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Mission Statements and the Transformation of German Universities into Organizational Actors

Anna Kosmützky
p. 41-66


In this paper, I analyze the ongoing processes through which German universities are transformed into organizational actors by developing and disseminating mission statements. The empirical research links the analysis of how organizations use mission statement texts to an analysis of reform discourses. Based on an analysis of higher education reform policy documents, case studies of mission statement development, and a content analysis of mission statement texts, the findings show how and why mission statements spread, became popular, and failed to fulfill their intended purposes, but nevertheless helped transform universities from organized institutions to organizational actors. Through several organization – and entity – specific adaptations of their self-descriptions and by relating to, and siphoning legitimacy from, other organizational documents, they have contributed to an interactive process that helped institutionalize universities as competitive organizational actors.

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I. Introduction

1Organizational environments are constantly shifting, and change rather occurs in incremental, almost invisible steps rather than through far-reach­ing reforms or breakthrough innovations, but one periodically can find an extraordinarily rapid transformation in higher education. The managerial higher education reforms in the 1990s initiated one of these fundamental changes, which led to an organizational turn in German higher education (Krücken, 2014) and attempts to transform universities into complete organizations with well-defined identities, hierarchical structures and the ca­pacity for rational action (Brunsson/Sahlin-Andersson, 2000). In many ca­ses, the content and direction of reforms remained unaffiliated with the model of a complete organization, but reformers might have been attracted by certain organizational features, whereas in fewer cases the model was explicitly invoked or served as a mental image or frame. However, universities have been transformed with an emphasis on the organizational level as an important and independent site of decision-making (Krücken/Meier, 2006 ; Whitley, 2008).

2 This shift has been observable in most European countries from the 1980s onwards, but to disparate extents and in heterogeneous forms (See­ber et al., 2015). Compared to other European countries, German universities were late in developing New Public Management reforms. After years of delay, from the beginning of the 1990s onward the German higher education system was overwhelmed by diverse programs for simultaneous re­forms. As in many other European countries, in Germany the public university model was being revised to lionize more responsible and procedurally autonomous organizations (and strongly emphasize competition and related elements, such as incentive steering, managerial capabilities, individual profiling and organizational learning, quality assurance and evaluation, etc.) and have moved the universities’ governance regimes towards a much more competition-driven and managerial framework (Kosmützky, 2012).

3German universities are a particularly interesting case because the full professor traditionally held an autonomous and strong position ; consequently, before these reforms, the system afforded little room and legitimacy to an organizational actor trying to engage in ‘top down’ independent decision-making and governance. Whereas German universities, as pu­blic sector entities, conventionally have been regarded as different from other organizational entities (Musselin, 2007), organizational solutions borrowed from the economic domain have come into play in recent higher education reforms, which emphasize on the organizational level. Mission statements represent one of the most illuminating but relatively overloo­ked of these organizational solutions. In this paper, I investigate the introduction, adoption and establishment of mission statements within the Ger­man higher education system to explain the unlikely – given their long-standing characteristics – organizational transformation of German univer­sities.

4Mission statements – are a tool that higher education institutions have adopted from corporations, which use them to define goals, purposes, values, strategies, and identities and to create a sense of mission within their organizations (David, 1989 ; Campbell/Yeung, 1991). In that sense, mission statements reflect concepts that have migrated from the business milieu to the world of higher education. Higher education institutions in the U.S. both adopted mission statements in the late 1970s ; in the UK at the beginning of the 1990s ; and in the German higher education system in the mid-1990s (Mackay/Scott/Smith, 1995 ; Morphew/Hartley, 2006 ; Kos­mützky, 2012). As Morphew and Hartley describe the scenario in the U.S., university mission statements « exist because they are expected to exist » (2006 :458). In the U.S., accreditation agencies demand them ; strategic planning is predicated on their formulation ; and all colleges and universities have one available to define their mission, and they are constantly revisiting and revising them. But no such expectation existed in the German higher education system before the managerial higher education reforms were initiated. Universities were seen as publics sector institutions ; Fede­ral government law and particularly state laws commonly defined their tasks at a unified level, and no one at that time assumed that universities had individual tasks and missions or would act on their own behalf to implement their own goals and values (Hüther, 2010). Only through these re­forms, German universities have adopted mission statements as organization-building tools and instrument for defining their missions.

  • 1  I use the term agentification to describe the on going cultural construction process in which agen (...)

5Mission statements have been largely omitted from empirical studies because their explanatory power for organizational practice and performance was perceived as weak and merely symbolic. A few studies have compared the content of higher-education institutional mission statements in different national higher education systems. Earlier studies discarded mission statements as meaningless, bland and all-purpose proclamations that represented no more than a façade (Peeke, 1994 ; Davies/Glaister, 1996 ; Davies, 1986 ; Delucchi, 1997 ; Stearns/Borna, 1998). But more re­cent comparative content analysis of mission statements show that such simple assumptions are inappropriate. Mission statements are increasingly used to signal and symbolize to constituents how the university is going to fulfill their expectations (Morphew/Hartley, 2006 ; Taylor/Morphew, 2010 ; Seeber et al., 2014). Although often perceived as soft instruments of management and change within organizations and recognized them me­rely for their symbolic character, I have shown in previous work through content analyses of mission statements of German universities that they help construct corporate images and allow universities to position themselves in niches and competitive groups (Kosmützky, 2012 ; Kosmüt­zky/Krücken, 2015). But the contribution of mission statements to the transformation of universities into organizational actors and their agentification in other national higher education systems, remained a research desideratum1. Therefore, in this paper I analyze the connections between mission statements and the organizational transformation of German universities. Establishing a viable and unique organizational identity is a crucial element in the ongoing agentification of universities and their proces­ses of becoming organizational actors (Sahlin-Andersson, 1996 ; Krücken/Meier, 2006 ; Hasse/Krücken, 2013). I try to capture the way mission statements helped to redefine the identities and images of German universities as organizational actors, and fomented and catalyzed the agentification process.

II. Concepts and Methods

6For my analysis I utilize two main concepts : firstly, organizational self-descriptions, which many organization theories instead characterize in terms of organizational identity ; and secondly, diffusion/institutionnailza­tion processes, which have been elaborated in two different theoretical camps, but recently brought together.

71) The concept organizational self-description is a communicative and constructivist version of the organizational identity concept and treats an organization’s self as continuously socially-constructed through organizational communications. Through its strictly communicative focus it avoids some of the typical problems that studies of organizational identity encounter (Seidl, 2003). It neither locates identity in the “DNA” of an organization nor essentializes it as its core feature, and does not consider identity as emerging from interpretive schemes that members share (for a discussion see : Corley et al., 2006 ; Gioia et al., 2013 ; Weerts et al., 2014). Organizational self-descriptions usually are codified as text. As Luhmann put it : « Organizations have no body, but they have a text » (Luhmann, 2000 :422, translation by author). But this is obviously not enough to define them. To qualify as self-description such texts have to focus on the organization as a whole and have to fit the structures of the organization (as if mapping a landscape) ; most importantly, they have to be utilized as self-description, which means that members have to use them to refer to the organization. As Seidl (2003 :138) explains,

Although, there are no right or wrong self-description, there are differences in viability. This viability, however, is entirely dependent on the organization itself : a self-description is viable as long as the organization can make use of it.

8The concept of organizational self-description is more neutral than either the concepts of organizational image (usually seen as fluid and outward-oriented) or the concept of organizational identify (usually seen as more stable and inward oriented) (Gioia et al., 2000) ; the viability of organizational self-description depends on usage, which leaves its impact on the organization open. Consequently, one should not see organizational self-descriptions as directive texts. Even if these self-descriptions mention organizational goals, policies, etc., they basically serve “as an official me­morial culture” within the organization. Such a culture can enable and create a certain (official) image of the organization and, in particular, a certain organizational identity, but one can measure such an impact only empirically (Luhmann, 2000).

  • 2  At core of the European version of managerial reforms is the New Public Management Modell (NPM) th (...)

9Traditionally, one can find organizational self-descriptions of universities in e.g., constitutions, inaugural speeches of university presidents, Fest­schriften on the occasion of university anniversaries, and in university in-house histories. However, new organizational self-descriptions take the form of e.g., (self-)evaluation reports, agreements on university goals, and annual reports as well as mission statements (table 1). These news forms of self-descriptions relate to the managerial discourse and have been adop­ted by universities during the managerial higher education reform as part of a bundle of loosely related instruments2. As management instruments, these self-descriptions are not empty and neutral forms, but loaded with normative beliefs and “rationalized myths” about what constitutes a proper organization (Meyer/Rowan, 1977 ; DiMaggio/Powell, 1983).

Table 1 : Traditional and New Forms of University Self-descriptions.

Traditional forms of self-descriptions

New forms of self-descriptions

Inaugural speeches of university presidents

Accreditation and evaluation self-reports

University seals, logos, and emblems

Agreement/contracts on university goals

University in-house histories

Corporate designs & logos

University mottoes

Welcome addresses


Mission statements


Image brochures


Strategic plans

  • 3  Although diffusion and institutionalization originated in two different sociological paradigms, th (...)

102) Reform processes in higher education are shaped by a variety of actors, highly-ambiguous discourses and reform-fads, and cascades of unintended consequences (Krücken, 2014 ; Kühl, 2013). Concepts focusing on diffusion and institutionalization processes help to understand the dynamics of such processes3.

11Building on the classical diffusion model (Rogers, 1962), several authors have empirically and analytically elaborated the life-cycles of management fads and have emphasized the role of individuals and organizations that act as distributors, spreaders or catalysts (e.g., Kieser, 1996 ; Abrahamson/Fairchild, 1999 ; Birnbaum, 2000). Fads, as form of diffusion in general, are contagious, typically marked by initial enthusiasm for and comprehensive adoption of a new management idea, instrument or technique, and supported by a variety of organizations and individuals (e.g., management consultants, media, professional associations) ; this is usually followed by disappointment, decline and disappearance. From a diffusion perspective, most of the management practices and techniques that spread like fads never become institutionalized, but instead are characterized by short-term popularity and end with dissolution and/or re-in­vention ; they therefore follow the typical s-shaped curves of diffusion and disappearance (Schneiberg/Soule, 2005). But the fading of such practices and techniques might be misinterpreted and the traces that the fad leaves might be overlooked if one sees the object or practice that diffuses as invariant rather than mutating, and if one does not study what happens during and after implementation.

  • 4  Ansari et al. (2010) distinguish three types of fit respectively misfit between traveling practice (...)
  • 5  Colyvas and Jonsson (2011) emphasize the importance of the analytical difference between “the thin (...)

12Here, neo-institutional theory, building on its foundational texts and ideas (Meyer/Rowan, 1977 ; Zucker, 1977 ; DiMaggio/Powell, 1983) and numerous empirical studies, particularly proffer the idea of traveling and the adaptation of practices, ideas, and objects, which are translated and edited through each local context of adaptation (Czarniawska/Sevon, 1996 ; Sahlin-Andersson, 1996). The term and concept “adaptation” integrates diffusion and implementation, and illuminates the fact that organizations do not adopt objects and practices as off-the-shelf solutions, but have to customize, domesticate, and reconfigure them to their specific organizational contexts, and that these objects and practices thereby evolve and mutate (Ansari et al., 2010). Thus, they are co-constructed by carriers and hosts (Czarniawska/Sevon, 1996 ; Sahlin-Andersson, 1996). Ansari et al. (2010) have argued that a key reason for such adaptation is that an object’s or process’ characteristics do not fit and are inconsistent with the va­lues, needs, objectives, and structure of an adapting organization4. Similarly, Colyvas and Jonsson (2011) argue that management practices, ideas and techniques transform and vary as they travel, and they suggest seeing the diffusion process as a virus that mutates as it spreads. In complementa­ry fashion, they emphasize sequences and mutually reinforcing processes of diffusion and institutionalization5.

  • 6  See for details regarding the material and the selection of universities for the case studies : Ko (...)

13According to this conceptual perspective regarding the co-construction of object and process, my empirical research develops a two-fold perspective regarding the process and the object itself to trace how universities “make sense” of mission statements in the organization, as well as how higher education policy discourses do so. Firstly, I examine why, when and how mission statements were recommended and introduced, and by whom. Secondly, I then explore how they have been used and adapted and what they contain. To that end, I combined three different qualitative social research approaches and analyzed a variety of material : 1) I analyzed 213 policy documents using a discourse analysis approach (Foucault, 1982) to reconstruct the meaning and function associated with mission sta­tements in higher education reform discourse. 2) I collected 110 mission statement texts of universities and Fachhochschulen (as control group) from the institutions’ websites and examined them – using a content analysis approach (supported by Atlas.ti, Kelle, 2004) to capture the meaning ascribed to mission statements within universities. 3) I conducted three document-based case studies (Yin, 2003) of the introduction and implementation of mission statements in universities that created them in 1995, 2002 and 2007 to integrate the results of both discourse and content analysis for three different periods of the managerial higher education reform discourse. Detailed sequential analyses (Maiwald, 2005) of mission statements texts and other material of the three cases helped me to integrate the diachronic (process) and the synchronic (object) dimension6.

III. Mission Statements of German Universities as Successfully Failing Reform Instruments

14In this section, I document how German universities introduced, adap­ted and established mission statements. The chapter is structured along the time axis into three sub-chapters, and illuminates different ways of co-constructing the object mission statement within higher education policy discourses and within universities.

A. High Hopes and Great Reform Expectations. The Introduction Phase in the mid-1990s

  • 7  The first mission statement of a higher education institution with university status in Germany is (...)

15Within the higher education systems in German speaking countries, one already finds a few business schools using mission statements as part of their controlling processes in the 1980s7. But a wider discussion and implementation of mission statements begins in the 1990s in the realm of the New Public Managements reforms. The first university that started to develop a mission statement in Germany was the Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Politik (HWP) in Hamburg. In 1994, HWP leaders initiated a reform process, which was intended to strengthen the profile and thus the competitiveness of the university. The overall reform process was initiated by the introduction of lump-sum budgets by the state government (the Hamburg Senate), as it expected that such a form of funding would create a compe­titive situation for state subsidies among universities and lead to a profile-building process for universities. The think tank Center for Higher Education (CHE), which had been founded in 1994 by the Bertelsmann-Stiftung and the German Rector’s Conference (HRK) to support higher education reforms in Germany, participated as an advisory institution and consultant. On its recommendation, a mission statement process was initiated as the first step of a comprehensive process of organizational development and profile building. In terms of mission statement development, the HWP was one of the five pioneer universities until 1998 (figure 3). Management consultants participated in the creation all five pioneer mission statements. They acted as professional translators (Czarniawska/Joerges, 1996) by facilitating the adaptation of the mission statement tool from its corporative origins ; by reinterpreting the university organization in New Public Management (NPM) terms ; and by recommending mission statements as a starting point and instrument for processes of organizational development.

16The typical translation proceeded as follows : 1) “a university is not a company, but…” and, after offering the qualifying “but”, characteristics of corporations were applied to the university (the university is also a service provider and producer), which therefore needed to manage its “businesses” and act strategically, 2) “autonomy requires accountability” : here, the rhetoric implies that performance and quality develop best under competitive conditions, which require that universities have autonomy, which in turn calls for accountability, and 3) “you can only sell substance”, a phrase that reflects the imperative to create corporate identities as a basis for public relations and marketing, all putatively to regain public image and trust. This way arguably room was made for the NPM governance techniques–strategic management ; quality assurance and evaluation ; and public relations and marketing. Within their application administrative processes within universities become strategic management processes, governmental control translate into self-governance, evaluation and quality assurance, public relations turns into marketing and branding. Strategic management presupposes goals and a normative basis for action ; evaluation processes call for self-imposed (quality) standards ; and marketing processes need organizational identities or collective self-images with which corporate images can be developed. All these aspects of German universities as organizations were clearly insufficient in the mid-1990s. In that sense, the “need” for mission statements has been created by the new management techniques, which appeared to offer a solution to a problem. And mission statements appeared as multifocal instruments that would provide an ideal starting point and foundation for all reform attempts. Thus, they were pro­moted by the consultants and adopted by the pioneer universities with high hopes and great expectations.

Figure 1 : Translating the Organization of Universities in New Public Management Terms.

Figure 1 : Translating the Organization of Universities in New Public Management Terms.
  • 8  While the origins of the competition discourse within the German higher education system can be tr (...)

17The indirect equation of universities and corporations indicates, firstly, that corporations and universities are similar enough that universities can benefit from adopting management techniques of the corporate world (Strang/Meyer, 1993) ; secondly that both “species” of organizations were subsumed under one common rational-bureaucratic organization model (Brunsson/Sahlin-Andersson, 2000) ; thirdly, a garbage-can-model inversion of the problem-solution-sequence (Cohen et al., 1972) : before mana­gement techniques could be adopted as proper solutions to a problem, the problem had to be created and established as sufficiently legitimate to convince universities that they need to solve it. The “missing link” between organizations of the corporate and higher education world and the ideological foundation to equate them was competition. The NPM policy discourse architecture introduced “the higher education market” and “competition” as a priori inevitabilities. In this sense, competition has been treated like as an anthropological constant and has been sacrificed as the mechanism that would distribute resources more efficiently among and within universities8.

18Several higher education policy actors – such as the Stifterverband and the Volkswagen-Stiftung, two public trusts promoting science and higher education ; the CHE ; and intermediary advisory bodies such as the German Rector’s Conference (HRK) and the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR) – effectively acted as public advocates of the competition argument in the mid-1990s and were also important promoters of mis­sion statements. While the CHE enforced the introduction of mission state­ments only with the proviso that “we award no money, we can only give advice”, public trusts have facilitated the translation of mission statements to universities indirectly through monetary incentives. They established awards and funding programs for concepts of organizational development, but without presupposing or demanding the introduction of mission statements. However, the funding required that the implementation of the management techniques should be considered, and those techniques presuppo­sed the introduction of mission statements (figure 1). The mission statements of all early adopters (1998/1999) were generated as part of an orga­nizational development processes the Stifterverband and the Volkswagen Foundation promoted financially, and the CHE also was involved as a ma­nagement consultant in most of these processes.

  • 9  These legislations were intended to strengthen the autonomy of higher education institutions ; giv (...)

19The management consultants and advisory authorities were successful agenda setters, distributors and resource providers (e.g. Abrahamson, 1996 ; Abrahamson/Fairchild, 1999 ; Birnbaum, 2000). They proselytized universities to solve the perceived problems by subjecting them to cogniti­ve and normative pressures (Scott, 1995), and offering financial incenti­ves, whereas political authorities did not yet explicitly require mission sta­tements. Higher education politics adopted mission statements as an instrument in their new governance forms only five years later, when they were already widespread. But the legislative ground for the managerial re­forms was provided by the 1998 reform of the federal-level Framework Act for Higher Education (HRG) and the follow-up reforms of the Higher Education Acts of the states9.

20In quantitative terms, the implementation of mission statements was insignificant in the 1990s, but the mission statements of the pioneers had be­come well-known because they were presented in numerous publications and at various conferences. This outcome illuminates some of the impor­tant cognitive/cultural forces driving the introduction of mission statements (Scott, 1995) : mimetic processes spurred by best-practice publications and recommendations, symposia, workshops and support programs. The spread of stories about the successful introduction of mission statements gave a face to reform pioneers, and illuminated the potential of mission statements from the perspective of the individual university. A comparison of the pioneers and early adopters has shown that universities also copied the headings, contents, phrases and even whole paragraphs of the mission statements of the pioneers. Universities copied elements of mission statements only during the early phase of their introduction in the late 1990s, which indicates that the pioneer universities themselves were seen as role models.

21Corporate mission statements generally promulgate goals and purposes, values and principles, and strategies, as well as behavioral standards (Pearce/David, 1987 ; Campbell/Yeung, 1991). Corresponding to the indirect equation of universities and corporations in consulting processes and higher education policy discourses, mission statement texts have followed the conventions of companies and formulate tasks, objectives, decision principles, etc. Like their corporate counterparts, the mission statements of German universities consequently can be described as the “ten command­ments of the organization” or “quasi-constitution[s]” (Giesel, 2007). But to indicate objectives and purposes, etc., mission statements instead refer to and make use of the given societal missions and tasks of universities – set in Germany by state and federal frameworks of higher education legislation – to reformulate and transform standard accounts of what universities are expected to accomplish into individual organizational activities. Once ascribed to the individual organization, these activities are transfor­med into organizational tasks, missions and principles, and are combined with references to the keywords of modern political and public demands. But there was a threshold : universities did not invoke keywords of an explicit market discourse (e.g., clients or customers, market, profit, etc.) in their mission statements. This adaptation indicates a cultural misfit (Ansari et al., 2010) between the traveling instrument “mission statements” and the cultural value systems and belief metrics of universities.

B. (Reform-)Fad and Reconfiguration. The Adaption Phase at the Turn of the Century

22In 2000, mission statements were no longer a novelty and the mission statement pioneers and early adapters were followed by many universities that published mission statements on their websites between 2000-2004 (figure 2). A survey the Higher Education Information System (HIS) GmbH conducted in summer 2000 showed that mission statements had be­come widely-used instruments among higher education institutions. To get an overview of the development, HIS asked all German higher education institutions if they already had, were preparing, or planned to develop a mission statement. The submitted material was manifold : it ranged from mission statement texts ; documentation of mission statement discussions ; distillations of management concepts and the objectives of management ; portraits ; and image brochures to documents that indicated that universities already had a sense of mission statements. And the HIS-survey itself urged the universities to adopt the instrument and contributed to making mission statements fashionable and further deployed cognitive and normative pressure (Scott, 1995). Additionally, mission statement texts formula­ted and published during this period reveal multiple signs of haste and pre­mature publication (small mistakes, redundancies, inconsistencies), suggesting the urgent pressure to publication.

Figure 2 : Mission Statements Published by German Universities.

Figure 2 : Mission Statements Published by German Universities.

23But the rapid spread of mission statements was accompanied by criticism and disillusionment from university leaders as well as concerns from university members regarding what to expect from this process. By the time most universities had adopted the tool, such critique was widespread, particularly through and within the local adaptation processes. And it became obvious that the expectations of the mid-1990s regarding the impact of mission statements as management instruments had not been and would not be fulfilled. Mission statements were criticized for diffusing confusion and cynicism instead of clarity and commitment, were dismissed as paper tigers that had no effect on the development of the organization, and as part of a meaningless, flash-in-the-pan process (by those who were interested in effective steering techniques). At the same time the members of mission statement committees fought over each word and phrase. Although mission statement processes differed in their design (top-down, bottom-up, and top-down/bottom-up processes), they had one aspect in common : a duration of more than two or three semesters, and highly controversial debates among the members of mission statement commissions and the discussants in university-wide debates. None of the process designs seemed more conducive to produce a successful mission statement. And of course several mission statement processes at that time also failed, which therefore reinforced criticism in the public debate as well as in the respective universities.

  • 10  As analyses have shown, mission statements in the corporate business context are also particularly (...)

24Additionally, at this stage, higher education researchers started to com­ment on the role and function of mission statements. Some argued that mission statements could primarily create an image of the institution, wi­thout claiming to have internal validity and without having any effect on the organizational culture. Aside from a critical evaluation of the potential impact of mission statements, the main thrust of the critique was that the statements that had been published at that time were generic templates that did not substantively differ or express distinct profiles, and that one statement would more or less fit all German universities. But such critiques did not result in the waning of mission statements, and the disappointment was not followed by their decline and disappearance, as it is typical for management fads (Abrahamson/Fairchild, 1999 ; Birnbaum, 2000). Instead, a process of re-interpreting the meaning, function, and role of mission statements took place. University leaders constituted a significant voice in this process of reconfiguration in both the policy discourse and mission processes within universities, because they remained committed to mission statements despite their admitted ineffectiveness. They played an important role in making mission statements socially acceptable by advocating for their legitimacy and by reinterpreting their meaning and impact. Since university leaders, particularly rectors and presidents, are expected not just to represent, but effectively lead and manage, all affairs of “their” university (Hasse/Krücken, 2013 ; Meier/Schimank, 2010), they could use mission statements to signal that they have fulfilled this expectation10. But they excluded the setting of standards from the core functions of mission statements – from this perspective, mission statements ultima­tely failed – and narrowed and limited the meaning of mission statements to an “idea of the university on the organizational level” or an “idea of the university under market conditions” and therefore to an aspect of organizational image and identity.

25At the same time, in 2001 and 2002, higher education political authorities started to include mission statements explicitly in their reform agendas and to integrate them into other new instruments, and thereby put additionnally coercive mechanisms into practice (Scott, 1995). For example, mission statements became mandatory in agreement about university goals between some of the German states and “their” universities ; and in the ac­creditation processes of private universities, as well as in the system-ac­creditation processes of public universities, which replaced the state-ap­proval processes of institutions and disciplines. In such reform attempts, mission statements required a self-determined definition of the universities’ profiles – what the university is and wants to be. Interestingly, at this stage management consultants moved on to recommend new instruments for the (change) management within universities, and no longer recommended mission statements as key to organizational reform.

26Consequently, mission statements processes and discussions have been seen as particularly important for university members, because they offe­red ways to crystallize self-perceptions and thereby create a sense of who-are-we as a university. By contrast, the mission statement itself was seen as particularly important for university leaders to assert their vision within the organization. From a neo-institutional perspective, this turning point at the peak of the adoption of mission statements represents an effect of institutionalization. As several studies have shown and emphasized in line with the classical neo-institutional assumption (particularly, Tolbert/Zuc­ker, 1983), there are differences between early and late adopters. In a pre-legitimacy phase technical purposes to introduce a practice or object prevail, whereas symbolic reasons to signal compliance dominate once the practice or object is widely accepted and perceived as appropriate solution to a problem (e.g., Fiss/Zajac, 2006 ; Colyvas, 2007 ; Boxenbaum/Jons­son, 2008).

27Focusing on the content of mission statements illuminates the load these new forms of university self-description carry : mission statements speak for a university as a whole, as if the university were the purposeful authors of the statements. Consequently, the organizational actor appears in the third person or as named organization (the university of X is, will, aims to, etc.), or as the collective actor in its communalizing plural noun form “we” (we are, will, aim to, etc.), and using the possessive adjective “our” (our aim, our goals, our principles, etc.). Such language generates an image of a university whose members align as a collective actor, or of a university that itself becomes an actor. In doing so, agency and a subject status were ascribed to the university, and the organization is reified as a social or organizational actor (Pedersen/Dobbin, 1997 ; Meyer/Jepperson, 2000). Mission statement texts address the members of the universities as beneficiaries (they are promoted, encouraged and supported and things are enabled, offered or provided for them), or delineate obligations and responsibilities. But in the latter case, these are the typical obligations the members have anyway, and the statements simply iterate the regular duties assigned under the traditional public university model (research, teaching, service to the community, etc.). Thus, they indicate that everything can go on as usual and no controlling influences are to be expected, since they only identify what universities do anyway and thus verify consensus within them. The underlying message basically is that a mission statement does not hurt the members of the respective university, but nevertheless indicates a modern self-imposed organizational image as goal-oriented and rational organizational actor that can be held responsible for what it does (Krücken/Meier, 2006 ; Whitley, 2008). Beyond their potential impact as reform instruments, mission statements presented a perfect solution for providing legitimacy because they indicated that a university already was the desired organizational actor – whether or not it had the capacity for such agency.

C. Implementation in the Face of Ineffectiveness. The Establishment Phase in the mid-2000s

28Although the peak of mission statement development has passed, additional universities kept developing and publishing mission statements between 2005 and 2009 (figure 2), and a few already published updated versions of their mission statements. From the middle of the decade onwards, it is no longer a question of whether universities need mission statements. Rather, one can observe that beyond the simple increase in the number of adopters that might use them for ceremonial and symbolic reasons, higher education policy has started refer to them as givens. They are used as an embedded element in other reform initiatives, governance instruments and competitions. For example, the higher education policy actors, which were important distributors and spreaders of missions statements in the 1990s – the German Rector’s Conference (HRK), Stifterverband, Volkswagenstiftung, and the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR) – take them for granted in their reports and recommendations and base recommendations for further initiatives on them. Furthermore, universities that have applied for the third funding line of the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Ger­man Research Foundation (DFG) to be awarded the title of “University of Excellence” had to develop highly elaborate institutional strategies, and also fulfilled this requirement by updating their mission statements. Also the Competition for Excellence in Teaching by the Stifterverband and the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affair of the States (KMK) has required that applications be developed from respective mission statements. By the end of the first decade of the new century mission statements reached the same status that Morphew and Hartley (2006) attributed to them in the U.S. higher education system in Germany : they exist because they are expected to exist.

29But as Colyvas and Jonsson (2011 :40) emphasize,

The mere presence of legitimacy or taken-for grantedness does not explain institutionalization. Rather they must become mutually reinforcing in way that either support or generate the reproduction of practices or structures.

30This criterion holds true for mission statements. Whereas they were “solitaires” and only one new form of a bundle of new yet unconnected forms and instruments of self-description within the new managerial governance of universities until the mid-2000s, these documents now started to relate to each other like the interlocking gears of a cogwheel (figure 3). Strategic plans ; annual reports ; welcome addresses ; image brochures, etc. – all these documents came to refer to a mission statement (and to each other). As a matter of course, they also related to traditional forms of self-description : mission statements have been incorporated into the constitutions of universities or mentioned in them ; are mentioned and interwoven with the individual histories of universities ; and have inspired the development of new logos.

  • 11  This idea that has been rooted in the design of New Public Management-inspired reforms, but also t (...)

31Mission statements have become part of a more and more dense network of traditional and new organizational documents. Of course one can adopt a mission statement without altering the identity or even image of an organization. But the more related the mission statement of a university is to other organizational self-description texts, the more viable it becomes. Colyvas and Jonsson (2011 :44) use the organic metaphor of « tentacles » and « tendrils that wrap around all aspects of a structure », which evokes a rank growth, to describe how the multiple connections work. The cogwheel metaphor emphasizes both connections between objects and the process aspect. Individually and unconnected the “gears” might not have any appreciable effect, only through their interlocking they set the machine – the creation of an image and identity as organizational actor – “into operation” within universities11. This way the diffusion of mission statements facilitated the institutionalization of universities as organizatio­nal actors.

Figure 3 : Interlocking Gears of Self-Descriptions

Figure 3 : Interlocking Gears of Self-Descriptions
  • 12  The critique was similar regarding the mission statements of British higher education institutions (...)

32But the critique of the impact and value of mission statements has also continued. In 2010, the Stifterverband, which strongly advocated for mission statements in the 1990s, undertook an inventory of mission statement and then compared them. The authors criticize the statements for being dominated by supply side, one-way road thinking ; they use bland, interchangeable phrases that articulate only objectives and tasks that university law already formalizes and completely lack features to distinguish institutions from competitors. The study concludes somewhat cynically that it appears to be a waste of time to develop a mission statement to foment or­ganizational development, and for public relations purposes the mission statement of any university might just be copied whole cloth (Meyer-Guc­kel/Mägdefessel, 2010)12. What might be a viable conclusion from a PR perspective, which seeks unique selling points and distinctiveness, appears in a different light in a perspective on organizational self-description and identity. Several studies of organizational identity have argued that organizations strive for optimal distinction and a (strategic) balance between similarity with and difference from other organizations (Deephouse, 1999 ; Gioia et al., 2010 ; Gioia et al., 2013). “Being different” from and “expressing sameness” with other universities is likewise important in this perspective. Although the mission statements of German universities rely heavily on the institutional specifications of universities – for example, their historically and socially-given tasks and mission – they also describe themselves with distinct, artificial organizational images. And such mission statements deal with and solve on a textual basis the classical identity paradox of simultaneously being the same and different, and therefore are used to collate Janus-faced organizational self-descriptions (Kosmüt­zky/Krücken, 2015).

IV. Conclusion and Discussion

33In this paper I focused on the process of introduction, adoption and establishment of mission statements in German universities in order to understand their role for the organizational transformation and agentification of German universities.

34I have shown that the process has clear characteristics of a management fad’s life-cycle. It began with initial enthusiasm, and a rapid spread and diffusion of mission statements with the help of consultants and political advisory authorities. The adoption process was then facilitated by best-practice publications and workshops, as well as by financial incentives, which exerted cognitive/cultural and normative pressures. Finally, the initial wave of enthusiasm and acceptance was followed by disappointment and decline. Initially intended consequences that consultants and reformers asserted mission statements as multifocal reform instruments would generate have not materialized. But rather than being faddish organizatio­nal innovations mission statements have become an established form of the organizational self-description of universities. In that sense, mission statements are successfully failing reform instruments. At present, they are an organizational “must have” of universities in which they formulate their “own” tasks, and mission and describe the organization’s characteristics, values and history. There is a number of “organizational building blocks” that a social entity “must have” to signalize that it is a “fully fled­ged” organization (Waeraas, 2015 :7). Mission statements are such a buil­ding block of agentification and new cultural technology for developing organizational actorhood. As other social entities throughout categories (public, for-profit, nonprofit, etc.) and sectors (education, health care, cha­rity, etc.) they conform to the meta-category of “organization”, which « ge­nerates blending and blurring across traditional sectoral boundaries » (Bromley/Meyer, 2014 :2).

35In line with neo-institutional arguments, my analysis has shown that se­veral adaptations of the form and content of mission statements have been crucial for this dynamic. Firstly, they hardly make any reference to competitive market discourse (e.g., referring to a customer or client orientation), but adapt the values incorporated in the traveling object (corporate mission statements) to their value and belief metrics, although unleashing competitive market forces has been an ideological prerequisite for their introduction. Secondly, they transform traditional and standard accounts of what a university as an institution is expected to do (e.g., “research and teaching”) into their “own” explicit missions (while blending them with new meanings), to signalize its autonomy as an actor in its own right, who is actively engaged in organizational identity-building (which generates further legitimacy to the process). Thirdly, they align their self-descrip­tions to both internal and external audiences and make them socially acceptable for both, which makes them fundamentally ambiguous, but also allows university leaders to foster commonly accepted visions of good governance and university leadership without internal reputational harm.

36As Chreim (2005) has shown, retaining old labels and adding/subtrac­ting meanings is a rhetorical tactic and discursive strategy of organizations to achieve a confluence of old and new identity narratives. They can be interpreted as attempts to deal with or “manage” contradictory or conflicting self-descriptions, or the latent tensions among different related values and rationales (Elsbach/Kramer, 1996 ; Pratt/Foreman, 2000 ; Gioia et al., 2000 ; Seidl, 2003). Organizations particularly resort to such identity management tactics when confronted with “identity threats” when members’ self-description and external perceptions of the image of an organization are mismatched (Elsbach/Kramer, 1996). Mission statements integrate different and partially contradicting self-descriptions by providing a synthesis on the textual level. In this light, the often-criticized vagueness, and ambiguity of mission statement texts appears as an appropriate adaptation and form of self-description of an organization with specific organizational and entity specific-characteristics that therefore cannot become a completely univocal or uniform organization (Musselin, 2007 ; Whitley, 2008 ; Seeber et al., 2014). But the ambiguity of mission statement texts appears also as strength regarding their capacity to turn universities into organizational actors, and to facilitate the transition from category-specific entity into a “real” organization.

37Although everyday experience within universities confirms a dissociation of language and action regarding mission statements, one should not conclude here that mission statements do not offer “real” reform, and they have a purely symbolic meaning and are mainly ritualistic artifacts (Morphew/Hartley, 2006). Even though mission statements might appear as usual organizational hypocrisy and decoupling that organizations embrace in order to survive in conflicting and turbulent environments (Brunsson, 1989), my findings add a new nuance to this perspective : because mission statement were perceived as “weak” reform instruments, they have passed – quasi like Trojan horses – almost unnoticed into an existing institutional order and securely-protected bastion. Once they existed in this order they gradually interacted with other reform components – an idea that has been rooted in the design of New Public Management-inspired reforms – and have become integrated and related to traditional and other new forms self-descriptions of universities. Such documents typically appear on the website of (German) universities in their “About us” or “The university” section, which typically comprises and links the documents that a university uses to describe itself. These traditional and new organizational self-description documents now co-exist and build a more and more dense net­work. And the more connected and relevant a mission statement is to other decisions and documents within universities, also the more consistent, convincing and applicable the representation and impression of an organizational actor. And as the integration of objects becomes more pronoun­ced, the stronger the form of institutionalization also becomes (Colyvas/Jonsson, 2011).

38One can conclude in this respect that once “in the world”, mission sta­tements have become “effective” by relating to, and in a sense siphoning legitimacy from, other organizational documents, even while most university members might not know, do not need, or would not refer to the mission statement of their university. One or just a couple of such new organizational self-description documents, which would have not been connected to each other, might not have had an impact at all. But like interlocking gears of a cogwheel, these organizational documents together have contributed from a certain point of leverage to the agentification and organizational transformation of universities, and thereby they « create and co-create an identity for the sector as a whole » (Weerts et al., 2014 :265). Thus, although mission statements might have been introduced merely for symbolic reasons, their consequences – partly intended, partly unitended – are substantive and real. But one has to keep in mind that similar reforms and instruments can produce completely different outcomes as well as unintended consequences in different higher education reform settings and systems (Kühl, 2013 ; Krücken, 2014). Therefore further international comparative studies are necessary to provide empirical evidence regarding the extent to which the actual actorhood and agentification of universities is influenced by such global organizational building blocks as mission sta­tements ; entity-specific self-descriptions and values ; and the cultural, political and economic configurations and historical idiosyncrasies of different national higher education systems.

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Structured summary

In this paper, I argue that German universities are transformed into organizational actors by developing and disseminating mission statements. Mission statements are a tool that higher education institutions have adopted from corporations, which use them to define goals, purposes, values, strategies, and identities and to create a sense of mission within their organizations. They are a new organizational building block of agentification and a new cultural technology for developing organizational actorhood. Mission statements have been largely omitted from empirical studies because their explanatory power for organizational practice and performance was perceived as weak and merely symbolic. I investigate the introduction, adoption and establishment of mission statements within the German higher education system to explain how they contributed to the unlikely – given their long-standing characteristics – organizational transforma­tion of German universities.

Two main theoretical concepts are utilized for the analysis : firstly, organizational self-descriptions (which many organization theories instead characterize in terms of organi­zational identity) ; and secondly, diffusion/institutionalization processes.

Empirically, the paper is based on an analysis of higher education reform policy docu­ments ; case studies of mission statement development ; and a content analysis of mission statement texts, and thus links the analysis of how organizations use mission sta­tement texts to an analysis of reform discourses.

The findings show how and why mission statements spread, became popular, and failed to fulfill their intended purposes, but nevertheless facilitated the transformation of universities from organized institutions into organizational actors. Through several organization-specific and entity-specific adaptations of their self-descriptions – and by relating to, and siphoning legitimacy from, other organizational documents – mission statements have contributed to an interactive process that helped institutionalize universities as competitive organizational actors. Eventually, mission statements became part of a more and more dense network of traditional and new organizational self-des­cription documents. And the more related the mission statement of a university is to other organizational self-description texts, the more viable it becomes. Like interlocking gears of a cogwheel, these organizational documents together have contributed from a certain point of leverage to the agentification and organizational transformation of universities. Thus, although mission statements might have been introduced merely for symbolic reasons, their consequences – partly intended, partly unitended – are substantive and real.

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1  I use the term agentification to describe the on going cultural construction process in which agency is ascribed to social entities like organizations, which thus become agents for themself and for others as e.g. Meyer and Jepperson (2000 :101) have described it. This process has been labeled elsewhere either as agencification (Christensen/Lægreid, 2006) or agentification (Ferlie/Musselin/Andresani, 2008).

2  At core of the European version of managerial reforms is the New Public Management Modell (NPM) that aims at introducing (private-sector/corporate) management approaches in public sector organization. The model consists of a cluster of practices and several layered components : the starting point is to see processes of public institutions (for example, administrative, education and research processes) as products. Instead of increasing budgetary allocations, universities set an output control to increase the efficiency of these products and to decentralize responsibility for performing tasks, in both cases to im­plement the motto “do more with less”. The NPM model does not provide a blueprint that merely needs to be applied ; each university must continuously experiment, invent, correct, criticize, and adjust the abstract formula. According to the NPM model, which Hood (1991 :3) describes as an under-determined “loose term”, experimentation with these instruments and pilot projects are constitutively part of the program. These instruments could be introduced gradually and might vary locally in design, but the ba­sic assumption of the NMP model was that universities and other public entities – by interacting and “activating these structures though competition” – would transform themselves into public service providers (KGSt,1993 :15, translation by the author). Universities utilized a considerable array of manage­ment instruments and practices for this purpose in the 1990s : new forms of budgeting and competitive grants ; accreditation ; evaluation ; development planning ; profile reports ; rankings ; and of course mis­sion statements.

3  Although diffusion and institutionalization originated in two different sociological paradigms, they ha­ve several similarities and have often been conflated both conceptually and in empirical analyses, as re­cent meta-studies show (e.g., Wejnert, 2002 ; Boxenbaum/Jonsson, 2008 ; Ansari et al., 2010 ; Colyvas/Jonsson, 2011). Therefore, these studies advocate for a conceptual specification and integration of diffusion and institutionalization by differentiating between the process and the outcome, and the practi­ce or object that diffuses and the one that becomes institutionalized in terms of three dimensions : a) ob­jects/innovations, which diffuse or spread, b) actors/subjects, who influence or adopt, and c) environments/settings, in which processes take place.

4  Ansari et al. (2010) distinguish three types of fit respectively misfit between traveling practice and adopting organization : technical fit/misfit (compatibility with technologies already in use by adopting organization), cultural fit/misfit (compatibility with the cultural values, belief and practices by the adopting organization) and political fit/misfit (compatibility with the interests and agendas of the adopting organization).

5  Colyvas and Jonsson (2011) emphasize the importance of the analytical difference between “the thing that flows” ( = diffuses) and “the thing that sticks” ( = becomes institutionalized), and distinguish four possibilities of interrelations between both : 1) the diffusion of one thing might facilitate the institutionalization of something else, 2) institutionalization of one thing might affect the rate and direction of the diffusion of something else, 3) the diffusion and institutionalization of the same thing might advance in sequence, and 4) the diffusion and institutionalization of the same thing might be reinforced mutually.

6  See for details regarding the material and the selection of universities for the case studies : Kosmützky, 2010.

7  The first mission statement of a higher education institution with university status in Germany is that of the private Otto Beisheim Graduate School of Management (WHU) in Vallendar. As part of the university-controlling concept of the university, a mission statement was adopted at the end of the 1980s and was considered to reflect the philosophy and value system of the institution. The first public university in Europe, which introduced a mission statement was the Vienna University of Economics. There, it was part of the development plan established in 1987. Together with the HWP, all three universities, which first introduced mission statements in German-speaking countries, are business schools. Thus, one can assume that this type of university has a higher affinity towards instruments derived from the business world.

8  While the origins of the competition discourse within the German higher education system can be tra­ced to the 1980s, detailed analyses of the discourse architecture show that competition was a controversial means to reform the higher education system, and market-based governance mechanisms were far from having consensus support at that time. A new wave of reform policy papers with the same tenor (proposing that universities should compete for increasingly scarce resources) was spurred by a co-cal­led key issues paper (Eckwertepapier) focusing on broad higher education policy guidelines, which was published in preparation for an Education Summit Helmut Kohl initiated in 1992 (Kosmützky, 2010). But these proposed reforms require actors that can accentuate appropriate differences to compete for re­putation, funding, students, etc., and the recent reform of the German higher education system is thus rooted in a fundamental paradigm shift : in place of a paradigm that presumed and valued equality and homogeneity, in which all universities as well as all Fachhochschulen were considered to be alike in quality and level of aspiration, a different paradigm that focused on competition and differences emer­ged at the beginning of the 1990s (Kosmützky, 2012).

9  These legislations were intended to strengthen the autonomy of higher education institutions ; give them a greater scope of authority to manage their own affairs and resources ; and have them develop their own profiles (Hüther, 2010).

10  As analyses have shown, mission statements in the corporate business context are also particularly im­portant for leadership and managers ; these actors have a vested interest in the institutionalization of mission statements because they offer valid and recognized tools of corporate management (Klemm et al., 1991 ; Knassmüller, 2003).

11  This idea that has been rooted in the design of New Public Management-inspired reforms, but also they fits to the loosely coupled organization of universities (Weick, 1976), which might also explain why universities have been conducive to NPM rhetoric and practices.

12  The critique was similar regarding the mission statements of British higher education institutions – which were criticized for their bland uniformity and the lack of competitive profiles – and of U.S. higher education institutions (Peeke, 1994 ; Mackay et al., 1995 ; Davies/Glaister, 1996 ; Davies, 1986 ; Delucchi, 1997 ; Stearns/Borna, 1998).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : Translating the Organization of Universities in New Public Management Terms.
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Titre Figure 2 : Mission Statements Published by German Universities.
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Titre Figure 3 : Interlocking Gears of Self-Descriptions
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Anna Kosmützky, « Mission Statements and the Transformation of German Universities into Organizational Actors »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 47-1 | 2016, 41-66.

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Anna Kosmützky, « Mission Statements and the Transformation of German Universities into Organizational Actors »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 47-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 12 octobre 2016, consulté le 24 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Anna Kosmützky

International Center for Higher Education Research Kassel.

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