School Mottos - Aspirational Goal or Lip Service?

My back went out. Again. Traitor.

It’s gone from annoying to debilitating, with me off my feet for more and more time after each episode. I’m afraid it’s time to visit a spine center in Denver…I’m up for suggestions. I’m afraid it’s time to go the path of Tiger Woods, hoping my first surgery may end up as well as his fourth surgery. But it also makes you realize the importance of your core.

Whilst laying on my floor, I was awkwardly typing an article and I needed a fictitious university motto. So I did a quick Google search and discovered that Wikipedia has gathered most of the world’s university mottos on a single page! Score another one for the Internet!

US College and University mottos in a word cloud. Knowledge, Light, and Truth top the charts…

US College and University mottos in a word cloud. Knowledge, Light, and Truth top the charts…

But as I looked through the words that US Colleges and Universities aspire to, I was struck by a few things. First, these words represent a school’s CORE. I mean, everything else aside, this is at the heart of every mission statement, every goal, and ever outcome, If a school says this is the most important thing, then it should be viewed appropriately. Second, it is interesting that so many of the mottos describe the same thing. It’s easiest to see with religious schools suggesting that their students with learn to value God, truth, honesty, etc. But it’s not hard to see a few other trends stand out for the rest of the colleges and universities listed. Most institutions seem to purport that students, upon graduating will:

  • Be critical thinkers or problem solvers

  • Be people of great character

  • Feel cared for

  • Demonstrate leadership



But as I thought about it, and while lamenting my own treasonous core muscles, I wondered how many colleges and universities can say that their core is in tact? I sure saw a lot of mottos that looked suspect. (Like the school suggesting they create great leaders, yet I had never heard of the institution before, nor could I find any great leaders as alumni. Or how about the mottos that are so vague and ambiguous, they have no real meaning to most onlookers: “To Be, Rather Than To Seem”…okay…)

So I ask you the simple question: Do your students achieve the aspirations set forth in your motto? (And possibly the harder question of, “Would your students agree with your answer?)

For those schools who promote thinking or learning or some concept related to problem solving, you’re in good company. Knowledge just edges out ‘truth’ and ‘light’ as the most used word in higher education mottos. But the $100,000 question (or more at a lot of private schools which use that word the most…) is simple - do the majority of your students graduate being able to think critically, problem solve, analyze effectively, etc?

Whether they can do that more or less than any other graduate aside, I would ask for proof. What evidence do you have that A) these students are graduating with critical thinking skills; B) you do anything at all which “teaches” such behaviors?


I blog all the time about how CEO’s, Hiring Managers, and even Government Officials are complaining that recent graduates can’t “think” effectively. But there may be something to that. While still considered controversial, Arum and Roksa’s findings a few years ago suggest that many students leave their institution without learning, without maturing their critical thinking any more than they would have via a job out of high school, and that problem solving isn’t a skill students graduate with. But whether you agree with their findings or not, there seems to be more “common understanding” outside of academia that students are not really learning. So back to the question. What makes your institution’s students different? What do you do that changes the output? What can you point to that suggests they have knowledge?

How about character? A lot of mottos are about creating good citizens or good people. For a chunk of our nation’s history, one could look at the difference in crime rates for white collar vs blue collar, but that doesn’t work anymore. With more and more blurring of the lines, leading to a new term (grey collar workers) suggesting everything from non-retirees working to jobs that require some schooling, but not a BS/BA, it is very hard to determine if there is more or less ethical, moral, or criminal behavior based on a college degree. So, how do you measure it? If your school is producing the most ethical, moral, conscionable people, how do you know? And how exactly do you get that result?

For those schools that include care, caring, or nurturing for students, this one seems like the hardest measure yet. I realize some of the mottos suggest a person will become a “caring person”, but even that suggests to me that they have had a great deal of modeling throughout their academic career. So how does that work? Do your students feel cared for? Do the students with legitimate family or medical issues feel like they have been heard and not lumped in with the cacophony of fake excuses given to professors every day? Do your students suffer from depression, bullying, teasing, loneliness, or other emotional / psychological stresses? If so, do you know? And then, do you do something about it? And finally, if indeed your students are the most cared for college graduates ever, how exactly do you enculturate that? How do you teach people to care (especially when butted up against faculty freedom, etc) and how has that made it into your actual, four-year curriculum model?

The leadership category is a personal bugaboo of mine. As much research as I have done into teams, I know that most college students graduate with very little understanding of the best ways to collaborate, the value of team work, or even the ability to function as one of the 28 role types typically associated with a successful group. Obviously, one of those roles is that of leader. But ask 100 college students about group projects and see how many light up at the chance to be in a group again. Ask 100 teachers if they like using team projects, or if they ensure that there is task weighted against satisfaction, if there are identified (formal) roles leveraged, and if students are graded both as a team and as an individual. I will argue than in both cases, you’ll be lucky to find 3 in 100 that say yes. Yet, we have school after school proclaiming qualities of leadership in their graduates. By what measures? How have you added those skills, starting with the foundations and driving through advanced leadership techniques regardless of major?

You may think I have a problem with school mottos. But no! Much to the contrary! I think aspiration is important for every organization. But lip service….well, that is something else entirely.


About 3 years ago, I was delivering a keynote for a faculty convocation. I had to wait in a lobby as I waited for my contact to come pick me up before the presentation and so I sat with some students, a few vending machines, and a tv running ads for the school. A young female student went up to the lobby desk where, through a glass with a circle of holes cut in it sat a staff member, eating a morning bagel. The staff member had her back to the window and was talking with someone else I could not see. Eventually, she turned, taking a big bite of bagel and saw the student waiting for her. She immediately put her finger up, “I’m eating my breakfast and I’ll be with you in a few minutes. Why don’t you have a seat?” she more commanded than asked. The young lady was obviously not sure what to do. “But I have a question about my class going on right now. It’s not in the room we usually meet in and I…” The older staff member cut her off. “Did you not hear me? I said I’ll be with you in a few minutes after my breakfast and coffee. Please have a seat!” The staff member turned around continued talking to whomever was out of sight. The young student dropped her shoulders and walked out of the lobby, into the hall, looking left and then right, but finally moving on. At that exact moment, as if on cue, the tv above me played a jingle. I looked up to see smiling students and happy staff and faculty all enjoying college life. Then another shot of a professor helping a student after class. Then another student in some kind of tutoring session. Then the words: We Put Students First!, followed by the school colors and logo.

Aspiration is awesome. But if you aren’t trying to measure it, train on it, promote it, and enculturate it, I would argue that your core might need some surgery…

Good luck and good teaching.