The Purpose of Education: A Large-Scale Text Analysis of University Mission Statements

Danica Savonick (danicasavonick@gmail.com), The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Lisa Tagliaferri (LTagliaferri@gradcenter.cuny.edu), Fordham University, DigitalOcean

What is the purpose of higher education? In the United States, this question dates back to at least the nineteenth century with the passage of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, and has taken on new urgency in an era of manufactured austerity and neoliberal crisis. In particular, scholars of critical university studies such as Christopher Newfield, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Sara Ahmed, Craig Steven Wilder and Roderick Ferguson critique the ways higher education often reproduces the very conditions of inequality it claims to challenge. Often, these compelling analyses are based on the investigation of conditions at a few representative universities, but through leveraging digital methodologies we can gain a wider perspective that enables a more comprehensive analysis of what universities put forward as their purpose.

Our research advances these conversations through large-scale textual analyses of two data sets: university mission statements included in the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs and recent demand statements put forth by activist students. Mission statements offer a public-facing proclamation that bridge universities to larger communities and educational contexts. Often, they present idealized claims that reflect the university’s marketed brand. We use “university” broadly; our data set includes community colleges, public universities, private universities, research institutions, teaching-focused institutions, for-profit and nonprofit schools, and our analysis highlights the variation in their commitments to education. The second data set is a collection of student demands compiled by WeTheProtestors and the Black Liberation Collective, two social justice groups that are working to address institutional inequality across U.S. universities. In many cases, these demands are written to address the institutions of the official university mission statements we are working with, and range from private institutions like Yale University and Ithaca College, to public universities such as Iowa State and UCLA. These demands challenge existing institutional language and require analysis in their own right.

With this research, we seek to answer two questions: 1) What do contemporary U.S. universities claim as their mission and vision? 2) How do these stated aims of education intersect or diverge with the demands of activist students calling for pedagogical, institutional, and social change? In analyzing this data, we draw from the insights of critical race, gender, and sexuality studies, which have long been sites of institutional critique. Coupling digital tools with a theoretical lens informed by activist pedagogy enables us to better apprehend the power structures and social dynamics at play in public-facing institutional documents and how those interface with the communities they are tasked with serving. By better understanding the professed commitments of academic institutions, we aim to contribute to the project of making education more just, equitable, and inclusive.

This work is carried out through the web scraping of data, topic modeling, and statistical analysis in Python. Once analyzed, the raw data and findings are also rendered as interactive web-based data visualizations in JavaScript to make the research more accessible to the public and available for refactoring. Initial statistical textual analysis and data visualization that we have conducted has revealed interesting trends among public universities in contrast to demands put forth by students. Mission statements from state universities emphasize a commitment to the objectives of research, knowledge, and professionalism, and the endeavors of providing and serving, and learning and teaching. However, student demand statements have a more expansive understanding of education that stresses inclusivity and community, while also voicing concerns about race, gender, workers, and resources. By comparing and contrasting across data sets, we examine what each type of institution and group is seeking to achieve, and work to determine whether universities are serving the needs of student populations. When universities are more concerned with vocational skills training rather than challenging power hierarchies, structural inequalities, and the distribution of resources along embodied axes of race and gender, there is a clear disconnect between what institutions are offering students and what students in turn demand. If universities aren’t serving their students and communities, who are they serving?

Our data set and programming files will be made publicly available in a code repository so that others who investigate higher education can perform their own research. While our focus is grounded in the specific histories of higher education in the United States, we hope that sharing this research at an international conference will encourage others to perform similar analysis of institutional and popular discourse in their countries, thus allowing for a more vibrant understanding of how higher education functions in different contexts. By inviting others to add data to our public repository from international institutions, we can begin to consider how globalization impacts learning institutions.

In an effort to advance intercultural scholarly exchange, a Spanish translation of this research will be available online.