Dear Ms. Scholar, I am worried about the new faculty in my department and want them to be happy. I want them willing to stay here and be productive members of our department. Any suggestions?
Dear Mentor, The university is a strange beast. Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said:
“Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
This apt description of university life is perhaps more accurately attributed to William Sayre; regardless, Ms. Scholar believes we can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. We can approach university life from a perspective of each one for herself – or intentionally create a more supportive community for students, faculty, and staff. Those faculty who feel supported emotionally and financially are more likely to make positive contributions to their university and respect the university’s mission (Walmsley, 2016).
How can we help our new colleagues feel supported and respected and meet their professional values and goals?
Recognize new faculty members’ needs and concerns
Like first generation students, new faculty may struggle to fit in their first year. New faculty may question their competence, have a weak support system, and feel that they are the “only one” not fitting in or having difficulties in their new environment and with their new tasks. Some of these fears and concerns are normal and will subside when their fears are acknowledged.
A mentor’s listening and support can be invaluable, especially when that mentor helps the new faculty member problem solve, identify resources, network, and recognize that their problems are typical for this point in their career – and will change.
Communicate clear expectations
What are we communicating to new colleagues (and our older ones) through our words and actions? That they are where they are (fixed mindset), can get stronger (growth mindset), or don’t matter? Are we being supportive or competing with and feeling threatened by them? How might these responses influence their careers and the culture of our department?
Expectations for some parts of our job are clearly outlined, but other expectations remain unclear. Does your department expect faculty to focus on teaching, service, research, or all three? How does your department define effective teaching? What kinds of service does your department value? What kinds of publications?
Are you intentionally communicating departmental and university-wide expectations? Just as a good syllabus can help students succeed in class and in college, such intentional communications can level the playing field for new faculty and increase the probability that they will stay, be tenured, and be promoted.
Walk the walk, too
When we are mentoring well, we are also modeling the kinds of behaviors we expect. Don’t just say that good teaching is expected – put in the time and effort, too. If research is expected, engage in research yourself. Engage in meaningful service.
Ms. Scholar had people who intentionally mentored her, but she also had people across campus who she watched to consider what they did. She learned from the best – and worst – both what to do and what not to do (and still is). Help your mentee find such models.
Offer your new colleagues opportunities, especially opportunities for success. Point to grants available, suggest good committees to serve on, and ask them to join you on research projects. Invite them to dinner or university socials. Such sharing is one way of telling your colleagues that you care about their future. Such sharing creates a more supportive atmosphere in your department or college.
What makes a good mentor?
Good mentoring doesn’t just happen. Good mentors commit the time necessary for effective mentoring and are willing to devote the energy to reviewing their mentee’s work (Columbia University, 2016). They have the skills and willingness to share their understanding of university life and can help mentees develop an effective vision and goals for the future. They have the resources in teaching, research, and service to help new faculty succeed – or know where to find such resources. They can help faculty network within and outside the university. Perhaps most of all, they work from where their mentee is; listen to their mentee’s values, goals, and concerns; and frame their responses to what their mentee is ready to hear at a particular point in time.
Providing faculty members mentors, training, and a clear path for career advancement is a win/win strategy for all parties: good for the faculty member, the department, and the university. And, intentional mentoring is important for new faculty, but is arguably as important for faculty approaching tenure and promotion – and for mid-career and senior faculty considering career transitions and new directions (Columbia University, 2016).
Maybe you’re thinking that you have not been assigned a mentee. You don’t need to have been formally assigned to be an effective and appreciated mentor to a new faculty member. We can each support each other. – Ms. Scholar
Columbia University. (2016). Guide to best practices in faculty mentoring. Retrieved from https://provost.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/MentoringBestPractices.pdf
Walmsley, A. (2016). Improving the ties between faculty and administration. The EvoLLLution. Retrieved from https://evolllution.com/managing-institution/operations_efficiency/improving-the-ties-between-faculty-and-administration
If you have questions or comments/suggestions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other university-related topics, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <firstname.lastname@example.org>