Departments aim to structure, formalize faculty mentoring

A survey of junior faculty members’ opinions on the mentoring — or lack thereof — they receive from senior faculty at the University is accelerating efforts to formalize the mentoring process.

In a survey published this month by the Provost’s Office, 58 percent of junior faculty members said they do not feel they have received adequate mentoring at Yale. The survey, which was conducted during the last academic year, points to significant inequities among junior faculty members when it comes to their mentoring experiences, with women and underrepresented minorities reporting the lowest satisfaction levels.

Fifty percent of junior faculty members reported that a mentor had reviewed their work in the last two years, while just over half of senior faculty members reported being a mentor to a junior colleague in the year prior to the survey.

Administrators said the new system of tenure and appointments, implemented last year, and the renewed emphasis it places on the University’s junior faculty will give them the chance to revamp mentoring at Yale. Touting formalization of the mentoring process as the best solution for current inequities and dissatisfaction, deans Jon Butler of the Graduate School and Peter Salovey of Yale College are asking University departments to instate mentoring plans rather than relying on a system of informal mentoring, which women and URM faculty members said often unfairly favors white male professors. Current unstructured mentoring practices include informal conversations and rare appointments, faculty members said.

“Especially with our new tenure system, we need to invest in the careers of non-tenured faculty and … provide guidance and support so they are competitive for tenure,” Salovey said. “The absence of such mentoring tends to be a source of dissatisfaction.”

“[The survey results] really express the views of our faculty about the old system,” Butler said. “Most non-tenured faculty members were not pleased about the old system. It’s our task to see that that doesn’t happen again.”

From the deans to the

departments

Academic departments at Yale are already heeding the deans’ advice, holding meetings and brainstorming new methods of mentoring that ensure each junior faculty member is, at the very least, paired with a senior professor whose work relates to their own.

Last fall, the history department convened a mentoring committee, which committee member and professor Lillian Guerra said made a “radical set” of recommendations preempting the results of the survey. The committee’s report proposed having a colloquium of professors who would read junior professors’ work and give feedback in the presence of the author. But after being approved by the department and the University administration last semester, Guerra said, the proposal has stalled because administrators have not yet allocated a budget for the program.

“Having people in your own department review your work as it’s being processed and you’re doing it is very rare,” Guerra said. “I think it’s probably true of all of us that we don’t get feedback on our work, and we need it. Until very recently I’ve never had one of my colleagues read anything I’ve written.”

Guerra added that most of the significant reviews of her work by senior faculty at Yale have come during the departmental faculty evaluation process, which she said are helpful but do not come in the process of the actual writing, only afterward.

History Department chair Laura Engelstein said the department has “intensified” its mentoring plans beginning with the fall committee, instating regular meetings for junior faculty with senior faculty and the department chair. Next year, she said, the department plans to hold seminars on book publication for interested junior faculty.

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department chairman John Darnell said his department is currently working out its new mentoring policy.

Butler said virtually all the academic departments have responded positively to his and Salovey’s request. All eight professors across six departments contacted by the News said their departments were either actively developing a formal mentoring program or had done so in the last few years. Butler said the administration is unwilling to issue broad edicts regarding the kind of mentoring program a department should instate, because mentoring is best designed at a departmental level.

“It’s not something that can be put down in a kind of one-size-fits-all program,” he said.

Informal exclusion

The issue of mentoring is largely intertwined with the issue of gender and minority equity in the junior-faculty ranks. The survey found there are significant discrepancies between women and minority junior faculty members’ experiences with mentoring, compared with the experiences of their white male counterparts. Less than 30 percent of women feel they have been adequately mentored, compared with over 50 percent of men. Under one-quarter of underrepresented minority faculty feel they have been adequately mentored compared with almost half of non-URM faculty.

A push for formalized mentoring, administrators and professors say, will hold senior faculty members accountable to their younger minority and female colleagues in a way they never have been before.

Informal mentoring systems, anthropology professor Kamari Clarke explained, often favor white male junior faculty members because they may have more personal experience with the academic world, or may identify more with those in senior administrative positions, who also tend to be male and white.

“The older establishment might already privilege those who are part of a sort of ‘old boys network’ more than minorities,” Clarke said. “That’s not to say people are intentionally excluding. It’s hard to regulate these informal channels.”

The experience of other professors suggests informal mentoring may not be adequate even for non-minority faculty members. Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology professor Frank Slack, for example, said the informal mentoring he received when he first came to the University in 2000, which constituted most of the mentoring he received at the beginning of his career at Yale, was “not stellar in any way.”

“We would meet and talk to senior faculty over lunch, or talk to senior faculty in the corridors or in the elevators or, sometimes, in their offices,” Slack said. “I don’t think that really substitutes for having a more formal process where you meet on a regular basis with a senior faculty member and get feedback.”

But one professor said a focus on formal mentoring may stifle junior faculty members whose research is unconventional. Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor Eckart Frahm, who said he is happy with the informal mentoring he received since his arrival at Yale in 2002, said formalized mentoring could prescribe a set of expectations, which junior professors will then feel they need to fulfill to be viable tenure candidates.

“At a certain point as a scholar you have to be independent,” Frahm said. “This is the risk I see if you formalize mentoring too much.”

And history, African American studies and American studies professor Jonathan Holloway said all three of his departments were attuned to his needs as a minority faculty member.

“I’ve always felt that I enjoyed a great amount of support and access to informal networking,” he said.

‘An opportunity’ for change

The faculty survey is not the only reason for the new focus on mentoring. Administrators said last spring’s unanimous faculty vote to change the tenure system to one more resembling the tenure-track system of other schools presents an opportunity for a renewed focus on mentoring, which Butler said is crucial to any tenure-promotion system.

“We’ve known for years that we need to deal with mentoring,” he said. “The issue’s been around for altogether too long. Now we have an opportunity to grapple with it.”

Under the former tenure system, internal promotion to tenure of junior faculty members was rare in part because when a professor came up for tenure, a nation-wide open search was conducted for the senior position. Now, junior faculty members are considered individually and budgetary constraints are not considered when evaluating a candidate for tenure.

Over 70 percent of junior faculty members said in the survey they were dissatisfied with the old tenure system.

Slack, who was granted tenure last December under the new system, said his department has improved its mentoring program in the last five years. Currently, each junior MCDB professor is assigned at least two senior faculty members who mentor him or her on research and teaching. Slack said the department’s new system was instrumental in his own approval for tenure.

Butler said a new junior faculty-focused tenure system represents a prime moment for an overhaul of faculty mentoring because, for the first time, every junior faculty member has a reasonable shot at getting tenure. Administrators’ evaluations of the departments’ mentoring plans could take several years, he said.

“But it’s very important that we follow through on that,” Butler said. “We in the administration have an obligation to engage in that follow-through. We don’t want something to begin and then wither.”

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