Editor’s Note: More and more, mentorship is being recognized as a key to the success and retention of diverse faculty members and administrative leaders. In this piece, four members of the 2022-2023 cohort of ACAD Fellows reflect on their personal journeys, the mentors who helped them along the way, and the obligations that they now feel to pay it forward. There are four contributors here: Christie Chung, Kim Davis, Roberto Sánchez, and Frederick Ware.
Leadership Empowerment Through Purposeful Mentorship
by Christie Chung
As higher education leaders, we are faced with an insurmountable amount of work and challenges every day. It is essential for us to take a step back and reflect on our purpose that drives us to achieve success. Thus, I start this article with my “Why.”
My “Why,” My Purpose
My personal motto of “service above self” is the foundation of every decision I make in life. I view every role I have assumed in my career as an opportunity to serve and to make an impact in other’s lives. During my 16 years as a professor, I served my students through leadership in the classroom and research lab as a teacher, mentor, and advisor. I served my college as Chair of many prominent committees, such as the Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure committee and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. And as I stepped into my Associate Provost role after 1.5 decades of service and leadership as a professor, I knew I was ready to serve the College in a broader context and at a pivotal moment of institutional transformation. Now, as Associate Dean and Interim Executive Director of a multi-disciplinary institute, I look forward to turning societal challenges into opportunities for innovation, impact, and transformation.
As I continue my journey as a higher education leader, I found another purpose in my work — representation and advocacy. As I became more involved in external organizations designed for executive leaders, I saw the shocking underrepresentation of Asian women in higher education leadership roles. In fact, Asian women occupy only 0.6% of leadership positions in higher education according to The World Economic Forum 2022 report. This phenomenon may be due to many deeply entrenched societal inequities. Asian women in general are sorely underestimated in their ability to lead due to the stereotype of being “meek, submissive, and deferential to authority”, plus the over-sexualization of the Asian women’s presence in the Western world (see this article). These harmful gender and racial stereotypes often lead to an underrepresentation of Asian women in leadership positions and represent what scholars have termed the “double-paned glass ceiling” in their career trajectory. As I walked into settings such as leadership conferences, executive gatherings, and invited board/trustee meetings, I was often the only Asian woman in the room. I felt a sense of responsibility to represent and the urge to advocate and make a difference. I knew I was in the right place because my perspective was unique and needed. Teams that are made up of diverse thoughts, people, and ideologies always achieve more success (see this article). Throughout my career, I have been intentional about seeking out mentorship and providing mentorship to the next generation of scientists and leaders. It is critical for the next generation to see people who are like them succeed and to know that their valuable presence is essential to the success of their organization.
I believe that leadership success usually does not happen without the support of a few significant individuals along the way. I am forever grateful to my mentors, who have given me advice during the most difficult junctures and saw potential in me even when I did not. My sponsors, who have allowed me to successfully apply for and receive awards, fellowships, recognitions, and promotions. My advocates, who speak highly of me, even when I’m not in the room. And my connectors, who have opened doors to networks that I don’t always have an “in” because of my identity and other barriers. I give back to the leadership circle by assuming these four roles for aspiring leaders around me. It makes my work meaningful when I can elevate another leader, especially a leader of color or of underrepresented identity by these very simple actions.
My biggest satisfaction in life is the ability to influence, the opportunity to innovate, and the space to make meaningful contributions to update societal structures that underlie our practices and worldview. To have the privilege to serve, lead, and mentor as a higher education leadership is a gift that I will always treasure. Thus, I encourage everyone to consider mentorship a core component of their work in higher education leadership, as your influence may have far greater reach than you might imagine.
Motivators and Mentors
by Kim M. Davis
When I reflect on my current role in higher education, I am grateful for the motivators and mentors who helped me envision and become an academic leader. My commitment to the mission of higher education helped me make the transition from corporate America to higher education over 20 years ago, but my motivators’ and mentors’ commitment to me is what propelled my journey from faculty member to administrator.
Making the Journey, Thanks to Motivators and Mentors
“I want to be a college administrator.” Those are not my words. They were shared with me during an annual faculty development meeting with one of my division coordinators. As an early career faculty member thinking about a future in higher education and an African-American woman, I could not fathom uttering such words to myself or others. I had not encountered any African-American female administrators whose careers I could emulate. Although the number of administrators of color seems to be on the rise in recent years, I was acutely aware of statistics like those shared in the October 28, 2020, Inside Higher Ed article, “There Are So Few That Have Made Their Way”: “Black and African American employees make up less than 10 percent of higher education professionals . . Among administrators and executive leadership, this disparity is even greater . . . less than 8 percent of administrators are Black or African American.”
Because I did not see myself as a higher education administrator, I needed motivators and mentors whose words and deliberate actions at each juncture of my journey to leadership prodded me to the next level. I am still in contact with those vital individuals because their support and advocacy matter to me during key moments of decision-making and transition.
Identifying Motivators and Mentors
My motivators are not a homogenous group of individuals regarding their roles in higher education. Some were colleagues in Academic Affairs, but others were in tangential areas of the institutions where I worked. Regardless of their roles, they played an important part in my journey because they were among the first to instill in me a belief that I could be a leader. Their gentle, yet consistent nudges of “go for it” and “you can do it” were helpful and continue to help with combating the imposter syndrome that can impact persons from marginalized groups, like African-American women. Skills and experience are sometimes not enough to propel marginalized individuals forward and sustain them when grappling with the demands of leadership, which are sometimes exacerbated when individuals are the only persons of color in leadership settings.
My mentors are different than my motivators because the mentors had already achieved a level of success within academic leadership. These individuals are embedded throughout my leadership journey because they were intentional in ensuring I learned the skills of effective leadership. They pulled back the curtain of the hidden curriculum of higher education to explain the hows and whys of visioning, decision-making, processes, collaboration, project implementation, and more. Then, they showed me how to take each subsequent leadership step and committed to partnering with me after I took a next-level position to help ensure my success. Of note is the fact that none of these individuals is African-American, so I am grateful for their commitment to me as an individual and their understanding of the value of diversity at all levels of academic leadership.
Following Their Examples
Although the words “I want to be a college administrator” were not mine, I am committed to them. I follow the examples of my motivators and mentors because I am consciously aware that I did not make the journey to leadership by myself. Because my motivators and mentors helped and continue to help me, I nudge and proactively support others who should see themselves as academic leaders or are bold enough to say, like my division coordinator, that they are ready for academic leadership. I invite more administrators to join me in nudging and supporting the next academic leaders.
Notes on Mentoring
by Roberto Sánchez
As a historian I believe in the power of personal narratives to inspire, shape, and alter the paths of individuals and societies. Reflecting on my own journey, I realize that I have been fortunate to learn from so many inspirational mentors from all walks of life beyond academia. As I shift my gaze towards my role and work as an academic leader I am filled with a sense of gratitude and humility, as well as responsibility to do my utmost to uphold the goals and mission of my university.
My personal background has always been an important part of my professional development–initially in a career as a financial consultant before transitioning to the world of higher education as a faculty member and administrator. I am a first-generation Latino who grew up in the Central Valley of California in public housing and started working to contribute to the family income before I was a teenager. Ironically, the most daunting challenges I faced were not socio-economic alone, although they were present and persistent. They were what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as habitus, those sets of practices and traditions that shape and limit the opportunities available to a person—in effect, the limits of our own imagination to conceive of a world beyond what we know due to life circumstances. The catalyst for change in my life was the world of books and the presence of mentors to guide my thinking, challenge my assumptions, and foster a sense of wonder and connection with a world beyond my own.
As an administrator, I have found that many of the skills and content knowledge that I cultivated in private industry and then as a faculty member were applicable and useful as an administrator. The world of business is one of organization, budgets, timelines, short- and medium-term goals, planning, and forecasting to name a few characteristics. In sum, it functions in the domain of pragmatism. As a faculty member in the humanities, there is a focus on innovation, culture, ethics, subjectivity, differences and similarities across time, and abstract concepts that shape our ideology and engagement with each other. I have found that there is an interdisciplinary intersection of heuristic approaches in my professional experience that have served me to adapt to the challenges of my current position as Interim Dean of Academic and Career Success. My job requires all the above as well as being a part of the change in higher education to foster a more diverse body of administrators from different racial, social, and cultural milieus. This change is a critical one in my home institution as our student body is changing from a primarily white middle-class to one that is more diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, age, and gender identity from across the US and internationally. It is of vital importance that our “non-traditional” students and staff can see someone who resembles themselves not only in physical appearance, but in terms of background and experience in positions of leadership.
Part of my work as a faculty member and administrator of color has been to mentor students and new faculty. It is an incredibly rewarding experience as most of these experiences were organic in origin and not an official assignment from an administrator. In my role as a mentor, I apply the practice of active listening, empathy, identification, and respect as a cornerstone to intentional dialogues that seek to clarify doubts and to facilitate the creation of pathways to success. It has been my experience that first-generation students or junior faculty of color are not always comfortable reaching out for assistance or advice for a variety of reasons. One common reason is that we are often thrust in the role of representing our minority group and are keenly aware that we are being judged by perhaps a different set of criteria. Another is that we do not have the social capital to understand the crucial importance of proactively seeking our mentorship opportunities to develop succeed as a student or faculty member.
I have been fortunate in that my mentors recognized my work and reputation as a faculty member and administrator who cares deeply for students and colleagues. At Gallaudet University, our students are deaf and hard of hearing, as well as diverse in identity and background. My mentors helped me to understand the unique challenges this additional intersection presented to our community. Far from being an additional burden, I have expanded my cosmovision of a world where accessibility breaks down the barriers of disability and marginalization. Mentorship is part of this larger process of creating more just and equitable institution of higher education.
Impactful Mentoring across Race and Gender
by Frederick L. Ware
For the past six years, I have served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Howard University School of Divinity. Several persons, too many to name in this article, have contributed to my being in this role. I shall mention a few.
Dean Yolanda Pierce is chiefly responsible for my being in the position of Associate Dean. She was convinced, and persuaded me also, that I could play a crucial role in her leadership team. She entrusted me with a wide range of responsibilities, making me a full partner in her work. During the 2023 spring semester, I served as Acting Dean in her stead. Though there are many things I have learned through this position and professional development programs, my preparation for the job began during college and graduate school under the mentorship of several accomplished administrators.
My Mentors and What I Learned from Them
David Hiley, a philosophy professor much admired by me and other students, was on a trajectory that went from Department Chair to Humanities Center Director (Memphis State University), to Associate Dean (Auburn University), to Dean and Vice Provost (Viginia Commonwealth University), and finally to Provost and Vice President (University of New Hampshire). Through close association with Dr. Hiley, I witnessed firsthand the transitions from the professoriate to administration. I had the privilege of taking several courses with Dr. Hiley and serving as a graduate assistant during his term as Department Chair. He is largely the inspiration, by personal advice and letter of recommendation, for my going to Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
When I arrived at Vanderbilt, I was placed with Professor David Butrrick for academic advising. I formed the habit of coming to advising sessions prepared with my course selections already resolved. Professor Butrrick would often say that with my navigation of the curriculum, discernment of trends in theological education, and organizational skills, I should consider work in administration. He nominated me to serve as the student representative on a faculty search committee he chaired. This committee assignment would lead to other service appointments.
During my second year at Vanderbilt, there was change in decanal leadership. I had the opportunity of working with incoming Dean, Joseph Hough, on the Personnel and Policy Committee. Outgoing Dean, Jack Forstman, returned to the classroom. I was among the first to register for his course, one of the best I ever had. I learned from Dr. Forstman not to covet deanship; it’s not permanent and therefore can be let go.
By far, Forrest Harris, Assistant Dean at Vanderbilt, had the greatest influence on my development in educational leadership. He structured my graduate assistantship in his office around learning administrative functions (i.e., co-curricular programing and continuing education for church leaders) associated with his position of assistant dean and institute director. Under his guidance, I also learned time management (i.e., pace and flow of the work week), team dynamics, grant writing, and conference planning. Dr. Harris would eventually go on to become the President of American Baptist College. I moved on too, pursuing a career in teaching.
During the summer of 2006, Barbara Holmes, Dean and Vice-President, invited me to teach a course at Memphis Theological Seminary. With a discerning eye to my potential to do more than teach, she advised me to work in administration. Dean Holmes affirmed the discernment of my mentors.
Discernment and Support of Talent across Race and Gender
While race and gender should not matter in mentoring, I must point out that persons contributing to my journey are white (Hiley, Buttrick, Forstman, and Hough) and female (Holmes and Pierce). Only one (Harris) is a black male. None of them were blind to my race or gender, but discerning of my character and potential for contribution in administrative leadership. Impactful mentoring does not require persons to be of the same race, ethnicity, or gender. Persons from various backgrounds may play vital roles in the enhancement of diversity in administrative leadership. No heroic acts required, just discernment and support of talent.
Life after Deanship
I enjoy administrative work; at times, it feels natural. Still, I dream of singular devotion towards my greatest pleasure— discovery of new knowledge and sharing it with others. As I learned from Dr. Forstman, there is life after deanship, that is, there is the immense reward of joyful retirement upon completion of one’s term of service and the freedom to engage in other pursuits.
What if? Answering That Question with Mentors
by Priscilla Marsicovetere
I am in my third year as Dean of the College of Health and Natural Sciences at Franklin Pierce University. When I reflect on my current role in higher education, and the very circuitous path I’ve traveled to reach that position, I am reminded of people along the way who offered support, sustenance and education to help me progress. Some of those folks were mentors, while others were advocates and sponsors, each playing an integral but different, role. I am very thankful for the opportunities I’ve been presented with, as well as the mentors and advocates who have helped me recognize and seize them.
Taking the Long Road
Many people find it interesting that I ended up in higher education, as that was not my original professional path. I am an attorney by practice and loved practicing law for many years. When I left the workforce to stay at home with my young children until they were in school full time, I was fortunate enough to be able to take time to think about what I wanted my professional life to entail before returning to the workforce– the hours, the stressors, the potential to change lives. Having always loved science, I found myself drawn to explore that as a possibility. After volunteering on my local ambulance squad and becoming certified as an EMT, I ended up enrolling in a Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Med program to see if science (because it related directly to healthcare) still stoked my interests the way it had in college. It did indeed. At the end of that program I had two choices. I could go to medical school and be finished with my fellowship when my kids were leaving home for college. Or I could go to physician assistant/associate (PA) school and be back out in the workforce in only a couple years. I chose the latter, and it has been an amazingly fruitful journey from that point forward. Mind you, I never gave up my law license, as my goal was always to find a way to complement my legal skill set with my medical skill set and use that combination to make positive differences in the world.
While practicing medicine as a Colorectal Surgery PA, I was invited to lecture for a local PA program. I accepted the invitation, as I loved the prospect of being involved in academia and helping to shape the minds and futures of students looking to pursue a career in medicine. I then became a guest lecturer, and soon after became an adjunct instructor. Subsequently, I became the director of the same PA program where I had my first full-time foray into the world of higher education administration. After four years in that role, I was promoted to Dean of the College in which my PA program, two other PA programs, and all the healthcare training programs and related undergraduate majors for the University are housed. That’s my professional home today. It has been an amazing journey of listening, learning, and evolving.
Thankful for Shared Words of Wisdom
Throughout my journey from undergraduate to law school to PA school to becoming a Dean, I have often questioned many of my own decisions and wondered if I had “the right stuff” to be excellent at whatever job I was assigned. That was particularly true when I became a Dean, given that my pathway was not the traditional ascension from the ranks of full-time faculty. Instead, I moved from a full-time medical practice into the Program Director/administrator position then into the Dean role. Because of my atypical trajectory, I am eternally grateful to have met others who acted as a mentor and/or an advocate for me as I was finding my way in such challenging leadership positions.
While there were many such colleagues, one comes to mind more vividly than others. He was my prior supervisor (actually, my supervisor’s supervisor). He had achieved a great deal in his decades in higher education and was always willing to share lessons learned and impart words of advice and wisdom when I encountered new and challenging issues. I recall key conversations when he would comment on my past words or actions and connect them to a future I had never envisioned for myself: being a Dean. I remember moments of advice and insight that allowed me to view situations through eyes and experiences more battle-tested than my own. And I remember his encouragement and coaching about how to face the difficult moments head-on – because, as he said, there would be many of them. He saw and heard something in me that I had not noticed in myself. That support was pivotal for me because it gave me the courage to wonder “what if.” What if I could achieve more than I already have? What if I could make a greater difference than I already have? What if I could create pathways for people like me, with dormant seeds of leadership that just need to be watered and nurtured to bloom? It’s one thing to ask yourself those kinds of questions; but it is a wholly different thing to have people in your life who help you answer them. As I look back on those years, I am so grateful for the mentorship, the leadership, the encouragement to envision a pathway larger than the boundaries of my limited past experiences.
Paying it Forward
In my years as Dean, I have had the opportunity to supervise several graduate and undergraduate programs. As anyone in higher education these days is aware, we are in the midst of trying times. Resources are often stretched, team morale sometimes wanes, and a culture of collaboration and caring can seem like a fairy tale. As a leader, I often recall the moments that benefitted me most as a mentee when I encountered those situations, and I actively endeavor to extend mentorship and support to members of my teams when they encounter those times. From words of advice in difficult situations, to lending an empathetic ear when a colleague just needs to feel heard, to helping devise action plans to address challenging situations, I see my role as a mentor and leader as one with a duty to serve the needs of those whom I lead. I must admit that the ability to do so has not come easy—not for lack of want, but for lack of know-how. Leadership is, in some ways, a learned skill that takes years and years to perfect. I am thankful to have had such a strong example in the mentor I described above. I have committed to learning about and developing my own leadership style to be one that represents my innate self (which represents who I inherently am) and my learned skills (which represents who I am choosing to be)—one who is attentive to the concerns of my teams, empathizes with them, and nurtures them to develop their full capacities. I received that kind of mentorship, so I know firsthand that it can make all the difference in the world.