For several hundred years, the greatest universities in the world rubbed along with simple mottos. For Harvard, Veritas. For Oxford, Dominus Illuminatio Mea. But then along came business schools and the curse of the mission statement.
A mission statement can make sense for a company. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Clear, lofty, but understandable and from what we’ve seen so far, achievable.
But try and apply a mission statement to the far messier world of an educational institution and you get something like Harvard Business School’s: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”
Where to start? Well, how about this “difference” these leaders are making in the world? Are we talking George W. Bush? Or Jeff Skilling? Or Jeff Immelt at GE? Or John Thain at Merrill Lynch? Does the difference have to be positive for the world? Or simply to the advantage of HBS graduates? It may seem fussy to quibble like this, but when you’ve boiled down the purpose of an institution like HBS to 10 words, it seems fair to insist that each word counts.
Also, to what extent can HBS reasonably take credit for the achievements of its graduates? Most arrive at the school with sterling resumes and steely ambition. Even without HBS many might have made a difference in the world. It’s greedy of the school to claim so much credit for itself, but wholly in character. It jives with the school’s claim to offer a “transformational” experience, as it were some kind of religious conversion.
Other leading business schools are notably more modest. Wharton: “to impact the world through the generation and dissemination of business knowledge and sound, ethical leadership.”
Stanford: “to create ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.”
The charmingly wordy INSEAD:”to promote a non-dogmatic learning environment that brings together people, cultures and ideas from around the world, changing lives, and helping transform organizations through management education.”
But far and away my favorite mission statement belongs to the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, the most famous creative writing school in the world. It describes its mission under the heading “philosophy” and is refreshingly modest about its role in forming the students who come through its doors:
“The Program in Creative Writing is known informally as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and these two titles suggest the duality of our purpose and function. As a “program” we offer the Master of Fine Arts in English, a terminal degree qualifying the holder to teach creative writing at the college level. As a “workshop” we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well. Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”
Wouldn’t it be great if HBS developed something similar? “We acknowledge the limits of our role in the lives of those who come to receive our management education, but believe we can develop and encourage promising talent.” It would be so much more honest.