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A recent history of Grinnell’s mission statement

In a recent essay I wrote about Grinnell’s mission statement and how it inspires me as a faculty member. Just in case you’ve forgotten, here it is again.

When Grinnell College framed its charter in the Iowa Territory of the United States in 1846, it set forth a mission to educate its students for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life. The College pursues that mission by providing an education in the liberal arts through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas. As a teaching and learning community, the College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large. The College exists to provide a lively academic community of students and teachers of high scholarly qualifications from diverse social and cultural circumstances. The College aims to graduate individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas, who can acquire new knowledge, and who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.

You may be wondering where this wonderful mission statement came from. It was written by a committee of faculty members in about 2001 and modified slightly about two years ago. Why did that committee rewrite the mission statement? Well, in about 2001, the Trustees of Grinnell College decided that we needed a new mission statement. Here’s what they came up with as a starting point [1].

Core Principles

  • Close collaboration between students and faculty in a residential college setting brings the liberal arts to life.
  • Excellence involves mastering the fundamentals while welcoming innovation.
  • Mutual respect and individual responsibility guide relationships among students, faculty, and staff in a diverse, supportive community.
  • Achievement through leadership and service to others marks our personal and professional endeavors.


Grinnell College educates citizens and leaders for our communities, the nation, and the world by preparing them to pursue successful careers, satisfying personal lives, effective community service, and active leisure.

Present Goal

To be the liberal arts college of choice for those who are committed to academic excellence and a spirit of public service.

Painful, isn’t it? Don’t you love the use of buzzwords like excellence, particularly in that second bullet point? Don’t you relish the use of bullet points with aphorisms-like statements rather then carefully crafted statements? My writing instructor, Joe Williams, would be stunned at the abstract subjects and the use of nominalizations.

As you might expect, the faculty did not react well to this starting point, and formed a committee to develop a new statement. The work involved a wide variety of faculty [2], but Don Smith took the lead, I don’t have a copy of the statement that the committee produced, and the archives are not open right now, but it was similar to the current mission statement. How did it differ? I think we had an even longer core sentence, with more adjectives. It was a work of art, but it was probably overkill. The committee-drafted statement also lacked the introductory sentence. I think Council did they cleanup, and it was sensible cleanup.

The new mission statement has lasted the past decade and a half, and looks like it will continue to survive. There’s been one change, and that’s been to change words that implied a gender binary to more inclusive words; more precisely, I think we changed graduate men and women to graduate individuals.

Do I think we will change the mission statement again in my time at Grinnell? We might. Dean Latham did make some comments about adding something about global studies into the mission statement, but I don’t think that was a serious threat. If it was, I expect we’ll need a fairly deep revisiting of the whole statement, including what it means to write and speak persuasively in the 21st century. If we do revisit the mission statement, I hope that we end up with something at least as good as we have now. Perhaps if we let Pablo Silva or Sarah Purcell take the role of Don Smith, we’ll be okay.


[2] They even let this young whippersnapper on the committee, even though I had only been at Grinnell for four years [3].

[3] It may have helped that I wrote a public statement on the purpose of a mission statement, similar to the one that appears somewhere in my recent essay.

Version 1.0 of 2016-12-29.