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Why Not to Set Up a Formal New Faculty Mentoring Program

ProfHacker’s series on mentoring has already included a number of gems of advice that I wish I had been privy to as I began my academic career.  I’ve been fairly fortunate, however, to have good mentors at almost every level of my academic career, from my undergraduate days to that year “off” working two full-time jobs to graduate school to my early days as an adjunct and then as an assistant professor.  Even as a tenured faculty member and chair of my department, I have been able to rely on the advice and mentoring of other academics I trust and count on.  Throughout an academic career stretching over half my life I’ve rarely felt isolated or alone.

I mention all of this as context.  Given my long history of having helpful mentors, it is perhaps not surprising that I was particularly interested in the idea of getting junior faculty their own mentors.  One of the things I’ve considered (and some people have recommended) is a formal mentoring program where new faculty (adjunct and tenure-track) would be assigned a mentor in the department as soon as they got the job.  That mentor would help the new faculty member with the myriad issues of being an academic at a particular institution, including the expectations for teaching and courses, the nuances of annual activities reports (more ProfHacker posts coming on this topic), the often labyrinthine internal grant procedures, and generally the particular culture of the institution (encompassing both stated and unstated rules).  Such a mentor could also identify the many minefields that exist in every department and institution, lurking sometimes for decades beneath the surface waiting for an unsuspecting new faculty member to stumble into them.  A number of academic departments have such a program and it’s easy to see why.  It sounds like an excellent solution (and for many it seems to work well).

As I began to talk with colleagues at other institutions (and began to sketch out some ideas), I also started to hear concerns from people about existing formal faculty mentoring programs and received warnings about starting my own.  Most concerns ran along the following lines:

People, including academics, are sometimes not nice. In fact, some are so not nice that they make really bad mentors.  [Now, obviously a well-run mentoring program could compensate for this by not assigning bad mentors any mentees.  But that can create resentment and a work imbalance in a department.]  [[This, by the way, raises questions about how they are advising their graduate and undergraduate students…. But that sounds like a different ProfHacker post (or series).]]

The less troubling version of this concern is one in which a productive mentoring relationship doesn’t develop because the mentor doesn’t actually have much advice to offer the new faculty member, whether because of chronological and/or experience gaps, differences in personality, divergent philosophies, or perhaps because one or both have too little time or interest to cultivate such a relationship.

It’s also important to note that some new faculty members don’t want to be mentored, especially if that relationship is framed in hierarchical terms.  There are also concerns about the potential impact on tenure decisions of problems shared with a mentor.  [Again, in a good mentoring system there are ways to address these concerns, but even when they are addressed, mentees may still not feel comfortable talking with a senior faculty member about their problems.]

My point here is that having a faculty mentoring program does not necessarily mean effective mentoring is occurring (just as having undergraduate or graduate advising programs does not mean effective advising is occurring).

In the end, I decided against pushing for a formal mentoring program.  In retrospect, though I’ve been part of formalized advising programs, I realized that I went out and found most of my mentors myself (except for my grad advisor – I just got lucky there).  So why should a formal mentoring program necessarily be the way to go?

Instead, I make myself available for mentoring (or just conversation), offer advice if it’s requested (and occasionally if it’s not), and generally work to facilitate the kinds of interactions that allow new faculty to build their own supportive structures.  [This can be something as simple as pointing out the people on campus who they might talk to about parts of their academic careers:  “You’re going to apply for this specific grant?  So-and-so over in Political Science got one of those grants two years ago.  You should talk to her about how she did it.” OR “You should talk to John; he had a similar problem with a student last semester.”]  By encouraging new faculty to talk to many faculty (and staff) members, I try to make it easier for them to find their own mentors.   My sense is that organically developed mentoring relationships avoid many of the concerns discussed above.

On the other side, if you’re a new faculty member and there isn’t a formal mentoring program for faculty, don’t despair.  It doesn’t mean that people at your institution don’t want to be mentors.  Don’t be afraid to ask senior (or even recently tenured) people at your institution, or to look outside your department or school for faculty with shared interests.  [See Julie and Billie’s posts in our mentoring series for good examples of finding mentors using social media and the benefits of working on writing with fellow new faculty members.]

What have your experiences been with formal or informal methods of mentoring new faculty?  What has worked for you?  What do you recommend?

[Photo by Flickr user Lana_aka_BADGRL; Creative Commons licensed]

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