Insights — Mission in Control

Mission in Control

Thought leadership , Guest Post / September 29, 2020
Katharine Wehling
Katharine Wehling

This is a guest post from one of our industry colleagues, Katharine Wehling. We believe her perspective about mission in higher ed is as important now as it's ever been. As she states in her article below, mission is what steers the university journey, renewing the overarching aims and sense of purpose, and inspiring stakeholders to action.

A Crisis is Looming for U.S. Colleges” proclaims NBC News in a recent article. Similar article titles appear almost daily, written by those within colleges and universities, and by interested outside observers. Amidst all of this, bringing a calming presence, is the university mission. Mission provides necessary guidance through volatile times and unrelenting change. 

More than a statement, mission is grounded by values and heritage unique to each institution, whether online or in-person. Mission equips our schools’ journey through generations, provides a sense of purpose that connects stakeholders, and creates an intentional community necessary to meet the newness of our times.

Mission is a Journey

At our colleges and universities, mission gives meaning to our direction. It answers the question, “what are we here for?” NASA’s mission control exists as an extensive, coordinated network of people and systems operating from several locations analyzing data for decisions on how to proceed in unfamiliar environments. The university mission, too, enables the institution to absorb disruptions and distractions, from within and outside of higher education. A beacon of calm and resilience, the college and university mission equips and prepares stakeholders for continuing the journey of shaping policies and programs.

University planning, like an ongoing journey, continues and evolves as necessary. Mission enables us to identify our core capabilities and anticipate changes to the environment. Further, clarity of direction prevents us from simply adopting what others do or what seems to be trending. Mission guides us through urgent pressures and unforeseeable consequences with the discipline to rethink and reassess our direction.

Even in times of regular, internal self-reflection, mission smooths transitions, and planning. I had the opportunity to work with three university presidents at my campus. While each brought his own approach to university planning, the process was launched with a re-examination of mission. Often, various groups of faculty and staff, students, and alumni spent time dissecting the mission’s words and phrases created by those of the past. Was this a process to change purpose? Not really.  

The review process resulted in cosmetic updates to words and re-enlivened the university’s direction for many stakeholders. The mission words and phrases represent deep values and heritage. And, the review kept mission from being taken for granted or forgotten. It was an inclusive process involving many stakeholders and resulting in a re-enforcement of the university’s purpose. With the refreshed mission in hand, the planning process continued, grounded in common purpose and direction. In short, clarity of mission unifies the community of learners.  

 After all, astronauts say their jobs are impossible without people that make up the hub of mission control and its various networks. Even during turbulent change, unforeseen variables, and uncertainties, the university mission provides a reassuring presence in this new frontier as well as stability along the journey.

More than a statement, mission is grounded by values and heritage unique to each institution. It equips our schools’ journey through generations, provides a sense of purpose that connects stakeholders, and creates an intentional community necessary to meet the newness of our times.

Mission is a Cause

In his book, Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo and Beyond, Flight director Gene Kranz states that “It isn’t equipment that wins battles, it is the quality and determination of the people fighting for a cause in which they believe.” In my conversations over the years with faculty and people in various staff positions, many would remark that they cherished university work because of the sense of belonging and belief in the university. The word mission was rarely used, but I understood from their comments about meaningful work and life satisfaction that mission was at the center of their faith in the university. In effect, the sense of university purpose inspired conviction of both head and heart; it was personal and alive in each person’s day-to-day interactions. A sense of pride that inspires action.

A seemingly odd, yet relevant, source of comparison of unwavering purpose is the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Like a university mission, the Preamble sets the direction, focus, and purpose of the document that follows. Over generations, the Constitution has been fought over, added to, and reinterpreted; the Preamble does not change. It is rock solid through time. The Preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The Preamble’s overarching sense of purpose continues to inspire the pursuit of our country’s ideals and ambitions.

A University’s ideals, as expressed in mission, serves as the foundation for adapting to changing circumstances. Our constituents expect us to deliver high quality education through methods that are accessible and with content redefined for the changing culture. 

Thankfully, with mission in place, universities can reinterpret their prior planning for current times. Through planning, universities are able to renew values and refocus on people. The sense of “what we can accomplish together” opens space for diverse perspectives, constructive conflict, and recalibrates what can be achieved. We can reimagine the university together and challenge technical limits, policies, and structures that slow things down. And, we can create future possible scenarios to manage uncertainty.  

Professor and former editor of Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s idea of “kaleidoscope thinking,” provides a timely planning reset. The kaleidoscope concept assumes the ability to shake things up in order to see new possibilities. That, of course, was done for us. Yet, this invigorating technique reimagines possible futures of the university by examining new perspectives and new models. Different opportunities emerge – assessed and measured by mission. Scenario planning is not planning for a single future state of the university, but rather planning for multiple outcomes. The process provides deeper insights into plausible versions of the future, within a shorter field of vision. It reconnects university stakeholders to a broader, renewed sense of purpose. Mission makes this possible.

In short, mission stands firmly at the center of university ambitions, values, and heritage. University constituents are connected by the mission’s broader aims and unwavering sense of purpose. To paraphrase Gene Kranz, success is determined by people fighting for a cause in which they believe.

Mission is a Collective 

A university is a spirit-filled place of people sharing a common story. Mission unites. While current circumstances have upended traditions, rituals, and methods of expressing community, mission makes passage of time irrelevant. Generations are blended, and a collective future rises. Individual stakeholder stories become one narrative.  

Through the collective narrative, we have the opportunity to expand our boundaries and definition of community, to grow an inclusive culture that welcomes, listens, learns, and celebrates. Recently, national leaders have called on citizens to carry on the mission of Congressman John Lewis for justice and equality. Known for his passion, Rep. John Lewis said:

What I try to tell young people is that if you come together with a mission, and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you can make the impossible possible.

When consistency seems impossible, success depends on the collective resolve of a purposeful, resilient university community working in service of mission.

Ultimately, university missions endure. Even now, missions continue to steer the university journey, renew the overarching aims and sense of purpose, and inspire stakeholders to action. Grit and moxie will be necessary to adapt and steady the journey, but mission is in control.

Katharine is Professor Emerita of Law and former Vice President of Valparaiso University. She's a passionate researcher of higher education, especially the impacts of social, cultural, economic, and political shifts. She has assisted non-profits to address external and internal change with mission-centered strategies and careful planning. A year ago, Katharine caravanned across country with her husband, two Labrador Retrievers, and three cats to their new home in Anthem, Arizona.  All are enjoying the Southwest lifestyle. She can be reached at

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