Supporting the Individual and the Institution
AAHE's vision of education for all Americans and mission for change.
By Margaret A. Miller, AAHE President

From the February 1998 AAHE Bulletin


The American Association for Higher Education envisions a higher education enterprise that helps all Americans achieve the deep, lifelong learning they need to grow as individuals, participate in the democratic process, and succeed in a global economy.


AAHE is the individual membership organization that promotes the changes higher education must make to ensure its effectiveness in a complex, interconnected world. The association equips individuals and institutions committed to such changes with the knowledge they need to bring them about.

To pursue these aims, AAHE

  • Envisions and articulates agendas for change.
  • Contributes to the knowledge of a diverse group of leaders committed to the systemic, long-term, cost-effective improvement of American higher education.
  • Provides forums in which individuals from a variety of positions and institutions, within and outside higher education, can engage in constructive conversations about difficult issues.
  • Identifies and advocates practices that help individuals benefit from their differences and succeed in learning.
  • Documents and promotes new concepts of scholarship, with particular emphasis on the nature of learning and the results of teaching.
  • Helps institutions develop their capacities to make the organizational, pedagogical, and other changes needed to achieve their evolving missions.
  • Collaborates with individuals and organizations engaged in similar work.

This fall, the AAHE staff, Board, and voluntary leadership worked to clarify the association's purpose and focus. Despite a certain skepticism about the value of a vision and mission statement (Mel West once quipped that a mission statement describes the establishment you want others to believe you work in, representing values you may never get around to), I have found the one that resulted for AAHE to be remarkably helpful in steering the association during these first few months. The statement is meant to be a dynamic, living document that is enriched by ongoing discussion and takes its meaning from the way it is embodied in AAHE's programs and services.

The vision/mission statement condenses a discussion that was much fuller than its summary can suggest. To share the conversational context and to give you my interpretation, I offer the following exegesis.

The vision statement is the result of an attempt by the association's leadership to clarify why we care so deeply about AAHE's work. Why do we want to help faculty, staff, and colleges and universities do their work better? Because we care about students. Who are those students? In our vision, all Americans should have access to learning throughout their lives -- not just those who are privileged.

We asked ourselves further, Why is that learning, and widespread access to it, important? First, because we ascribe to the classic liberal notion that individual human happiness and collective human good reside in the full development of the powers of each person. Those powers help people realize the fullest satisfaction from personal and family life (to my mind the primary goal of higher education), but they are also critical to the exercise of the duties of citizenship, on which our collective well-being depends. Moreover, in the new global economy, in which knowledge and intellectual abilities are our most important capital, individual and collective success depends on the continuing cultivation of mental powers and the accumulation of knowledge.
AAHE promotes civic responsibility through its service-learning project, service-learning coalition, eighteen-volume series on service-learning, and Making the Case for Professional Service

"The individual membership organization . . ."
Americans, as Tocqueville pointed out, are remarkable for their propensity to form voluntary associations. AAHE is classically American in its emphasis on individual rather than institutional members. Our ultimate goal is the improvement of American higher education, especially in its core functions of teaching and learning; we move toward that goal by helping individuals and groups at all levels of the academy see what the future environment for higher education is likely to be and what they can do today to adapt to and shape it.

"Agendas for change . . ."
My predecessor, Russ Edgerton, described AAHE in a wonderful metaphor as "the Paul Revere of higher education," a lone horseman warning of imminent danger. I see AAHE as analogous to the Lewis and Clark party, exploring the new terrain into which higher education will expand. The guide, Sacajawea, seems to me the quintessential member of the expedition: a polyglot of indomitable cheer, stamina, and curiosity, whose kinship network and capacity to find nourishment in unlikely places enabled the explorers to travel in strange territory. I see AAHE as an expeditionary force whose task is traversing and charting new regions.

AAHE's caucuses and interest groups include
  • American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus
  • Asian/Pacific Caucus
  • Black Caucus
  • Hispanic Caucus
  • Student Caucus
  • Women's Caucus
  • Community College Network
  • National Network of Faculty Senates
  • Provosts Forum
  • Research Forum
  • Collaboration in Undergraduate Education (CUE) Network
"A diverse group of leaders ..."
AAHE is not a lobbying or advocacy organization. Instead, it brings together a varied group of leaders from all levels within colleges and universities to discuss issues of common concern. It could take as its motto John Stuart Mill's statement that "the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind." The association prizes its caucuses and interest groups and sponsors their active participation in its intellectual and cultural dialogues. Their angles of vision lend depth to our collective perceptions.

AAHE is a collection of individuals, but their goal is systemic change. AAHE operates on the assumption that substantive changes in policies and modes of operation proceed person by person, group by group, campus by campus and hence occur only through patient, long-term effort. So it chooses its projects carefully, focusing on issues that are robust enough to work on for a decade or longer. The projects are linked by a common goal: to help institutions meet the needs of their constituents as well and cost-effectively as possible. Although AAHE emphasizes the improvement of American higher education, we will take lessons in how to do so from anywhere on the globe.

"Constructive conversations about difficult issues . . ."
AAHE is unusual in that it does not represent a particular sector or position within higher education -- it is one of the few associations that brings together individuals from a variety of roles. It provides escape from positional narcissism. Faculty from various disciplines talk with administrators at all levels, and both talk with those outside the traditional academy, to forge a sense of their common interest in promoting learning. Through its conferences, institutes, work on campuses, and publications, the association provides the neutral space in which differences can be aired and negotiated.
"Individuals benefit from their differences . . ."
AAHE's own structures and practices are predicated on a belief
in the advantages of dialogue among people from different backgrounds and with different roles and perspectives. Students, too, learn by having their perceptions challenged, confirmed, made more complex, and changed by those who see things differently. But heterogeneity among students makes the faculty's job more challenging. AAHE helps educators by identifying pedagogical strategies that support learning for a wide range of students.
"Documents and promotes new concepts of scholarship ..."
At AAHE, we explore how to treat teaching and learning as central activities that, like other forms of scholarly work, can be shared, documented, studied, reviewed, rewarded, and continuously improved. The association also explores how to assess the learning that is the ultimate measure of effective teaching. It encourages the evolution of faculty roles and rewards and the use of new technologies and other pedagogical strategies such as service-learning to deepen and extend student understanding.
Powerful pedagogical strategies will be examined at AAHE's 1998 National Conference on Higher Education, including service-learning, cooperative learning, experiential learning, learning communities, and technology-based learning.

"Helps institutions develop their capacities ..."
For change to be systemic, AAHE must contribute to the professional development of its members, but it must also help key individuals on campus leverage continuous institution-wide improvement. The association works with groups of these key individuals, who can use their collective influence to clarify and focus institutional mission and to chart the way for its successful realization.

"Collaborates with individuals and organizations ..."
AAHE, too, must have a clear and focused mission. But important work lies outside that focus. So AAHE has formed partnerships with other organizations -- campuses, associations, and international groups -- to extend its efforts without lessening the impetus or coherence of its own activities.
Some organizations with which AAHE is working on joint projects:
  • TLT Group: the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Affiliate of AAHE
  • Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • Associated New American Colleges (ANAC)
  • National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and American College Personnel Association (ACPA)
  • New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE)
  • Campus Compact
  • National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE)

A few institutions with which AAHE is collaborating intensively:

  • California State University System
  • University of Wisconsin System
  • Maricopa Community Colleges
  • Harvard University
  • Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Portland State University


This is the vision and mission of the American Association for Higher Education as we see it today. We welcome comments, which may be sent to me at or through this website. I hope to hear from you!

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