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New RISD mission statement

Post #796 • May 24, 2006, 7:27 PM • 35 Comments

Everybody knows how much I love my alma mater. But when this showed up in the Inbox, I began to worry:

The Self-study Committee on Mission, composed of representatives from the various institutional stakeholders, developed a draft mission statement. Through a process that sought input from constituents at various points, a draft statement evolved, was endorsed by the faculty, and subsequently presented to the Board in February 2005.

Once I got to this part, my teeth were rattling:

In the process, the Committee recognized suggestions for emphasis, such as:
  • that the statement be only one sentence in length
  • that it reflects that RISD "makes things"
  • that RISD comprises both a college and museum, and
  • that we include "the public" in our mission "to educate"
Several key words were added, such as: "critical thinking," "scholarship," and "global society," all of which in the aggregate were felt to be reflections of the entire institution.

By the time I got to the punch line, smoke coming out of my ears set off the building's fire alarm.

The mission of the Rhode Island School of Design, through its college and museum, is to educate its students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design, to discover and transmit knowledge and to make lasting contributions to a global society through critical thinking, scholarship and innovation.

Gnr! Nrrr. Sorry. Almost bit through my tongue.

Let's compare that to the original, written in 1877:

The original by-laws set forth the following primary objectives for the school:

First. The instruction of artisans in drawing, painting, modeling, and designing, that they may successfully apply the principles of Art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.

Second. The systematic training of students in the practice of Art, in order that they may understand its principles, give instruction to others, or become artists.

Third. The general advancement of public Art Education, by the exhibition of works of Art and of Art school studies, and by lectures on Art.

Now, I can go out and train students in the practice of art. No problem. I did it for eleven years. I cannot, however, make lasting contributions to a global society. I don't know what a global society is. Seriously, what is that? Aliens could land in Providence, read the 1877 objectives, and glean a decently accurate idea about what the school was supposed to do that day. With the 2006 mission, they'd be looking at each other, saying, "What the hell? Are they trying to set up some kind of massive intranet? Do they want to discard ideas inapplicable to global thinking? Do they need easels, or something?"

I kid because I love, and I love because I got a great education at RISD, and in four years, nobody ever treated me like an abstraction. I don't recognize RISD in that mission statement. I see buzzwords and lawyers and guys in ties. Send that mess back and bring me a mission statement that smells like hot glue and sounds like real people doing tangible things.




May 24, 2006, 8:14 PM

Sorry, Franklin, it's not going to happen. I have good news, though: in my experience, it turns out that mission statements are used (when they're used for ANYTHING) in the process of fundraising.

Your school will continue to do what it's always done. If paying lip service to The New Thinking[TM] helps it raise money, then it may become more difficult to find fault with them for violating if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it standards.


that guy

May 24, 2006, 8:26 PM

I don't think I can refer potential graduate students to a school with this kind of mission statement. But alesh is right, it may only be used to get some "fuddy duddies" to send them a check.



May 24, 2006, 8:49 PM

It's a problem. These are the people who run the place, and this is how they think.



May 24, 2006, 8:53 PM

Franklin, I suppose they have to try to look like they're reasonably with-it. The pressure to do so is probably more than academic institutional types can bear these days. An entire system or establishment deliberately up to its neck in BS must perforce not only promote BS but, in a sense, require it from its members and adjuncts. It figures.

And Alesh is right about mission statements. They're primarily, if not purely, cosmetic devices.



May 24, 2006, 9:31 PM

To me, it says more or less the same thing, it's global newspeak.

2006 The mission of the Rhode Island School of Design, through its college and museum, is to educate its students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design,

1887 " First. The instruction of artisans in drawing, painting, modeling, and designing, that they may successfully apply the principles of Art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.

2006 to discover and transmit knowledge

1887 " Second. The systematic training of students in the practice of Art, in order that they may understand its principles, give instruction to others, or become artists."

2006 ... to make lasting contributions to a global society through critical thinking, scholarship and innovation.

1887 " Third. The general advancement of public Art Education, by the exhibition of works of Art and of Art school studies, and by lectures on Art."



May 24, 2006, 11:46 PM

No, George. Clearly they were at pains to appear to be saying the same thing but the new version is radically emasculated and it is lip service. Taking your divisions of the mission statement:

1. The first version says they are going to teach students how to make art in specified ways and use it after graduation for specified purposes.
The second version leaves out all specifics and adds that somehow it will "educate the the creation of works of art", which obviously is not an intention but merely thoughtless writing.

2. The first version says that students will learn art-making systematically so they can understand it and do something with it after graduation.
The second version is utterly non-specific. Art is gone out of it, replaced by "knowledge", which is so general as to be meaningless.

3. The first version, again, is direct and specific: the advancement of art education through exhibition, study and lectures.
The second version, again, expands to invisibility: "lasting contributions", "Global society", "critical thinking", "scholarship", "innovation". The vexatious matter of art is completely ignored

The first version mentions art or art-related words directly about a dozen times. The second mentions art once.

They are not saying the same thing.



May 25, 2006, 9:55 AM

This just in:

On the front page of today's Spanish-language Herald, visible at any newsstand, is a ghastly painting by Botero that just sold at auction for 2 million dollars to a US buyer. Unless the buyer is some pro-obesity zealot with money to burn, this makes no sense. The thing is dreadful, like a big, bloated, brightly colored joke. No wonder Britto's doing well.



May 25, 2006, 10:18 AM

Oldpro: the RISD language expresses "thoughts" that (mis)guide academic "leadership" just about everywhere. "Stakeholders" especially embodies the new metaphor that the instruction offered is a "portfolio". This, after we started the 21st century with a crash in the real stock market. Academics are always the last to get on board, waiting until the ship is drawing water to grace it with their presence. My university is trying to "rebalance the portfolio for the 21st century" and of course is attempting to delete graduate study in art. So far, the attempt has cost the provost her job. One unit that was offered a PhD in their discipline (using reallocated rsources from other units) responded, to the president's face, that a PhD in their field would be "basically useless". This stark confrontation illustrates how little specific facts matter in a top-down approach to curriculum change. Until the provost fell everything looked easy to the admins. If you pay no attention to reality, anything can seem easy. The thud of the provost's defeat is now giving a few of them pause, however.



May 25, 2006, 10:46 AM

The Late Victorian-era mission statement has a charming vintage sensibility; trade and manufacture were still virtuous pursuits, seen to be the hard work through which one could pull oneself up by the bootstraps.

Sadly, in this global society, we've come to learn that trade and manufacture exploit the impoverished peoples of the world and abuse the natural resources of the earth.

Perhaps when we discard ideas inappropriate to global thinking, such as ideas which hold that the people of one nation have rights ordained by God and capitalism that allow them to wage war on other nations for the purpose of both liberating them and their natural resources for assimilation by the former, then we can return to something approximating the era of noble virtues, where opportunity was truly opportunity for all, unless you were a child, a woman, or a person of color.

The modern mission statement certainly has been emasculated, hasn't it?



May 25, 2006, 10:50 AM

" If you pay no attention to reality"

Which academics prefer to do, and the general lack of accountability allows it to a destructive degree. You can't even fire an aggressively incompetent staff person, much less tenured profs. This is why our teenagers and their hard-pressed families pay blackmail to the system at the rate of $30,000 a year.

I think education, medicine and criminal drug policies are all overdue for radical revision.



May 25, 2006, 11:01 AM

Emasculated, and lying there like a dead fish on a sidewalk. Recommended reading for KH here. By the way, what does "global society" mean?

I have never seen tenure work correctly, according to its intended purpose. I understand that it does, sometimes, but I've never seen it happen. Otherwise it just seems to encourage laziness and rancor. OP, what would you suggest for an educational overhaul?



May 25, 2006, 11:16 AM

Yeah, KH, let's stick to art, which presumably we know something about, and leave the PC soapboxing for the politicians.

How to revise education? Well, I am no expert, but I sure as hell would not form a government commission. Listen to the school board meetings on NPR sometimes, or go to college faculty meetings, and you will get a sense of the problem.

If I was King of the World I would localize everything and probably privatize most of it, on the lower levels, insist on civilized behavior from all students at all times and at the same time eliminate any "teaching" about proper attitudes to have, promote essentially fact-based courses, foster trade and specialty schools, emphasize teaching instead of research at the college level, encourage smaller colleges, modify tenure but not eliminate it, outlaw college rankings like US News & World report (God, they are pernicious!) and lots else. But I do not have a plan nor would I want to have one. I just know it badly needs fixing.



May 25, 2006, 11:46 AM

to make lasting contributions to a global society

to me, this seems pretty benign and means "be good citizens of the world." what's wrong with that? it implies living responsibly and trying to contribute in a positive manner to whatever community one finds oneself in.

sure it's a little more watered down, but why is this a big deal. it may reflect the attitudes of people who do PR, marketing, and fundraising. if these people have more of an influence on students then facutly, then you have a problem.



May 25, 2006, 11:56 AM

Sure it's benign, Larry, but it "being a good citizen of the world" is not what an art school is there to teach. If we sit around and get dreamy about being globally angelic we are not equipping ourselves with the means to do so. It is part of the process of being sweetly nonspecific about everything, of avoiding reality. Easy to do and very dangerous.



May 25, 2006, 12:09 PM

Larry, it's benign because "global society" doesn't mean anything. It's an invitation to fill that part of the sentence with whatever We Are The World sentiment you happen to feel.

You're right that as long as the mission statement is a corporate nicety, no harm will come from it. But my experience is that once directives like that exist at the top, middle management starts looking for applications. The school where I taught until recently had entire curricula that were generated from focus groups with professionals tossing out buzzwords, as described above ("we should have 'critical thinking' in this statement somehow, because critical thinking is important - what, are you against critical thinking?), and then syllabi had to match the curricula. Consequently, teachers were ignoring their own syllabi. They had to, in order to teach their topic effectively and in a heartfelt manner. Catfish is absolutely correct about the top-down approach - it encourages avoiding specifics. Managers love that because it allows them to exercise "vision," but vision and looking are totally different things and only one of them is real.



May 25, 2006, 12:40 PM

A society is a group of people who have shared goals, values, behavioral systems, and interests. Global society is the group of people worldwide who have shared goals, values, behavioral systems and interests. I think that humans are more similar at the level of the global society than at the level of the professional or hobbiest group (because what aligns at the global level is encompassing rather than exclusionary) , and I really don't comprehend why you keep insisting, Franklin, that global society doesn't mean anything.



May 25, 2006, 12:48 PM

So who is in the group, and who is not in the group?



May 25, 2006, 1:13 PM

The ideal “Global society” is an inclusive society that loves and respects all humanity and cultures. There are no barriers in this society and everyone contributes in harmony.

Maybe, the pictures used in the different statements say it all.

The older version has a somber sepia photo consisting of 7 white men and one woman. Most of them seem to be concentrating on their own particular work and there’s little connection between each other. Only 2 men are looking at the camera and they both seem to be not thrilled about the interruption.

The current version consists of 3 joyful women (one looks ethnic) and a little bit of what I think is a man. They are all connected collaborating with a project. But the picture looks fake and planned. This is a total marketing device saying: Look at us, we are diverse, we are happy working together, and we are women!



May 25, 2006, 1:23 PM

Mystified, that gives me an excuse to link to this. See #7.



May 25, 2006, 1:45 PM

KH, I do believe Franklin could figure out what "global" means and what "society" means and with a little effort could probably even connect them and understand the sense of the phrase. As far as I know he is pretty literate. What he means by "doesn't mean anything" is that it is just a pap phrase, a nonspecific good sound, verbal Kleenex. You "comprehend" this as well as I do.

Furthermore, no group has to get to the ideal perfect state of "shared goals, values, behavioral systems (behavioral systems??), and interests" to be called a society, and "what aligns at the global level is encompassing rather than exclusionary" is not something that I can make any sense of.



May 25, 2006, 5:38 PM

OP--you're likely unfit to be a part of the National Society for Professional Engineers, though you are a member of the global society. The former is exclusive because you have to be an engineer, the latter is inclusive because you only have to be a resident on the globe.

About Franklin comprehending the meaning of words, you're right, which is why his remark continues to stump me. How does "global society" not mean anything? You insist that it is "a pap phrase, a nonspecific good sound, verbal Kleenex", but I have quite a strong reaction to the wordling "pap", I find the words "global" and "society" to be very specific, and "verbal Kleenex" seems to be an awkward metaphor--a group of words is something that I blow my snot into when I am ill? I don't understand how.



May 25, 2006, 6:35 PM

I have to congratulate you, KH. You have done something that heretofore only George has been able to do: leave me speechless. Answering your last comment would be like trying to kick my way out of a room full of Jello.



May 25, 2006, 6:35 PM

What's wrong, KH? Are you against critical thinking?

Don't answer that - I'm just trying to illustrate the problem. "Global society is the group of people worldwide who have shared goals, values, behavioral systems and interests." Good try, but does that mean greed is a universal value? It's widely shared. Probably moreso than generosity. Every nation on earth has conducted warfare in some form, so is that a shared goal? Is lying a global behavioral system?

I'm sure you weren't thinking of things like that when you set forth that definition, and I'm sure that nobody on the Self-study Committee on Mission thought of them either when whoever decided that "global society," along with other terms, "in the aggregate were felt to be reflections of the entire institution." (Note the passive voice, which is the voice of Satan.) This is the problem with vague abstractions like "global society." "Critical thinking" isn't great either - uncritical thinking isn't thinking in any real sense. Even "scholarship" is hemorraging value with neighbors like these. And who decided that one pretzel-shaped run-on sentence was preferable to three clear ones? Probably no one - it's just muscle memory of the grand one-sentence mission-writing tradition that stretches back to the early '90s. The whole effort reeks of business-speak, and it's a big deal because the thinking behind it isn't better than the writing.

Find me someone who will stand up and say, "I'm a member of global society!" I won't do it. I'll subscribe to humanity, civilization, all sentient beings, and any number of other phrases with a bit of backbone in them, but not that one. It sounds dead for a reason.



May 25, 2006, 6:46 PM

When I was teaching I was the chair of the Library Committee, it fell to us to write a mission statement for the committee. I did it in two minutes: "The mission of the Library Committee is to maximize the effectiveness of the library." When someone asked how, I said, "By any means necessary!" I could get through a one hour committee meeting in 22 minutes. I'm proud of that. I don't know if I made a contribution to global society or whatever they're calling it these days, but the people on the committee were grateful, and I gave them their lives back as best I could, and that's far more important to me.



May 25, 2006, 6:50 PM

"I could get through a one hour committee meeting in 22 minutes...I gave them their lives back as best I could"

If, as KH rightly observes, I am unfit be be a member of an engineering society, it is painfully clear you are not fit to be in academia, not with shockingly subversive statements like that.



May 25, 2006, 7:33 PM

After a while, I felt that to be the case.



May 25, 2006, 10:43 PM

Franklin: Like everything else, tenure is not perfect, but it works. Without tenure, 19 out of 100 grad programs at my institution would be closed. None of them are perfect either, but they are good enough that a central administration that has demonstrated nothing but the most superficial understanding of them should leave them alone. The other 81, believe it or not, have had all sorts of "tweaks" applied to them by the same three people who attempted to close the 19. Things like lower enrollment in these, increase enrollment in those, merge these others, and so on. Unbelievable "adjustments" of detail for a group that small to mandate, while at the same time ignoring basic facts, like the "new" degree that is useless.

As it is now, nothing is settled, only that the "final decision" about closure holds, but might previal anyway. And the tweaks are so far considered a done deal.

Without tenure, many universities would be run like high schools. I am now convinced of that. Once I would have said such a statement was a paper tiger, but I am still looking it in the face and tenure is all that stands in its way.



May 25, 2006, 10:45 PM

Make that: the "final decision" about closure can be reversed, but may prevail anyway.



May 25, 2006, 11:57 PM

As a mother who breastfed her children, I have seen first hand the effects of pap. It creates a happy stupor that is not conducive to intelligent thought but excellent for fatting up and promotes loafing.



May 26, 2006, 12:07 AM

Franklin, I hope Boston is treating you well. You'll be able to read this message in seconds, so I won't have to update you on all the news in Miami. In 1877, I venture you and the contents of your home would still be on their way to New England.

A friend of mine is sailing across the Pacific and e-mailed me from his satellite phone to see if I could help him sail from points between Tahiti & New Zealand. I can fly & meet him in a couple of days.

I am doing business with a European client using very bad Google translations to communicate. I not sure that it is going too well...

You have a regular poster here [Hans] who I believe is German but lives in the Ukraine(?) & has a blog with some crazy photos of a world very far apart from ours...but that we can keep up with in an instant.

You have a worldwide audience (I suspect some of your new Taiwanese friends may keep up!).

Forget the political PC crap. That is a GLOBAL SOCIETY.

And for the record - mission statements are for idiots.



May 26, 2006, 7:45 AM

It becomes a problem, FRC, when the idiots are in charge.



May 26, 2006, 8:06 AM

FRC, Hans lives in Russian Georgia and Germany. Yes, it's nice seeing the art world all over like we can now.


Lisa Hunter

May 26, 2006, 11:05 AM

I once worked in a university communications office (before leaving to write full-time), so I can tell you that these statements are written by marketing people. What happens is that a consultant sends a questionnaire to students who turned down the school, or donors who have said no -- i.e., people the school wanted to attract but failed to -- and asked them for their general impressions of the school. The mission statement is tailored to address misunderstandings.

I'd bet money that the "global society" blather was intended to address concerns that RISD isn't in New York, LA or London. It sounds like a marketing person's way of saying, "Just because our name includes the smallest state in New England doesn't mean we're provincial!" It's sort of pathetic, considering RISD is one of the most prestigious art schools in the world.



May 26, 2006, 11:44 AM

Sounds like a fair assessment, Lisa. I think that's the biggest disappointment about the revision. The first says, We're leading. The second says, We're following.



May 26, 2006, 1:10 PM

Actually, I think the first says "we're a technical school".

I don't have any problem with that; I treated my time in undergrad as a technical program, taking everything that required special equipment or processes since I figured I'd have a hard time learning that stuff on my own later.



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