Mission Creep

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I once knew an architecture professor who studied shopping malls. He studied them not because they were especially interesting, not because he himself loved to spend time at some random SouthPointe Galleria or Olde Towne Centre. He studied them because they had one single variable for success: dollars of sales per square foot.

  • Widen the concourse: does $/SF go up, or down?
  • Add multi-level parking: does $/SF go up, or down?
  • Change the mix of food-court tenants: does $/SF go up, or down?

He wasn’t interested in some larger human questions of satisfaction or pleasure or blah blah blah. He had an objective measurement to be pursued with monomaniacal precision.

I’ve spent some time in non-profits, both within and outside higher ed. Their missions are more complex than those of the for-profit environment, and include all kinds of social and personal outcomes that are a lot harder to measure, or even to state. But in the end, they still need the dollars in order to survive and fulfill those other missions.

This introduces a tension; every college has to be a business with sufficient revenue, even as it has to pursue goals that have nothing whatsoever to do with revenue. And since it’s ALWAYS possible to spend more money to pursue the quality of education, most schools are perpetually adding programs and then scrambling to pay for them.

Fortunately, there are no end of generous people and agencies willing to support these initiatives… kind of. These generous souls, whether individual donors or family funds or major foundations or federal agencies, have social goals of their own; they’re giving money to some college in order to further their own complex missions. And so every negotiation over a grant or a gift becomes an imperfect alignment of values. Without constant attention and focus, the college can be distracted from its core mission through the necessity of fundraising, each new initiative making us a little different than we once had been. After ten or twenty or fifty years, we become unrecognizable.

In the for-profit world, this doesn’t matter even a little bit. The executives of US Steel once were asked how they could continue to make steel in the face of so many plant closures; they replied “We don’t make steel. We make money.” There’s no complex array of core values there, just the one. So it’s easy for them to divest from one area and pick up another, to shift from sheet metal to structural steel to iron mining. McDonalds doesn’t make hamburgers, they make money. And they’ll do that with McNuggets and Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait and McCafé® Shamrock Chocolate Chip Frappé. Maybe next year, they’ll sell McPhones and McSoap and McGin ‘N Tonic. Doesn’t matter. Money has no mission except its own.

In our contemporary zeal to “run government like a business,” colleges also have invested in the fluid, the exchangeable, the temporary. Each new program on its own makes a lot of sense; as a portfolio of programs, as a system of programs, they change the school irretrievably. We build the plaid university, and then wonder why everyone is so overworked and confused about the mission.

Every new initiative changes all the other parts of the ecosystem. There are new committees and coordinative challenges. There are requirements for space and equipment, demands placed on accounting and HR. There are course releases to fill, travel and memberships to fund. And at the end of the project, questions of permanence—is this thing valuable enough for us to continue it on our own dime? Does it become a new member of the community, or did it migrate through us and then depart? How far did we stray from our mission to bring it on board?

These programs also add to the impermanence of the higher education workplace. We get a three-year grant, and add “soft-money employees” and a few post-docs that we can shed without regrets when the funding dries up. The permanent faculty member gets the glory (in promotion credit, and in publications and reputation); the others get to not be hungry for a little while longer while they do their temp jobs with one eye on the classified ads.