“Academic Freedom” Out, “Innovation” In as Utah Trustees Approve New Mission Statement

On Tuesday, the University of Utah’s Board of Trustees voted to abandon a ten-year-old 120-word mission statement, branded too “long-winded” and lacking in tangible goals, replacing it with a new 70-word version that Academic Senate President Bill Johnson called “a nice, tight mission statement.”  According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, the new statement reflects “a shift in focus at the school.”  The new statement emphasizes “diversity” and “innovation.”  However, absent in the new statement are previous references to “an academic environment in which the highest standards of intellectual integrity and scholarship are practiced,” a commitment to “helping students excel,” and a pledge to “zealously preserve academic freedom, promote diversity and equal opportunity, and respect individual beliefs.”

Here is the text of the new mission statement:

The University of Utah fosters student success by preparing students from diverse backgrounds for lives of impact as leaders and citizens. We generate and share new knowledge, discoveries, and innovations, and we engage local and global communities to promote education, health, and quality of life. These contributions, in addition to responsible stewardship of our intellectual, physical, and financial resources, ensure the long-term success and viability of the institution.

And here is the text of the old mission statement:

We serve the people of Utah and the world through the discovery, creation and application of knowledge; through the dissemination of knowledge by teaching, publication, artistic presentation and technology transfer; and through community engagement. As a preeminent research and teaching university with national and global reach, the University cultivates an academic environment in which the highest standards of intellectual integrity and scholarship are practiced. Students at the University learn from and collaborate with faculty who are at the forefront of their disciplines. The University faculty and staff are committed to helping students excel. We zealously preserve academic freedom, promote diversity and equal opportunity, and respect individual beliefs. We advance rigorous interdisciplinary inquiry, international involvement, and social responsibility.

According to the Tribune account, the change came in response to criticism from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the university’s accrediting agency.  If that is so, the change hardly reflects well on that agency.  In October 2012, the AAUP and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) issued a joint statement on Accreditation and Academic Freedom, which asked:

To what extent are accrediting organizations alert to the importance of academic freedom? To what extent do their standards give adequate guidance on the subject and capture the significance of institutional decision making and the faculty’s role in that process? To what extent are these standards realized in application, by periodic inspection and, particularly, on occasions when major controversies erupt?

The statement further urged that accrediting agencies “[e]mphasize the principle of academic freedom in the context of accreditation review, stressing its fundamental meaning and essential value.”  In that context, one wonders why the Northwest Commission should welcome the change in mission that its criticism has produced.

To be sure, mission statements are often merely symbolic, and the change cannot be taken as evidence that Utah has fundamentally altered its orientation.  Still, symbols matter, and if, as the Tribune article suggests, the change does reflect “a shift in focus” then that shift may be a troubling one.


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