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July 29, 2010

The public university's mission is to...create public value?

Around the country Extension organizations are using the public value approach to make a case for public funding for Extension programs and, in some cases, for the organization as a whole. But, can the public value approach help make a case for public higher education funding, generally? This was--understandably--a topic of conversation yesterday when I taught a short workshop for the Public Higher Education Advocacy Professionals, who held their annual conference here at the University of Minnesota.
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One answer is that the public value of a state university is the sum of the public value from everything the university does: teaching and granting degrees, outreach education, research, athletics, art performances, continuing education, public engagement, community service, etc. The "public value message" for the university is the [rather thick] catalog of messages for all of the programs in each of these categories.

A more satisfactory answer--and the one I think university advocates are seeking--would convey the public value of the institution in a single, compelling, all-purpose statement. To me, this sounds like a mission statement for the university, with the stipulation that it focus on public value: how the university benefits those who do not have direct contact with the university. The institution's public value statement answers the question, as if posed by a state resident with no access to university resources, "What are you doing for me?"

A short web search reveals that some public university mission statements already include the answer. Below I excerpted from mission statements the pieces that sounded the most like public value messages:

Michigan State University:

"[The university's teaching prepares students] to contribute fully to society as globally engaged citizen leaders...[The university's research] make[s] make a positive difference, both locally and globally...[The university's outreach and public engagement] lead to a better quality of life for individuals and communities, at home and around the world."

Oregon State University:

"Oregon State University promotes economic, social, cultural and environmental progress for the people of Oregon, the nation and the world."

Kansas State University:

"The mission of Kansas State University is to foster excellent teaching, research, and service that develop a highly skilled and educated citizenry necessary to advancing the well-being of Kansas, the nation, and the international community."

Many public universities see their missions as generally making the state--indeed, the world--a better place. As long as that "betterment" extends to people without direct contact with the university, the institution has accomplished its public value mission, as well.