Mission as metaphor: Reconceptualizing how leaders utilize institutional mission

Leslie R. Zenk, Karen Seashore Louis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number090304
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2018

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Publisher Copyright:
© by Teachers College, Columbia University.


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