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Mission as Metaphor: Reconceptualizing How Leaders Utilize Institutional Mission


by Leslie R. Zenk & Karen R. Seashore Louis — 2018

Background/Context:Institutional missions serve many purposes within universities, but most studies focus on how mission points to direction, guidelines, or priorities. However, organizational missions have been shown to have other functions such as instructing members about actions or behaviors that are acceptable. This paper therefore examines texts for evidence of how respondents’ ideas about mission go beyond just a statement of direction or priorities.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study:To consider the use of metaphor in describing institutional mission, the following research questions were examined: 1. How are metaphors used to describe institutional mission? 2. What function(s) is the discourse around institutional mission being used to serve?

Research Design:The study is a discourse analysis of written texts and interview transcripts as part of a qualitative, comparative case study of six master’s- granting institutions that are campuses within one state’s public university system.

Data Collection and Analysis: Interviews were conducted with 36 university leaders including chief academic officers, deans, department chairs, and faculty members including at least one: (a) member of the institution’s body of collegiate deans, (b) department chair and/or collegiate dean directly involved in decision making, and (c) current and/or previous president of the faculty governance body. Qualitative data analysis was conducted using an iterative data analysis method drawing from grounded theory and constant comparative analysis. Following qualitative analysis, a subsequent word count was conducted to determine the extent to which the metaphors were used.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Results suggest mission is a socially constructed phenomenon with a variety of different functions revealed through metaphor that engage different audiences and are closely tied to institutional context and purpose. Metaphors of mission articulated by respondents include mission as: (a) symbolic unity, (b) boundary object, (c) tool, (d) cage, (e) metamorphosis, (f) cultural artifact, (g) motivator, (h) authoritative text, (i) transaction, and (j) treaty document. Understanding the complexities of institutional mission suggests a need to reconsider it and the ways in which leaders engage with their institutional missions.



At present, we do not have the full-text of this article in digital format.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 9, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22138, Date Accessed: 10/20/2017 10:35:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Leslie R. Zenk
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    LESLIE R. ZENK, Ph.D., is Assistant Provost in the Office of Academic Affairs and Associate Graduate Faculty in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research interests include the examination of decision making making in universities and the ways in which mission, institutional culture, and personal identities shape the experiences and decisions of university leaders.
  • Karen Seashore Louis
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    KAREN SEASHORE LOUIS is Regents Professor of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on organizational culture and its effect in higher education and K–12 settings. Recent publications include Louis, K. SS., & & Lee, M. (2016). Teachers’ capacity for organizational learning: The effects of school culture and context. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 27(4), 534–556 and Tkachenko, O., & Louis, K. SS. (2017). Re-shaping the faculty: Contradictions in the emergence and development of “permanent-contingent” roles. International Journal of Higher Education, 6(1), 240–252.
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