St. Lawrence University Mission Statement:
The mission of St. Lawrence University is to provide an inspiring and demanding undergraduate education in the liberal arts to students selected for their seriousness of purpose and intellectual promise.
“What Is St. Lawrence Promising?”
(Remarks by WLF at Board of Trustees Meeting—October 22, 2016)
“The mission of St. Lawrence University is to provide an inspiring and demanding undergraduate education in the liberal arts to students selected for their seriousness of purpose and intellectual promise.”
St. Lawrence is on a mission. It is our touchstone reminder of what our founders first had in mind and it measures every year how well we are doing in the abundance of endeavors to achieve our purpose. I am glad the last word of the sentence in our mission statement is “promise,” not unlike in Dante’s Divine Comedy where the last word in each of the three books is intentionally “star.”
The idea of having a mission—an organizational North Star—is very old, though it is, as a statement or declaration, only a quarter-century long in higher education’s common practices. Its roots are in a religious history, then it was adopted by military thinking, business management, space exploration (as in mission control), and then, finally, it was made more explicit in recovering the essence of charters in universities and colleges.
I have recently read more than twenty college missions statements—ours may seem conventional at first reading, but it falls on the right side of “who” and “what” should be included as the object of the mission. Some college mission statements describe their purpose as creating knowledge and others focus on doing something grand for young human beings. In other words, the emphasis falls one of two ways—on the institution’s welfare and corporate future or upon the students whom the college hopes to attract and affect.
The shortest mission statement I found is from a university in western New York: “Make the world ever better.” A small, historic college in northern New England has a mission statement that exceeds 1200 words. Generally, mission statements are more descriptive than forward looking—they describe the nature of the institution or what their current students are like. They use the words “promise,” “potential,” and “talented.” Many choose the lofty terms of “high purpose,” “involved citizenship,” and the “dissemination of knowledge.”
At St. Lawrence, we must always be asking “what are we promising to the promising?” We start, necessarily, with the broad provision of a quality liberal arts education, but it is so much more than good books and memorable classes. Other mission statements within St. Lawrence, for instance, those that individual departments and divisions have written, use a variety of active verbs, such as encourage, develop, focus, foster, guide, engage, reach, increase, perform, enable, and reflect. The mission within the mission covers a considerable spectrum of expected activity and experiential transaction. But I submit it boils down to a promise that St. Lawrence students will learn to adapt and that they will also learn to be good; they will not just be good at something, but they are expected to go beyond mere acceptability.
In practice, “adaptability” as student outcome is the unwritten mission of our St. Lawrence philosophy of learning. In Roget’s Thesaurus it stands between the words “stability” and “toughness,” which I prefer to “grit” and “resiliency,” just because those terms are now so common in the airport book shops. Adaptability is perhaps the golden mean between two ideas that support a response to adversity. Stability suggests endurance, powering through a storm; toughness can mean a come-back after a set-back.
Adaptability incorporates an assumption of persistence and redirection without losing much time and while keeping in place important base values. Students at St. Lawrence learn to adapt intellectually and socially all the time—when the chemistry student becomes the art history major; when the former varsity athlete participates in the Outing Club activities and takes up hiking or paddling. Our academic culture, unlike many campuses, does not suffer the tyranny of perfection. There is no stigma or penalty if a student decides against an initial interest for something else. Adaptation is our norm.
There is also an essential and personal adaptation taking place in the student experience all the time. Students sometimes need a secure and caring place to manage a deep grief or an embarrassment. Family businesses fail; relationships unravel; parents get sick or die. They sometimes face the hardness of life while they are on campus. Here they must find courage to open themselves to the seeking of help at a point in life when they are also trying to stand independently on their own two feet. They find at St. Lawrence a community they can trust, one that teaches them adaptability and the confidence that they can “hack it” because there’s another person’s loving hand on their shoulder just when they need it.
Our mission is for students to achieve something beyond the mere acceptable—to be good. My teacher and friend the late Peter Gomes told a story of speaking at Cornell many years ago. He was having dinner with the president who was then relatively new in his job, a point in which he was trying to figure out what the essential values were in his new university. What held the place together and made it all cohere? What were the operating principles that everyone could agree on? After much searching, the president decided there were really only two principles: excellence and fairness. It’s hard to argue against those two virtues, but they are potentially austere and harsh. They would not be enough for the St. Lawrence mission. More than that is expected in what we intend or what we do at St. Lawrence.
The academy and modern university has shown reluctance to commit itself to actions that are not easily scored or scaled. Wisdom, goodness, and beauty are, therefore, often decoration, not the expressed core. In a Phi Beta Kappa address, the Tufts University scientist Sheldon Krimsky once challenged his accomplished and scholarly audience: “Are more educated people likely to lie less? To express more humanitarian values…To show more empathy? To make more complex moral decisions? I don’t’ think so.” His conclusions fit the implicit moral education and experience occurring in the St. Lawrence community.
I still believe that a liberal arts college, or even a major research university, should never represent itself as a “big purchase” consumer good, but rather as a public good. For it to be a public good, there has to be a growing capital reserve of private goodness saved up. That is the ultimate richness of St. Lawrence, the imperative that furnishes its purpose. Excellence and fairness may be the means to a great education, but they are not good enough to be the ends. In the midst of sometimes senseless and insensible times, we must remind ourselves that we live by an essential mission to fulfill. And that we see in each individual student during their four years on campus an example of human adaptability and the capacity for goodness walking our college paths, headed into a larger world calling them to serve.—WLF