faculty member, would cry out, “I have a goal!” The others would nod sagely, and another part of the mission would fall into place. Once a marketing prof said he had discovered a “learning outcome.” “Was it observable? Was it measurable?” his colleagues asked in a mild frenzy. The marketer assured them it was, whereupon he was congratulated — and asked to slow down. We don’t want to rush headlong into this, they said.

But such occasions were rare. Mostly the meetings were about eating, drinking and wondering whether the other departments were as assiduous as we were about crafting the mission statement.

The missionary fervor carried over into our personal lives. After a particularly long meeting one day, Professor Homer went home and announced to his wife and children that they should have a mission for the family. We should set goals, he cried, startling the family as they sat down to a dinner consisting of rice and chicken curry. We should set up outcomes, he continued, and measure them!

But alas, his family did not respond in the desired manner. Yes, they said, let’s have a mission. A mission to stop Dad from talking about family missions!

That was not all. Homer found himself thinking about goals while taking showers. On these occasions, he would have normally given himself up to contented speculation about more pleasant subjects like the federal budget deficit and the College’s diversity plan, but now he found himself pondering the difference between a goal and an objective. He had been to several workshops on writing missions, and one thing he had absolutely learned from them was that the difference between a goal and an objective was critical. Not that he remembered what it was, but he did know that goals and objectives were not the same — and God forbid if you mixed them up! The slightest error in vocabulary and you might as well flush your mission down the toilet.

And so work continues apace in the department of business. One day soon, when we have agreed on our mission, goals and outcomes, and the pretzels and wine are all gone, we will unfurl a banner from the ramparts of Hoover. It will say simply, “Mission Accomplished.”

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