Letter: Human component needed in mission statements

The other day I was handed a document that included a proposal for a new mission statement for UTM and was made aware there was an ongoing discussion about the future shape of our university. Although the document I was handed is still being shaped, this is what it said:

Given that democracy cannot function without informed and self-aware citizens, we at the University of Tennessee at Martin set as our mission:

  • Developing for students, faculty, and staff a greater understanding of who each of us are as individuals and what our relationship is to our society, our world, and to the universe in which we live;
  • Developing for students, faculty, and staff a greater sense of responsibilities of citizenship;
  • Developing for students, faculty, and staff a greater sense of ethical conduct in relation to others and in relation to the society in which we live;
  • Developing for students, faculty, and staff a genuine respect for literature, history, philosophy, art, science, and math.

This is what the current mission statement says:

  • The primary purpose of The University of Tennessee at Martin is to provide a quality undergraduate education in a traditional collegiate atmosphere characterized at all levels by close collaboration among students, faculty and staff.
  • In addition, the university is dedicated to meeting lifelong educational needs by providing graduate programs, distant-learning opportunities and other creative endeavors.
  • Furthermore, the university is committed to advancing the regional and global community through scholarly activities, research and public service.

The current mission statement certainly describes what UTM does and in that sense it is accurate. But the new mission statement seems to contain a stronger telos, what the Greeks referred to as “the ultimate end of something.”

In his book The End of Education, Neil Postman claimed that one problem with modern education is that it fails to provide students with an overarching transcendent narrative. Postman called these narratives gods with a little “g.”

Unifying narratives in education was once commonplace. The word “university” itself reminds us that schools in the past had a shared purpose (uni-) while also consisting of various areas of study (-versity).

If UTM were a religious institution, coming up with a mission statement would actually be easier. One of the challenges of our frosty secularity is that we must now fumble around for transcendence. Nevertheless, societal understanding, responsible citizenship, ethical conduct and respect for the liberal arts tradition, are good places to start. These gods are historically familiar to us and easier to serve than, say, a “program” or an “opportunity” or an “activity.”

While some mission statements emphasize the liberal arts tradition, others are more professional, vocational or technical. The distinction is important.

For example, the statement, “Students will prepare themselves to become productive wage-earners in a global economy,” is clearly vocational. Such a statement assumes quite a bit and at the same time leaves quite a bit out. It suggests the student is a kind of product moving through a machine. Upon graduation the machine will spit them out at which time they will enter another machine.

What a mission statement leaves out is what should concern us the most. Does it recognize our humanity? Does it see us as moral beings? After all, we are more than products in a machine or potential wage earners. Besides, no one really knows where the “global economy” is headed.

Predictions about future employment can be tricky, but The Economist recently cited a 2013 study examining the computerization for 702 occupations and found that 47 percent of workers in America are at high risk of losing their jobs through automation.

Even if a majority of students in Tennessee achieve a college degree of some kind by 2025, what guarantee do they have that their jobs will not go overseas or be replaced by robots in the future?

If the global economy should take a nosedive off a cliff (God forbid) we are still left with our humanity. Any mission statement should address that part of us—the human part.


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