Alternative Title

Strategic Innovation and Mission-Alignment: A Comparative Review of International High Research Universities


This research supports some of the mounting pressures higher education practitioners face in approaching innovation strategically while recognizing the mission-driven needs of the institution. Two research questions were examined. First, how do highly innovative universities communicate traditional missions and innovation in their mission statements? Second, to what extent do innovation strategies align as stated in their strategic plans with their mission statements? This research was grounded in institutional theory given the breadth of literature linking this theory to institutional rhetoric such as mission statements. In addition, the theory provided relevancy to assessing the debate over legitimizing tendencies, such as symbolism and signaling, versus more meaningful utilitarian prose.

For the research design, the unit of analysis focused on the institutional level, specifically, the Top 100 international universities recognized for innovation by Reuters. Two phases were examined. Before moving into each phase, an interdisciplinary contextual overview was provided to examine geographic, historical, and financial factors on a macro basis. For Phase I, a content review of mission statements was examined for the Top 100 universities as publicly available. Concept and In Vivo Coding was conducted using ATLAS.ti software. In Phase II, a content review examined alignment of mission statements and strategic plans to assess mission-driven or mission drift evidence for select universities identified.

Four key findings ensued. First, the trifecta of university missions (teaching, research, and service) dominated mission statement incidence relative to innovation rhetoric. Second, innovation language within mission statements was largely comprised of general phraseology or reference to mission, not beyond mission (or drift). Third, the service component of mission tied to innovation beyond teaching and research was driven by societal influences. Fourth, societally-driven innovation provided the greatest potential for mission drift based on stakeholder perspectives. This research filled several gaps in the literature related to international higher education studies, the intersections of traditional university missions with innovation, and the critical use of ranking systems. It provided a vantage on interdisciplinary uses for ATLAS.ti software beyond the robust coding features, such as geospatial mapping.

Resulting recommendations for practitioners focused on mission statement optimization at student, program, and institutional levels, and alignment of strategic innovation with institutional missions. Recommendations for future research addressed the limitations identified as the use of the Reuters ranking system, macro-level analysis, and researcher positionality creating a U.S.-centric interpretation. Specifically, opportunities exist for expanded research studies such as qualitative interviews with stakeholders, longitudinal studies, explorations of additional institutional types through the lenses of other relevant theories (e.g., neo-institutional theory, resource dependency theory, and population ecology theory), and social network analyses given the extent of external actors involved.

In conclusion, innovation continues to be hotly contested in the higher education sphere as a mechanism for “high hopes or broken promises” (Chronicle, 2019, p. 59). In the current worldwide climate of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is witnessing higher education institutions rapidly innovate programming and policies in real time as a means to adapt to pressing challenges, and in some cases, to maintain existentiality. It is also at this time, that great emphasis is placed on focusing precious resources on initiatives supporting mission – the intersection of mission and innovation challenges higher education today and will continue to for years to come.

Keywords: Higher education institutions, mission, vision, innovation, strategic planning, mission statements, strategic plans, international, interdisciplinary, institutional theory, content analysis, comparative analysis.

Degree Date

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name



Education Policy and Leadership


Dr. Ashley Tull

Second Advisor

Dr. Denisa Gándara

Third Advisor

Dr. Meredith Richards

Subject Area


Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License