The opportunity to serve as a mentor to faculty is one of the elements of my work as a full-time academic administrator that sustains me. My trajectory within the academy, as well as in my life, has been deeply influenced by the wisdom of both traditional and peer mentors. The chance to share the lessons I have learned with others is a gift. I am a firm believer in the potential of mentoring if it is properly done. One of the reasons that mentoring has been shown to be useful is that a commonality of experiences and circumstances helps the mentor provide good advice and counsel to the mentee.
Today, however, there are indications that it will not be effective to simply replicate the kind of mentoring that was so powerful for me and other academic leaders. The professoriate today is in many ways very different than it was when many of us in academic leadership positions rose in rank. While those in the upper ranks of today’s colleges and universities remain very much like they were thirty years ago (with the exception that there is now more gender parity), the ranks of the emerging professoriate are beginning to better reflect the population of the United States as a whole. There are increasing numbers of new faculty from historically under-represented communities (e.g. first generation, faculty of color, differently abled, veterans, etc.). Higher education itself is also very different than it was just twenty-five years ago: there are fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs and institutions are using a variety of methods to handle the long-term financial uncertainties of our industry by utilizing non-tenure track and adjunct positions. Last but not least, there are clear differences emerging in society as a whole between the millennial generation and earlier generations. Their approach to work and life is as sharp a contrast with Baby Boomers and Gen Xs as the Baby Boomers approach was to the “Greatest Generation.” It is very hard and humbling for academic leaders and potential mentors to understand, but neither new faculty nor their challenges and opportunities are the same as ours. How, then, are we to orient, engage, and mentor all of our new colleagues to success?
I facilitated three different roundtables at the 2019 Dean’s Institute in Atlanta in which I laid out the forces noted above and then engaged participants around the following set of questions:
- How do you mentor new faculty (tenure-track or non-tenure-track) toward success?
- What are both new and proven ways to orient and mentor faculty as they begin their careers?
- How are the on-going changes in the professoriate (more diversity, millennials, fewer tenure track hires, etc.) changing how we orient, engage, and mentor new colleagues?
It was clear to almost all participants that the old model of a faculty mentor no longer works. The specifics of my experience as a new tenure-track faculty member in need of mentoring was probably not that different than many others reading this paper. A mentor, in the form of a sage senior male colleague in my department, was assigned to me. He took me out to coffee a couple of times in my first few years as a faculty member. He listened, gave context on the history of why things were the way they were, and assumed my academic life trajectory would be the same as his. As the child and grandchild of academics, I already had some knowledge of academic lingo and norms. My colleagues who were first generation did not have this advantage; those who were adjunct, were not given any mentoring.
In place of this mentoring model, the following emerging practices and common themes were noted and embraced.
Offering mentors to both tenure-track and adjunct faculty is vitally important
With adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty teaching larger numbers of classes at all types of institutions, we must put the same intentionality into supporting their teaching skills and membership in our communities as we do tenure-track faculty. Today’s tenure-track may be tomorrow’s adjunct, and vice versa, so it is ethically sound to provide the same support to both.
Mentors need help and support
Many of the academic leaders who participated talked about the ways in which they were just as focused on supporting mentors’ success. This support ranges from providing clear guidelines and expectations, a syllabus of what to discuss with new faculty, and professional development around implicit bias in the academy and/or the challenges facing today’s adjuncts. One small institution provides a coffee group for mentors to talk about what they are learning and what is challenging them in their mentoring efforts. One regional comprehensive institution provides a set of readings for mentor candidates to discuss during the year before they become mentors.
Everyone benefits from multiple mentors
One of the methods that several participants noted being successful was moving away from the model of a single mentor capable of providing sage advice on teaching, research, and service. Increasing numbers of institutions are providing new faculty with two or sometimes three mentors. There are multiple versions of this approach. One divides mentoring along the traditional lines of teaching, research, and service. In this case, there is a teaching mentor who visits classes, talks with new faculty about pedagogical challenges, and is genuinely excited in helping develop teaching skills. There is a scholarship mentor who may actually know the field the new faculty member is in, can comment thoughtfully on grant proposals and chapter drafts, and is interested in helping the new faculty member complete research. In a few cases, there is also a mentor who provides advice on service. None of these mentors need to be in the home department or unit.
Another version of this multiple-mentor approach provides a mentor inside the home department and another from the broader institution. In this case, the mentors provide multiple perspectives for the new faculty member as they negotiate the path toward tenure and promotion. There are two further versions of this multiple-mentor trend. One is to pair the new faculty member with someone who is at the traditional point in their academic life cycle where mentoring becomes most common (late Associate or Full Professor) with someone who has been at the institution for only a couple of years longer than the new faculty member. This variation allows the new faculty member to have the benefit of someone with deep institutional knowledge—the traditional academic elder—as well as someone who is a near peer who has just recently traversed the same challenges. The second version of this is to bring new faculty together as a cohort and encourage them to intentionally mentor and support each other through the process.
Selecting one’s own mentor and the focus of the mentoring are key
The opportunity to curate or choose one’s own mentors is increasingly popular. Part of the reason this works is that Millennials have had richer orientation, mentoring, and advising experiences throughout their lives and are savvy to what mentors can offer them. Millennials have higher expectations of mentoring relationships than previous generations. The choice involved in picking the mentor and the emphasis of the mentoring builds off of the Millennial generation’s interest in curating their own lives and experiences. Most importantly, this allows faculty from under-represented communities to find senior colleagues at Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) who have walked the same path.
Mentors do not have to be from the host institution
It is imperative that institutions work to provide support for new faculty from historically under-represented communities (particularly faculty of color at PWIs) and recognize the additional cultural taxation they face. The experience of being the only faculty member of color, or one of only a few, occurs at multiple kinds of institutions and is profoundly alienating. Having faculty of color from outside the home institution who can help support and mentor the new faculty member is incredibly important. In such cases, many institutions with resources turn to helpful organizations like the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development (NCFDD). PWIs with less resources have turned to peer or neighboring institutions to intentionally provide necessary networks of support. While resource constraints are real, they can and must be addressed if we want to hold onto our next generation of faculty. It is also important to provide some of that mentoring support through intentional community connections outside our institutions. At my own institution, we intentionally link our new faculty with a myriad of community members from diverse backgrounds, even before the official orientation begins. These community members have a richer perspective of everything from schools, to where to shop, to what faith institutions cater to which parts of our community.
Mentoring needs to be inclusive
“They just have not been mentored well” is a simple but incorrect cliché regarding new faculty voiced by veteran faculty members after the new faculty member unwittingly missteps with regard to some long-standing institutional cultural practice. The goals of the current generation are not the same as those of us who came before, and we need to honor that fact. Those who end up at small liberal arts colleges want to do research and those who end up at large research institutions want to keep growing as teachers. Work-life balance, living away from campus, and complicated two-career lives are the norm. As we mentor this next generation, we need to provide them with space to succeed in this academic life on their own terms. The best example of this I can think of is what happened on my campus during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings in the fall of 2018. Unlike the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearing when I was starting out, my new faculty wanted to talk with me about how the Kavanugh hearing affected them. There was nothing wrong and everything emotionally right about that desire to talk it out, but we never would have done that twenty-five years ago. Even now, someone might say that my new faculty’s willingness to share their responses to the Kavanaugh hearings was because they were not mentored well on what is acceptable to discuss with their provost or dean.
Mentoring is a two-way relationship
The old model of mentoring in which the sage shares wisdom with the acolyte is gone. Mentoring relationships in which the colleagues mentor each other are more powerful. The classic example of this is the newer faculty member mentoring the more experienced faculty member on technological possibilities in the classroom, while the more experienced faculty member provides advice on the hidden codes of academia. A variant on this is the importance of letting the mentee lead. To paraphrase one participant, “You let them take the lead in the area where you mentor them. A mentor does not draw the way, but energizes, provides assurance, provides the occasional kick or pick-up, and stands back when a goal is achieved.”
In conclusion, it should be noted that mentoring is not the answer to everything. As higher education institutions grapple with the challenges we face today, there is a tendency to look for individualistic solutions, such as better mentoring, to resolve problems. However, some of the challenges our new professoriate face require broader policy and cultural change. It’s our responsibility as academic leaders to push and pull our institutions toward those changes. If we rely solely on mentoring, we may miss our opportunity to develop institutions that will support the next generation of the professoriate.