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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.

This paper extends the perspective that institutional missions serve many purposes within universities, and suggests a broader set of functions for missions at master’s-granting institutions that are revealed through metaphor.

Mission is central to any organization; it is commonly thought of as a statement of direction, priorities, or guidelines for how an organization should operate . However, establishing an organizational mission also has other functions. Morphew and Hartley (2006) and Zenk (2014) argue, for example, that missions instruct by guiding members and others about actions or behaviors that are acceptable. In addition, they serve to inspire and help to bond members of an organization. It is an accepted idea, therefore, that an institutional mission may serve a purpose that is less visible than the function of simply identifying purpose; this led us to ask how university leaders use mission to convey a variety of organizational meanings.

Morphew and Hartley (2006) stimulated our interest in this topic when they suggested that institutional mission statements are more likely to have multiple functions in smaller institutions than in larger and more research-intensive universities, which are often fragmented into less cohesive colleges and/or campuses. Their study is one of the few that looks at mission statements in different institutional contexts in higher education, but they conclude that “signaling”—the expression of distinctive values through missions—is evident in all sectors of higher education. They note:

Though much of the language is superficially similar (that is, the mission statements share certain elements) it is also the case that some institutions take great care to explicate these elements and they do so in decidedly different ways. Often this results in these elements having decidedly different “flavors” at different institutions. It also should be noted that though some language may appear generic to an outsider, it may well be charged with meaning within a particular academic community. (p. 468, italics added)

In other words, to genuinely understand the multiple meanings of mission, it is important to look beyond the language of the mission itself and to examine its meaning and the way in which it is used by the organization. While it is assumed that a mission may be called upon to guide key decisions, Morphew and Hartley’s work suggests that it may affect more routine choices. Under these circumstances, the mission may serve a variety of purposes that differentiate among institutions that, on the surface, appear rather similar.

Similar to Morphew and Hartley’s study of mission within specific institutional contexts, this study examines public master’s institutions, an under-studied sector composed of a subset of institutions currently struggling with their identities and roles in the modern higher education landscape. Higher education in the United States consists of an array of institutions founded for various purposes, many of which have changed over time. The U.S. public higher education system is “highly stratified by mission and admission policies” (Paul, 1990, p. 351). The largest sector—the more than 1,000 open-access 2-year colleges—is sufficiently distinct to have its own professional associations and scholarly journals. There is at least one public research-intensive university in each state, focusing on the creation of new scholarship as the “stewards and repositories of human knowledge” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015, p. 2). In addition, all states have one or more regional master’s institutions that are tasked with providing easier access to undergraduate programs and limited graduate degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, master’s universities account for nearly 40% of all four-year institutions nationally (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).

Public regional master’s institutions are a neglected sector in higher education, where scholarly attention tends to be focused on research-intensive universities, community colleges and, to a lesser extent, small liberal arts colleges. In addition, because they are expected to serve a broad range of students with a wide variety of majors and programs, they are more often susceptible to mission creep and shift, and find themselves being pulled in several directions. On the one hand, they are expected to focus on teaching, but on the other hand, there is an increasing emphasis on research and expanding graduate programs . In navigating within this “muddy middle,” regional master’s degree-granting institutions do not have the focused, narrow scope of baccalaureate institutions nor do they have the opportunity for research dollars and prestige that can accompany their large doctoral-granting brothers and sisters (Gardner, 2016). Instead, the 675 master’s institutions in the United States find their missions more heavily influenced by competing stakeholders (Henderson, 2009). A 2012 survey of chief academic officers (CAOs) (Green, 2012) further revealed a gap between master’s granting institutions and other institutional types. When asked whether “financial pressures have made our faculty willing to explore options to innovate in ways that would not have been possible under other circumstances,” only 19.0% of public master’s degree-granting institution CAOs agreed, compared to 60.8% of CAOs at public doctoral-granting institutions and 48.9% at public baccalaureate institutions (p. 15).

We argue that the study of mission is particularly salient for this population of institutions in part because of the ambiguous “muddy middle” position that they occupy in the public higher education system and the limited attention that has been paid to them in the scholarly literature. At the same time, the recent evidence of lower adaptability reported by Green (2012) suggests that the time is right for higher education scholars to consider the ways in which mission may constrain or support change in this large group of institutions. This paper begins this work by investigating the way in which missions serve as metaphors that signal adaptive behavior. A discourse analysis of metaphorical language related to mission provides insight into how leaders at public master’s institutions are responding to demands, declining resources, and changes in expectations.


Early research on organizational mission focused on types and characteristics of missions and their utility (Lang & Lopers-Sweetman, 1991). More recent literature examines organizational performance, decision making, and how organizations respond to change (Bart, 1997; Bastedo & Gumport, 2003; David, 1989; Dill, 1997; Eckel, 2002; Holland, 1999; N. D. Meyer, 2005; Nowlin, 2009; Sidhu, 2003). Most research points to mission as a potent driver of organizational behavior. The role of missions has been associated with a variety of outcomes ranging from innovation in the nonprofit sector (McDonald, 2007) to a more ethical or stewardship focus (Hernandez, 2008).

As early as the mid-1960s, however, the assumption that mission drives decisions (and thus performance) was questioned (Yuchtman & Seashore, 1967). Brunsson (1985) argues that early explanations for nonrational decisions generally point to deficits, such as lack of insight/cognitive blinders, or practical constraints such as incomplete knowledge. However, alternatives that were not deficit-based quickly developed within higher education research. Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) studies of university decision making emphasized that there were “organized anarchies” in which decisions were driven by particular situations, including opportunities (a presenting problem), the readiness/willingness of people to participate in decision making, and the availability of apparent solutions. Hills and Mahoney (1978) provided a more detailed critique of the (presumably) mission-driven budgeting process in universities, demonstrating the important role of powerful coalitions during periods of scarcer resources. The divergence between a mission/goal-driven rational-bureaucratic model and those that emphasize situations, power relations, and cultural preferences remains unresolved: an organizational textbook subtitled “Rational, Natural, and Open System Perspectives” has remained popular in multiple editions for over 30 years (R. W. Scott, 1985; R. W. Scott & Davis, 2015).

Recent research in other sectors confirms that the role of missions in organizations, particularly value-driven organizations, is not straightforward. In the 1980s, examinations of organizational culture noted that similar missions may engender distinct interpretations in different organizations (Louis, 1980). One example is joint ventures between universities and private sector organizations. While they share a similar mission of increasing the flow of knowledge from basic research to applications, the form and specific strategies that different ventures take can be quite different (Mead et al., 1999); while all teaching hospitals share the same mission, their governance and decision making structures can vary (Eldenburg, Hermalin, Weisbach, & Wosinska, 2004). Within the same setting, missions can produce conflict (Ashforth & Reingen, 2014; Sanders, 2013), particularly where there are multiple aspects to a mission such as emphasizing both participation and financial viability. Other recent studies note that public organizations are often required to engage in political reinterpretations of their mission if they are to be effective (Audette-Chapdelaine, 2016).

In higher education, however, most research on mission has remained focused on mission drift (viewed negatively), mission differentiation (particularly at private liberal arts and major research institutions), and mission agreement. In other words, the emphasis is on mission-behavior consistency (Gardiner, 1989; Holland, 1999; Morphew & Hartley, 2006; Pike, Kuh, & Gonyea, 2003; Rowley, Hurtado & Ponjuan, 2002). There is consensus that mission statements describe organizational purpose (Blanchard & Stoner, 2003; Campbell & Yeung, 1991; David, 1989; Sidhu, 2003) and philosophy (Campbell & Yeung, 1991; David, 1989). In some cases missions point to competencies needed to accomplish the mission (Davies & Glaister, 1997).

Ambiguities in missions and how they function in higher education have, however, been noted in a number of studies (Lepori, Usher, & Montauti, 2013; Parry, 2013). Tierney (2008), for example, has argued that it is organizational culture that drives governance in higher education, while others suggest that mission can help to create a desired culture, changing both member behavior and experiences (Davis, Ruhe, Lee, & Rajadhyaksha, 2007; Kezar & Kinzie, 2006). These emerging perspectives that highlight the “chicken-and-egg” nature of organizational culture and mission shape the perspective taken in this analysis. We can conclude therefore that the multiple functions of mission in organizations, and in higher education specifically, is acknowledged but not yet well understood.

The use of metaphors to investigate uncertainty and ambiguity in organizational behavior is, on the other hand, well established. The influential Images of Organization (Morgan, 1980, 1997a) proposed that metaphor expands the capacity to explain organizational behavior and that an understanding of metaphor also improves administrators’ capacities to manage. The use of metaphors as a tool to analyze organizations has, however, been criticized as insufficiently grounded in the lived reality of organizations. As Palmer and Dunford (1996) point out, “Multiple metaphors are needed to help theorists to comprehend the many organizational realities that exist simultaneously” (p. 693), but the presence of multiple metaphors does not mean that they are incommensurate or incompatible. Second, if metaphors are to be useful, they must also be grounded in a “literal” language that is meaningful to members. We begin from these premises.

Some investigations of metaphor in higher education have proceeded from the assumption that it may be easier for people to capture their perceptions of a complex phenomenon through an image than a more logical line of reasoning, although the latter may be used to explain why a metaphor is appropriate (Simsek & Louis, 1994). This approach begins with metaphor and then proceeds to “understanding” or sensemaking. Many have also noted that some of the most influential theories of organizational processes are based on metaphorical thinking, largely through the work of Karl Weick (Cornelissen, 2006; Czarniawska, 2005; Eisenberg, 2006). While Weick’s investigations of sensemaking began by examining disasters and the capacity to cope with unimaginable events (Weick, 1993; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001), he, like Morgan (1997a), also saw the potential of sensemaking within organizations to improvise and imagine novel ways of using the materials at hand (or bricolage) (Weick, 1998). Weick & Quinn (1999) seem to claim that underlying “basic metaphors” (available from past sensemaking) powerfully shape organizational change processes.

More recent discussions argue that metaphors create insights that change behaviors. Cornelisson (2005), for example, points to the broad effects of metaphor on “organizational learning,” while others have argued that metaphor has an impact when it challenges the “comfort zone” of an expected way of thinking of organizational behavior to one that is less comfortable (Oswick, Keenoy, & Grant, 2002). Alvesson (2012) goes further, claiming that “metaphor can thus be seen as a crucial element in how people relate to reality” and that “root metaphors” are inextricably linked to organizational culture (p. 18).

Metaphor may also be used as a tool for understanding the ways in which an organizational artifact (budgets, for example) may serve multiple purposes (A. D. Meyer, 1984). Discourse analysis has been used in many of these instances as a useful framework for studying the multiple uses of metaphors in organizations (Grant & Oswick, 1996, 1998; Morgan, 1980, 1983; Oswick & Grant, 1996; Oswick & Montgomery, 1999; Phillips, Lawrence, & Hardy, 2004; Tsoukas, 1991). Investigations of discourse around mission are, however, limited within the higher education literature. Most of those that look at mission statements using the lens of discourse adopt a critical perspective, looking for evidence that the written mission statements are designed to reflect neoliberal values (Ayers, 2005), a “marketing” focus (Sauntson & Morrish, 2010), or emphasize the private rather than the public purposes of education (Saichaie & Morphew, 2014). Because discourse analysis is both a method and an epistemological perspective, we ground our work in the line of organizational discourse analysis that views the written statements as only one form of discourse. In organizational studies, understanding language and how it is used can go beyond the text to look at how people interpret or talk about it (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000)—which is the basis for our inquiry.

Understanding the multiple meanings of mission in an organizational setting assumes that the written text may be only one example of the “durable meaning” of mission, and that other persistent meanings may be revealed through conversation.1 Alvesson and Karreman (2000) point out, furthermore, that durable discourses may be quite localized and are not limited to global phenomena such as neoliberalism. The multidisciplinary nature of discourse analysis as the study of “language in use” (Wetherell, Taylor, & Yates, 2001, p. 3) allows us to use multiple frames to analyze the ways in which metaphors are revealed through institutional mission.

To consider the use of metaphor in describing institutional mission, the following research questions were examined:


How are metaphors used to describe institutional mission?


What function(s) is the discourse around institutional mission being used to serve?


This 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. Because existing literature on institutional mission has emerged from studies primarily of major research universities (Cole, 2010; Mohrman, Ma, & Baker, 2008) and private liberal arts colleges (Alemán & Salkever, 2003; Delucchi, 1997; Hartley, 2002; Taylor & Morphew, 2010), this study serves to investigate master’s universities; how mission is constructed and used as leader-driven or negotiated may be particularly important for this subset of institutions. Universities in this sector often find themselves (and their missions) more heavily influenced by competing stakeholders from both within and outside the university (Henderson, 2009). The “words” may be determined by state policy but, as Zenk (2014) has noted, they may also be interpreted through a lens of institutional history. As with other public institutions, declining funding and increasing levels of accountability have challenged existing institutional missions at master’s universities in particular (Henderson, 2009). This paper examines texts for evidence of whether the discourse of mission was determined by the leader or negotiated among institutional members and how respondents’ ideas about mission go beyond just a statement of direction or priorities.

Discourse analysis is the systematic study of texts to explore the social dynamics of language and meaning (Phillips et al., 2004) and studies what is said or written within a social and historical context. Weick (1974) considers this approach a study of the process of “organizing” as opposed to the traditional study of organizations as structures. This study therefore examines the relationship between texts, discourse, and institutional culture, borrowing from earlier models of organizational discourse (Grant, Keenoy, & Oswick, 2001) and discursive institutionalization (Phillips et al., 2004).


Purposeful sampling was used to focus the inquiry and determine the cases and the individuals interviewed. Institutions were chosen from within a single state to control for inconsistent policy environments, which can vary widely (Marginson & Rhoades, 2002). Therefore, parameters were placed around the state within which the institutions operate as well as the type of institution studied. In the particular state examined, as is common for many regional institutions nationwide, the regional master’s universities were begun in the early 1900s as “normal schools” for training teachers and have expanded and added programs over the years as higher education and workforce needs have grown. These institutions are particularly tied to economic development and serving the needs of the regions in which they are located, and those in the state examined are no exception. Constraining the sample to institutions within one state allows for the ability to control for state-specific considerations as well as political landscapes. Just as there are unique state-level facets in K–12 public education, public higher education has its own state-specific qualities to consider as publicly-run systems. In the state examined, institutional missions were reexamined for clarity in the 1970s, but since then have been relatively noncontroversial and less politicized2 when compared to many high-profile cases involving arguments over mission and institutional funding like those that we have seen recently in Wisconsin and Tennessee.3 The study also deliberately included institutions that were founded as minority serving, which both reflected the history of the state and allowed for a deeper understanding of the discourse of mission. Three institutions were selected to represent the diverse geographical regions of the state, an important consideration due to the fact that master’s institutions were founded to serve their region of the state and are inextricably tied to the culture, politics, and economics of the area. Table 1 in the appendix offers a description of the institutions studied.

Interviews were conducted with a total of 36 CAOs, 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. Through on-campus interviews, each participant was asked to describe a recent decision made on campus (within the last two years) related to the academic mission of the institution. The participant was then asked to describe their perspective of how the decision was conceptualized, discussed, and implemented. Other questions focused on the processes used to make decisions at each institution, the importance and usefulness of institutional mission in guiding decision making, and the perception of these decisions. Questions were sent to the participants in advance and the interviews were conducted in person at the institution over the course of two campus visits per institution. All interviews were transcribed verbatim.

To maximize the trustworthiness of the findings, data triangulation (Patten, 2003), member checks (Merriam, 1998), and “rich, thick descriptions” and “multi-site designs” (p. 211) were instituted. The reliability of the results of this study was strengthened by the use of content experts at each institution as well as through a systematic approach toward data collection. Validity of the discourse analysis was enhanced through establishing convergence and agreement among study participants during data analysis. To protect the identity of participants, several steps were used to ensure confidentiality to the greatest extent possible. Relevant information regarding the study was disclosed in the participant consent form as outlined by Creswell (1998), and participants’ names, titles and institutions were not identified to protect participant identities. The study was reviewed and approved by the appropriate Institutional Review Board.


Data in this study consisted of written texts and complete interview transcripts from interviews with 36 CAOs, deans, department chairs, and faculty members (open-ended, semistructured questions). Qualitative data analysis was conducted using an iterative data analysis method drawing from grounded theory and constant comparative analysis (Creswell, 1998). Results from open coding were used to determine thematic categories, which were further elaborated within and across all cases. After open coding was complete, primary and secondary categories were created based on identified themes, and concepts that emerged from the data were explored . Following qualitative analysis and the determination of 10 metaphors present in the data (see Appendix, Table 2), a subsequent word count was conducted to determine the extent to which the metaphors were used and to interrogate regularities or irregularities across the data. To do so, a set of 20 synonyms was identified for each metaphor via an online thesaurus (see Appendix A), and a word count was conducted of each synonym throughout the 36 interview transcriptions (see Appendix, Table 3). In order to examine the usage of each metaphor in describing institutional mission in master’s granting institutions and consistent with our research questions, word count and subsequent usage statistics were calculated across all cases.

Documents were obtained online and in person and were analyzed after the site visit for their ability to provide contextual understanding and relevant details, and to support or contradict the information obtained from participants . For example, institutional mission statements were examined to determine the explicit or stated mission of each university as well as the extent to which participants’ perceptions of mission agreed with the stated mission. A complete list of documents analyzed is located in Appendix B.


The data were examined for the use of metaphors for institutional mission as well as for the function that mission serves, including evidence that the respondents’ ideas about mission go beyond just a statement of direction or priorities. The results from qualitative analysis reveal that institutional mission is a socially constructed phenomenon and that beyond its role as a statement of direction or priorities, missions can serve as (a) symbolic unity, (b) boundary objects, (c) decision making tools, (d) cages, (e) metamorphosis, (f) cultural artifacts, (g) motivators, (h) authoritative texts, (i) transactions, and (j) treaty documents (see Appendix, Table 2).

Descriptive statistics following the word count of the 10 identified metaphors reveal two metaphors that were used by over 50% of total participants and had high frequency across the data: metamorphosis and cultural artifact (see Appendix, Table 3). Additionally, the metaphors of symbolic unity, cage, and motivator were used by over 26% of the participants and were repeated at a moderate frequency across all interviews. Detailed results for each of the 10 metaphors are discussed below.


Interviews suggest that the metaphor of metamorphosis was important in all of the six institutions studied. This finding was also affirmed through the word count analysis which found the metaphor of metamorphosis was used by 78% of total study participants (see Appendix, Table 3). According to Gee (2011), language allows us to “do things” and “be things.” One of the ways in which mission serves to “do” and “be” is through the metaphor of metamorphosis. Words such as “change,” “transition,” “transform,” and “evolve” were used to reflect this sense of movement from one reality to another, as illustrated by a participant from Maple State University:4

The mission … I would say our vision to have a high quality educational experience … was a transforming experience for our students—it really was… We have got two different things—we have got a mission statement that is old and crusty but it is still relatively relevant, but what we put together five years ago was a vision statement that went with our strategic plan at that time. And the vision statement is the thing we have been trying to … work towards.

In the illustration above, Maple State University was not able to change its mission (which was state approved) but could instead develop a parallel version (the vision) that was considered transformative. Participant usage and frequency of the metaphor of mission as metamorphosis was high (see Appendix, Table 3), indicating that it is a strong metaphor for helping institutional participants describe and make sense of the way in which mission serves as a change agent.

The metamorphosis image connects change with mission in a distinctive way. Most change in higher education is viewed as chaotically incremental, as implied in the “garbage can” model that was developed through research in universities (March & Olsen, 1976). The metamorphosis metaphor, on the other hand, points to a more clearly focused change that involves becoming something new. The mission doesn’t necessarily change, but suggests a future where the institution can become something more and/or different from an older (and typically less desirable) state (see Van Wagoner, 2004). In other cases, such as the one suggested above, it is the mission that must be transformed—even if the text does not change significantly—by attaching it to a new vision that demands significant change in culture and behaviors (Gaucher & Kratochwill, 1993). A “crusty” mission, as described above, can therefore be used to leverage a sense of need for change where it can be portrayed as unmatched with the values and aspirations of organizational members.

The linking of mission with metamorphosis can be traced back to earlier writing about the importance of periodic disruptive reorientations in organizations, lest they become complacent and/or “run down” (Romanelli & Tushman, 1994). Apparently, this approach to thinking about organizational renewal is alive and well in the higher education sector. This perspective also typically links with an emphasis on how organizations of all types respond to environments that are portrayed as significantly different. In the case of the institutions that we studied, mission was used by 78% of the participants as a descriptor of a reinvigorated and changed institution (see Appendix, Table 3).


As a “study of language in use” (Wetherell et al., 2001, p. 3), discourse analysis helps us make social meanings of language. One such meaning is the use of the metaphor of mission as cultural artifact. The words “part” and “focus” were used to describe and make sense of the object of mission as in this example from the University of the Oaks: “Like most faculty I don’t think they could quote from it [the mission statement], but I think that they get regional engagement, engagement opportunities is a big part of what we do” and this additional example from Magnolia State University:

I know that military focus—it’s a very military friendly institution.… We have the largest population of military affiliates in the 16 [campuses].… You look at the new center for defense and homeland security that is here to serve the military, you look at intelligence studies [and] all of the programs that we are developing to serve the military. I think it’s going to be known for that.

The participant usage and frequency of the metaphor of mission as cultural artifact was high (see Appendix, Table 3), indicating the salience of this metaphor.

There is evidence (as suggested in the quote above) that as cultural artifacts, missions can create conflict as well as unity. Where missions are not fully aligned with internal and deeply held priorities, the mission requires reinterpretation rather than simply motivating or suggesting action. Similarly, scholars  in sectors other than higher education find that mission can activate unspoken taboos (Hoon & Jacobs, 2014) that lead to reinterpretation and cohesiveness (or, alternatively, to dis-identification with the organization) (Besharov, 2014). To the extent that missions stimulate formal or informal discussions of culture, particularly where leaders reinforce these discussions, divergent elements of a mission may contribute to cohesiveness. The cultural artifact metaphor tends, unlike the metamorphosis metaphor, to be associated with gradual evolution that emphasizes continuity rather than “becoming different.” Words like “alignment” and “guide” are commonly associated (Ford et al., 2006).

It should be noted that the idea that mission may serve as a cultural artifact to guide an institution’s work is contested in higher education, often because research is limited to examining the impact of mission text on faculty behavior in large research universities. However, as Kezar and Kinzie (2006) point out, where mission distinctiveness is emphasized and discussed, it is used as a tool to guide the (evolutionary) development of institutionally relevant student engagement programs—even in research-intensive settings. Thus, the importance of missions as cultural artifacts requires more attention to the way in which the interpretation of mission (rather than mission text) fosters change.


Institutional missions serve a symbolic purpose and can act as glue that holds members together under a unified belief; a clear mission statement helps members identify activities that correspond to institutional goals (Morphew & Hartley, 2006) and provides a sense of purpose (Collins, 2008). Mission serves as symbolic unity for nearly all the institutions in the study, and this metaphor was used by 44% of all participants (see Appendix, Table 3). One example is University of the Oaks, which is described by participants as “belonging” to the region. The close ties between the university and the region are in part due to the history of the institution, founded to educate minority students and described as a “source of pride.” The mission was also a symbol of the importance of the community within the state: “The [University] is the most visible sort of manifestation of the identity here” (University of the Oaks, 2012b).  Thus, the historical mission acts as a symbol of identity and pride for the community. For institutional leaders, the extent to which mission is identified as symbolically important is significant; changes in mission become more difficult when that mission serves a symbolic purpose, particularly when leaders are not “insiders” and thus their commitment to the symbols may be questioned.

When mission is serving as a metaphor for symbolic unity, it acts as an element of institutional memory, holding new members of the institution to the standards of previous leaders. Mission as symbolic unity can also provide a tangible item for members of the institution to see, as in the following example from University of the Palmettos:

In times past it was the alma mater. It was the motto of the university. It was the flag. It was the nickname. These kinds of things served as a symbol of the university but at this university it was the strategic plan.

Words like “symbol,” as seen in the example above, as well as “design” and “type” were used to convey the use of the strategic plan, mission, and vision as mechanisms to bind together organizational members.


The first three metaphors described focus on positive uses of mission. Mission, however, may also constrain rapid changes that leaders perceive as necessary. An analysis using resource dependency theory considers that mission may also be used as a cage to constrain an institution with limited external resources (Dowling & Pfeffer, 1975; Pfeffer & Salancik, 2003). Some leaders were able to use the mission-as-cage metaphor to help guide members toward recognition of priorities that are grounded in both tradition and opportunity. Participants at five of the six institutions studied stated that mission constrained their capacity to adapt to constricted financial resources, and the mission-as-a-cage metaphor was used with moderate frequency across the data (see Appendix, Table 3). Words like “restrict,” “hinder,” and “hold” were used by participants to describe how mission can serve as a metaphor for a cage.

One administrator at Magnolia State University shared that recent financial constraints have brought attention to institutional needs (“the budget climate has created an environment in which people are much more receptive to some of the changes we made”), but another participant pointed out, “I don't really know … whether we have the opportunity to adapt ourselves to the changes in the market.” At Poplar State University, there was a sense that mission provides a mechanism through which campus community members can focus on their new reality:

It actually made the faculty and the staff aware that in different budgetary situations sometimes you have to support the institution’s priorities. You have to nurture those programs that are doing really well and at the same time you have to make a hard decision.

Another participant agreed that mission provides a mechanism through which members can focus on their new reality.


Earlier studies suggest that mission guides, but does not fully reflect, the decision-making process, which is deeply affected by institutional locus and history (Zenk, 2014). Part of that history is reflected in the treaty documents and authoritative texts that are used as founding documents to establish institutions. Although these metaphors emerged independently, the words used by participants illustrate the ways in which the two metaphors serve similar purposes. The words “chartered” and “understanding” were used in the mission-as-treaty-document metaphor as described by a participant from Magnolia State University: “I think we all have something that is our little niche … we have an understanding of what our mission is because we were chartered for that.” Similarly, as an authoritative text, mission acts as an expert document at Maple State University:

This aspect [of the university mission] still exists regardless of any other turmoil that is happening on this campus and that is we are a large university … but we still make that context, students still look at it as a homey kind of mom and pop shop.

The words “context,” “supported,” and “document” were used to reflect mission as an authoritative text that presented an official, documented understanding of, in the example above, institutional purpose. Interestingly, the metaphors of treaty document and authoritative text were among the less salient as a result of the word count, despite the fact that the “document” aspect is often seen as a traditional conceptualization of mission. Commentaries on research universities frequently refer to tensions among the “three legs” of research, teaching, and service, most notably in current discussions about the need for “engaged scholarship” (Boyer, Moser, Ream, & Braxton, 2015). Given the importance of politically negotiated understandings of mission that were identified by Audette-Chapdelaine (2016) and the frequently noted problem of multiple, conflicting components within missions (Mintzberg, 1985; J. C. Scott, 2006), this omission is clearly worth further examination.


Institutions are using mission to guide decisions and to set and determine priorities (Dill, 1997; Dominick, 1990; Holland, 1999). Researchers agree that an effective mission reflects the campus culture and provides direction for decision making (Morphew & Hartley, 2006; Nowlin, 2009). The use of mission as a tool was evident in all institutions in the study, despite the fact that overall usage was low (see Appendix Table 3). Just as grading rubrics are often used by instructors to ensure that student written work is graded appropriately, the mission-as-tool metaphor was seen as a template to be used by organizational members. For example, Magnolia State University is driven internally through its very strong sense of identity as a historically Black institution, and this mission is prominent in guiding both large and small decisions: “Every faculty member has got the mission statement posted in their offices… Every time that you make a decision you refer to your mission.” The use of mission as a tool can both reinforce an acceptance of new programs and policies, as well as bond members to the institution. Words like “engine” and “purpose” were used to refer to mission and the ways in which it can act as a tool. This view of mission also overlaps with the cultural artifact metaphor, where the mission is seen as a way of levering discussions about alignment rather than actually pointing to a particular decision, as in the tool.


The concept of boundary object describes information that is used in various ways (Sapsed & Salter, 2004; Star & Griesemer, 1989) to coordinate and align weakly connected groups (Fischer & Reeves, 1995). Star and Griesemer (1989) describe that the nature of the “boundary” is that the objects are “simultaneously concrete and abstract, specific and general, conventionalized and customized” (p. 408). Mission can therefore act to translate purpose and meaning through how it is interpreted by stakeholders. For example, participants at all institutions noted that the mission was to serve the region. A participant at Maple State University described: “where we are has a lot to do with who we are.” The meaning of “region,” however, varied widely among the institutions, ranging from the local community to an interest group more loosely associated with a physical area. The meaning of “regional institution” was, thus, negotiated with key stakeholders including board members, legislators, and faculty. For regionally-focused institutions, the notion that missions are negotiable can result in a shifting of priorities as stakeholders change. In these institutions, where missions were revealed as boundary objects, they were not seen as treaties. The definition of “region” remained somewhat fuzzy or ambiguous at all of the institutions studied, from being described as a large geographic region (“the western part of the state”), a physical characterization (“the coast”), a specific city, or remaining undefined entirely. Despite the fact that for all institutions the notion of mission serving as a boundary object (particularly around the idea of “region”) was present, it was identified as one of the less salient metaphors with relatively low frequency across the data (see Appendix, Table 3).


Finally, mission also serves in an action capacity as a method of transaction and as a motivator to institutional members. While these two metaphors emerged separately, the language used by all respondents indicated that they were conceptually linked. The word “action” was used to describe the movement associated with mission as transaction in this example from a participant at Magnolia State University:

To discuss the history and the mission of the university in terms of how we translate that into action, that has changed radically over time. For example, the expectations we have of students has changed dramatically, the expectations we have for faculty have changed over time, the outreach to the region has changed significantly over time, the size of the institution—when I came here we were a little over 2,000 students, we’re now a little over 6,000, we’ve had as many as 6,600 students—so the way I would probably say it most succinctly is that the way we have translated the mission into action has changed very, very dramatically.

Similarly, the words “create,” “influence,” and “force” were used as synonyms of mission as motivator at Maple State University:

What does [the town] mean … to the University?… It is an interesting question, the possibility that we are considering the effects that we have on the town and on the county and the region and the decisions we make is probably a good balancing force in the process. If we were in the suburb of [the large city in the region] … we don’t carry that kind of responsibility, not to the degree that we do here.

In these examples, the use of mission as a motivator and as a transaction reveal the ways in which mission was used to encourage action and facilitate interaction and exchange within the organization. Participant usage of the metaphors of motivator and transaction were moderate—28% of all participants used the mission-as-motivator metaphor and 17% used the mission-as-transaction metaphor. However, the frequency rating for each of these metaphors was low, indicating that the words were used less than 10 times across all 36 interviews (see Appendix, Table 3). While less salient metaphors as a result of the word count, they provide examples of the ways in which mission is used by organizational members and lend insight into the variety of purposes mission serves in public, master’s granting institutions.

We note that the metaphors of tool, boundary object, authoritative text, transaction, and treaty document were the least common in our sample (see Appendix, Table 3). Given that these are often seen as the more critical functions of mission, at least when it is regarded as a strategic administrative tool, this is clearly both surprising and worth additional investigation. Our sample included top administrators, who would be well sensitized to these types of functions as articulated in the academic and popular press in higher education. However, our analysis revealed no difference between the image use of top administrators and other influential actors in the sample. There are many possible explanations for this (non) finding, but two seem worth considering. First, at the time the data were collected, universities in this state were not under any political pressure and were not facing financial pressures that were unusual. Thus, the political uses may have been backgrounded. A second explanation is that investigations of mission, with the exception of Morphew and Hartley (2006), have been largely focused on research universities or the 2-year sector. The regional master’s granting institutions that we have examined may be a special case.


The trustworthiness of the findings of this study is strengthened in many ways through use of data triangulation, member checks, and “rich, thick descriptions” and “multi-site designs” (Merriam, 1998, p. 211). Similarly, the reliability and validity of the results is strengthened through the use of content experts, a systematic approach to data collection, and the establishment of data convergence. While several steps were taken in an attempt to increase the validity and reliability of this study, limitations do exist. The primary limitation of this study is the dependence on participants, particularly elite participants, to remember and reveal information as well as the personal bias associated with the methods chosen. Not only may individuals’ memories be flawed, but participants also bring their own personal biases to their interpretations of the situations as they happened. In particular, this study highlights the memories and interpretations of a select, privileged group of high-level administrators who, due to the nature of their positions, are likely to be more polished and reserved in their conversations, as well as more positive in their portrayal of some aspects of their campuses. It can also be difficult to prevent personal bias by qualitative researchers: as humans we have our own particular views of the world that can impact our ability to be objective; Merriam (1998) emphasizes the importance of being attentive to the biases that can exist within qualitative research, including its subjective nature. Within the context of discourse analysis, the primary limitation is that humans interpret the world and discourse analysis itself is an interpretation of the human interpretation (Gee, 2011). Interviews are also a distinct speech event that are different from the communication that occurs in a daily context (Georgakopoulou & Goutsos, 1997). A final limitation exists in the single state chosen for the sample; while state-specific policy and political considerations provided an important consideration when constraining this study to institutions within only one state, it is important to recognize that the precise factors that led to constraining the study can also inform the results. In particular, within the state studied there is occasional attention paid to notions of program duplication and specialization among the institutions by the state governing board; this provides a limitation because issues of mission differentiation can arise when the focus becomes program specialization. Generally, however, while institutional missions do occasionally arise to political consideration, overall it is not as controversial as it has been seen in other states.3


Our intent in looking at the discourse around mission and the metaphors that are revealed was to examine in more detail the multiple ways in which mission may be used to create solidarity, purpose, and direction in higher education. We chose to focus on the discourse of leaders at public, 4-year master’s granting institutions both because they are an understudied sector within higher education, and because they are grappling with the multiple decisions that must be made in a period of declining resources and increasing legislative demands. Unlike research-intensive institutions, which rely heavily on external grants, and 2-year institutions, which are able to develop nondegree programs to meet short-term needs (Dingfelder, 2007), master’s granting institutions are primarily driven by (and dependent on) enrollment.

The institutions in this study used mission in its traditional role to aid decision making, but through discourse analysis, we revealed that they also used mission to stimulate a broader and deeper sense of purpose that encouraged the development of more coherent “stories” about how hard decisions were consistent with historical identities and cultural preferences. Some textbooks argue that leaders need to distinguish between mission (present-oriented) and vision (future-oriented), and that our respondents are, therefore, conceptually deficient. Most organizational writers are, however, more like our respondents, arguing that there is, at minimum, a great deal of conceptual overlap between the two, or even that good missions can signal an underlying vision and might be best labeled as an organizational identity statement (Cady, Wheeler, DeWolf, & Brodke, 2011; Morphew & Hartley, 2006).

We expand on this assumption that distinctions between mission, vision, and values are ambiguous and varied, and that thinking about missions as having multiple signaling functions, both internally and externally, is important. For those institutions that had the strongest evidence of shared metaphors, we note that the mission appeared to be the main way in which members “made sense” of the intersection between their institution’s purposes and their own. However, we also note that even those institutions with stronger agreement about the metaphors typically made use of more than one, as suggested by Palmer and Dunford (1996). Indeed, most individual respondents relied on more than one metaphorical description of their mission as they described decision-making processes. Rather than finding a single “root metaphor” (Alvesson, 2012) we suggest that the cultural complexity surrounding the process of decision making points to a bricolage of accumulated ways of thinking about what drives decisions (Weick, 1998). In this sample, metaphors express the messy reality of organizational culture in public higher education.

In addition to the idea that missions send signals about organizational identity to multiple audiences, we also find that missions can be seen as metaphorical tools. To the degree that they are used in this way, they become, as Morgan (1997b) suggests, specific instruments to promote change within an organization rather than identity statements that promote sensemaking. The metaphors identified also point to the underlying ways in which institutions use mission in both mechanical and technical functions (short-term or routine applications) and also as a more diffuse mechanism for continued socialization of the members and other stakeholders regarding the purpose of the institution. While we were surprised that so few respondents viewed missions in this way, particularly since studies of other value-driven/nonprofit organizations claim that it is the most widely cited use of missions (Bart & Tabone, 1998; Kim & Lee, 2007), this dearth may be a result of its assumed use in this conventional way. The analysis of discourse around mission also reveals the dynamic relationship between language and context that is present in all six institutions. The situated meanings of mission show that the formal statements of purpose take on a much more specific meaning depending on the context and the institution. We point, for example, to the flexible meaning of “region” among the group, although all were designated by the state as institutions serving a particular geographic region. The relative salience of the metamorphosis metaphor in all of the institutions also points to the significance of nontraditional uses of mission, since all leaders (faculty as well as administrators) emphasized that mission was part of the story that each institution was developing about the need for change and a means of arriving at a generally accepted direction for becoming something different from what they had been.

Our analysis sheds some light on the finding that public regional master’s institutions appear to be responding less rapidly than other types of institutions to the various financial and social pressures that they encounter. On the one hand, mission as metamorphosis (the most common use) suggests that it signals a willingness to adapt and change. At the same time, the second most common metaphor was mission as cultural artifact, followed by symbolic unity. Taken together, and examining the details of discourse, mission is used to explain how the institution has emerged (metamorphosis tends to look backward rather than forward), and how it signals cultural cohesiveness and unity. In other words, the focus of discourse around mission was more clearly on preserving the current (emergent) system. Relatively limited discussions of using metaphor to motivate, transform perspectives, or serve as a tool, suggest that neither administrators nor key faculty members at these institutions saw missions as propelling them into a period of change and adaptation.

Considering the changes, competing priorities, pressures from multiple stakeholders, and declining resources that public master’s granting institutions are facing, this is an opportune time to examine discourse to better understand how higher education leaders are utilizing institutional mission in their efforts to effectively educate diverse democracies. This study also provides an opportunity to conceptualize mission in new ways that encourage dialogue among scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and higher education leaders: all of whom turn to mission in many ways and rely on it to serve various functions.


1. This perspective is in contrast with poststructuralist or highly subjective approaches to discourse analysis (see Alvesson & Karreman, 2000, p. 1131).

2. Funding of higher education in the state examined has declined over the past two decades, which has had an impact on all institutions in the system regardless of designated institutional type. Because the formula for funding is based on enrollment, this obviously benefits institutions that are growing rapidly more than those that are stagnant.

3. In 2011, the president of the University of Wisconsin, in response to the Governor’s proposal to reduce employee benefits and bargaining rights, outlined new elements of oversight flexibility aimed at saving money and protecting the University from legislative interference with their budgets; institutions would be able to prioritize spending in ways that would help them “establish niches” in higher education (see University of Wisconsin, 2011). In 2016, the Tennessee legislature voted to cut the entire state appropriation for the diversity office at the University of Tennessee Knoxville in response to the office’s attempts to promote inclusion on campus (see Jaschik, 2016).

4. Institutional pseudonyms are used throughout the paper.


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Appendix A

Synonyms for Word Count


Boundary Object:
































































Authoritative Text:


























Driving Force





































Symbolic Unity:




















Treaty Document:






































































Appendix B

Documents by Institution


Institutional Documents Reviewed

Cypress State University

About CSU (Cypress State University, 2012a)

General Education Program Overview (Cypress State University, 2013)

Our Mission (Cypress State University, 2012b)

Our Vision (Cypress State University, 2012c)

University Fact Book 2012–2013 (Cypress State University, Office of Institutional Assessment and Research, 2012)

Magnolia State University

Fact Book Fall 2012 (Magnolia State University, Office of Institutional Research, 2012)

Magnolia State University Mission (Magnolia State University, 2012a)

MSU History (Magnolia State University, 2012b)

Six Reasons to Choose MSU  (Magnolia State University, 2013)

Maple State University

About Maple (Maple State University, 2012a)

Biography of Dean (Maple State University, 2013)

Maple State U Responds to Findings of Low Morale (Author, nd)

History (Maple State University, 2012b)

Faculty Survey (Maple State University, Faculty Senate Welfare and Morale Committee, 2013)

Petition: Tenured Faculty Call for Accountability for Administrative Failures (Maple State University, Faculty Senate, 2013)

Statement from Chancellor to be Released to Maple State University Faculty

2012-2013 Fact Book (Maple State University, Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning, 2012)

Update: Vote on Provost Divides MSU Faculty (Paper, nd)

Poplar State University

Engagement at PSU (Poplar State University, 2013)

Heritage and History (Poplar State University, 2012c)

Poplar State University Alumni Magazine (Poplar State University, 2012a)

Poplar State University 2012 Fact Book (Poplar State University, 2012d)

PSU Mission Statement (Poplar State University, 2012b)

The Story of Poplar State University [video] (Source, 1989)

University of the Oaks

History of UO (University of the Oaks, 2012b)

Landmarks and Points of Interest (University of the Oaks, 2012c)

Mission of the University (University of the Oaks, 2012a)

UO Traditions (University of the Oaks, 2012d)

2012–2013 Fact Book (University of the Oaks, 2012e)

University of the Palmettos

About UP (University of the Palmettos, 2012a)

Undergraduate Degrees Conferred – July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013 (University of the Palmettos, 2012b)

University Planning Documents (University of the Palmettos, 2013a)

Points of Pride (University of the Palmettos, 2013b)

Strategic Plan, 2010–2015 (University of the Palmettos, Academic Affairs Division, 2010)

History and Traditions (University of the Palmettos, 2013c)

Table 1. Institutional Pseudonyms and Characteristics

Institution (Pseudonym)



Historical Mission

Cypress State University

Medium-sized city


Historically Black university

Magnolia State University

Medium-sized city, rural area


Historically Black university

Maple State University

Small town, rural area


Educating the people of the region

Poplar State University

Small town, isolated rural area


Serving the needs of the region

University of the Oaks

Small town, rural area


American Indian serving institution

University of the Palmettos

Medium-sized city


Educating the people of the region

Table 2. Mission’s Roles and Metaphors


Role/Organizational Function

Symbolic Unity

Provide clear, unified belief for organizational members

Boundary Object

Translate purpose and meaning; engage in clarifying purpose


“Test” of decision compatibility and consistency



Cultural Artifact


Authoritative Text


Treaty Document

Establish binding parameters

Describe clearly focused change of becoming something new

Ground organization in continuity

Encourage enthusiasm and action in the organization

Demonstrate official language

Facilitate interaction or exchange within the organization

Reflect formal agreement

Table 3. Usage and Frequency of Selected Metaphors


% Participant Usage

Frequency Rating*




Cultural Artifact



Symbolic Unity









Authoritative Text






Boundary Object






Treaty Document



*High Frequency Rating = Word usage of 50% or more of total participants and repeat usage of 40 times or more across the data

Medium Frequency Rating = Word usage of 26% or more of total participants and repeat usage of 20 times or more across the data

Low Frequency Rating = Word usage in 25% or less of total participants and repeat usage of 15 times or less across the data

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 9, 2018, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22138, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 8:09:24 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 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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