When Mission Meets Transmission

In Extraordinary Board Leadership, Doug Eadie defines the mission of an organization as, 

[a] description of [it] right now, in terms of its programs, products, and services; its clients and customers; and its basic structure. [. . .] [The mission] distinguishes it from other organizations in its environment and establishes clear boundaries. Mission, far from being an inspirational tool, is essentially a disciplinary device, establishing clear boundaries that are not to be crossed lightly.[1]

The author’s emphasis on missions’ instantiation of boundaries carries particular significance in the present public health crisis posed by COVID-19. On a global scale, the coronavirus has created all manner of physical and behavioral boundaries: facemasks to block droplets when sneezing, breathing, or coughing; queues governed by 6-foot-spaced tape marks; goodbye to hugs, handshakes, and kisses; and, of course, the ubiquitous panes of Plexiglass. Paradoxically, the virus has also dissolved boundaries that previously defined contemporary life. The tidy distinctions between home and work, classroom and dorm room, parent and teacher, town and gown have fallen away like a thin curtain, snipped at its grommets.[2] Considering the myriad ways in which COVID has created and pierced boundaries, how have mission statements served as guard-rails and guiding lights for universities combating the virus? To answer this question, I examine two similar schools–Iowa State and UNC-Chapel Hill–and the context for their divergent decisions when faced with recent outbreaks.

UNC-Chapel Hill and Iowa State are public, land-grant universities, comparable in size. Their combined undergraduate and graduate student populations are 30,101 and 33,391, respectively, within the broader populations of 60,988 in Chapel Hill, NC and 67,154 in Ames, Iowa.[3][4] Having admitted its first class of students in 1795, UNC-Chapel Hill claims the title of oldest public university in the United States. Iowa State, for its part, welcomed its first cohort of students in 1869. Since then, both have developed robust academic, research, and outreach programs, which have secured them rankings of #5 (UNC-Chapel Hill) and #55 (Iowa State) in U.S. News and World Report’s 2019 assessment of top public schools.[5][6]

At face value, the universities’ mission statements may seem quite distinct. The brevity of Iowa State’s commitment to “[c]reate, share, and apply knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place” barely registers on the scale when weighed against the extensive articulation of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Mission and Values: 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, serves North Carolina, the United States, and the world through teaching, research, and public service. We embrace an unwavering commitment to excellence as one of the world’s great research universities.

Our mission is to serve as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders. Through the efforts of our exceptional faculty and staff, and with generous support from North Carolina’s citizens, we invest our knowledge and resources to enhance access to learning and to foster the success and prosperity of each rising generation. We also extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.

With lux, libertas — light and liberty — as its founding principles, the University has charted a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems.[7][8]

Digging deeper, both mission statements evidence the universities’ land-grant identities when they reference their commitment to service on a local-to-global scale. This attribute aligns UNC-Chapel Hill and Iowa State with broader findings on public schools’ emphasis on “community” in mission statements.[9] Further, we see overlap in the Iowa State and UNC-Chapel Hill’s respective invocations of:

  • “create” / “creativity” 
  • “share / “enhance access [and] extend knowledge-based services” 
  • “make Iowa and the world a better place” / “improve society and [. . .] help solve the world’s greatest problems”

Carolina’s choice to combine their stated mission and values suggests that they view them as inextricable, co-constitutive, and dynamic. Conversely, Iowa State’s separation of their pithy mission statement from the “why” of their institution’s existence simplifies and underscores the school’s tangible activities. A final distinction worth noting is that UNC’s Mission and Values–once again, consistent with findings from Cortés-Sánchez’ content analysis of universities’ mission and vision statements–focus on people (e.g. “undergraduate, graduate, and professional students;” “faculty and staff,” “North Carolina’s citizens”).[9] By contrast, Iowa State’s closest references to stakeholders include its titular state and “the world.” It’s worth considering this difference in light of the universities’ experience with and response to COVID-19 outbreaks in Fall ‘20.

In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, journalist Francie Diep recounted how Iowa State and UNC-Chapel Hill both opened early (relative to their peer institutions) on August 3 and saw coronavirus cases balloon in subsequent weeks.[10] Though the virus’ transmission was largely confined to campus in both cases, this course of events prompted divergent decisions by university leadership. UNC-Chapel Hill announced that all in-person classes for undergraduate students would be converted to online instruction and students residing on campus were “encouraged to leave the dorms.”[11] Iowa State, for its part, held fast to its plans to deliver in-person instruction and doubled-down on its commitment to stanch coronavirus’ spread through targeted interventions.

How do these decisions reflect or refract the universities’ missions? One could argue that UNC-Chapel Hill’s choice to have on-campus students vacate their dorms could have exacerbated the public health crisis, as infected students could consequently spread COVID-19 upon returning home; this would ostensibly undercut the universities’ commitment to “improve society and [. . .] help solve the world’s greatest problems.”[8] Alternatively, one could view Carolina’s difficult decision as precisely mission-driven, as their quick action “flattened the curve” in Orange County, NC shortly thereafter. The same Janus-faced critique/commendation could be directed toward Iowa State. They may have prevented a state- or nation-wide diffusion of outbreaks by keeping students on-campus, but perhaps at the cost of coronavirus cases rising in Ames. The uncertainty of COVID-19’s trajectory makes it difficult to judge the prudence of either decision.  These events, however, surely underscore the pandemic’s dissolution of another boundary that many universities have endeavored to bridge: the local and global. 

This shift in universities’ conception of their relationship to the global community will likely have implications for the future of higher education. As Eadie explains, the connection between organizational mission and vision is dynamic: “[a]s your nonprofit’s vision of what it wants to be and the impact it aspires to create changes, your mission will be pressured to change, pushing out the boundaries.” [1] As so much is presently in flux, the questions linger: how will universities’ missions and visions change, and in what order?


[1] Eadie, D. (2009). Extraordinary Board Leadership (2nd ed., p. 117-118). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

[2] Bloom, N.(2020). How working from home works out. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://siepr.stanford.edu/research/publications/how-working-home-works-out.

[3] Carolina by the numbers. (2020). In UNC-Chapel Hill. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://www.unc.edu/about/by-the-numbers.

[4] About Iowa State. (n.d.). In Iowa State. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://web.iastate.edu/about.

[5] University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (n.d.). In U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved September 6, 2020, from https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/unc-2974/overall-rankings.

[6] Iowa State University (n.d.). In U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved September 6, 2020, from https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/iowa-state-university-1869/overall-rankings.

[7] Board of Regents. (2016). Mission and vision. In Iowa State. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://www.president.iastate.edu/projects/mission.

[8] UNC Board of Governors. (2014, February). Mission and Values. In UNC-Chapel Hill. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://www.unc.edu/about/mission.

[9] Cortés-Sánchez, J. D. (2017, December 20). What do universities want to be? A content analysis of mission and vision statements worldwide. In LSE Impact Blog. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/12/20/what-do-universities-want-to-be-a-content-analysis-of-mission-and-vision-statements-worldwide.

[10] Diep, F. (2020, September 3). ‘Our Biggest Fear’: What Outbreaks on 3 Campuses Say About the Pandemic This Fall. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/our-biggest-fear-what-outbreaks-on-3-campuses-say-about-the-pandemic-this-fall.

[11] Ibid.

2 Replies to “When Mission Meets Transmission”

  1. Hello Jon,

    I think you have made an good comparison of two public institutions. One is on the culturally “southern” and located on the east coast of the United States. The other is mid-western and located in the agricultural “bread basket” of the United States. While the two school are in different geographic regions their institutional type leans to the similarities which you have pointed out.

    On a side note, I must say that I have to read the blog twice before I noticed the that you has included Iowa State complete mission statement. Indeed the focus of side mission statement is brevity over detail. Still, I find the short mission statement to be a powerful one. It in one sentence Iowa State made a promise with a soaring goal. I think UNC-Chapel -Hill could learn a lesson in the economy of words from Iowa State.

    Thank you for sharing,



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