Creating a Campus Mentoring Program

Kerry Ann Rockquemore suggests six questions to ask yourself in order to create a lean and workable program.

October 12, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

I have been tasked with creating a faculty mentoring program on my campus. I’ve surveyed our various colleges about what they have in place, and they’re all over the map. While many of them do nothing (and seem uninterested in the idea), some have a mentor-matching program for new faculty, and others think mentoring is important but assume it happens organically. Based on a climate survey of our faculty members, there’s a strong desire for more and better mentoring on our campus.

We’ve had a number of faculty members who participated in your online programs and rave about them. My question is: How can I create an effective mentoring program on my campus? I don’t have unlimited time, resources or support, so I’m hoping you can describe something that I can get up and running on a lean budget.


Busy Administrator

Dear Busy Administrator,

I’m not surprised to hear that your faculty members want more and better mentoring programs in place. That’s not a concern that’s unique to your campus -- it’s a broader trend that I hear about all the time. And it’s also not uncommon for an already overwhelmed administrator to be directed to create an effective and popular program with few (or no) resources.

It’s true, we do run highly effective mentoring programs, and I’m happy to share the guiding questions we use whenever we design a new program. I hope these questions will help you to efficiently build something that will benefit faculty members on your campus. I encourage you to take an entrepreneurial (instead of academic) approach by using these questions to create a lean and workable program that you can beta test for a semester. Then collect feedback while you’re running it so that you can use that feedback to enhance your mentoring program in successive versions and share what you’ve learned with your colleagues.

Question #1: What Is Mentoring?

The most common approach to creating mentoring programs -- especially when resources are tight -- is to set up a mentor-matching program and then hope for the best. Please consider thinking outside this particular box! Mentor matches don’t work for most people, most of the time, and while mentor matching can be an optional part of your program, it cannot be the entire program if you want to meet your faculty members’ needs.

The success of our programs is rooted in the fact that we replace the guru model of mentoring with a network model of mentoring. That means we don’t use the word “mentoring.” Instead, we focus on identifying the broad range of needs that faculty members know they have and then providing concrete strategies for getting those needs met.

For example, most of the faculty members we serve need some combination of the following as they transition from graduate student to faculty member: professional development, emotional support, intellectual community, role models, accountability, sponsorship, access to opportunities and substantive feedback. It’s simply impossible for one person (via a mentor match) to meet all those needs.

Question #2: Whom Will Your Program Serve?

In addition to determining what mentoring means on your campus, you must also figure out whom, specifically, your program is designed to serve. And please, don’t say everybody!

When you try to serve everybody, you end up serving nobody well. Different groups of faculty have very different needs, so to get started, choose a specific group for your beta program. It can be tenure-track faculty, tenured faculty, underrepresented faculty, adjunct faculty, etc. It doesn’t matter whom you decide to support with this first run as long as you make a choice.

Once you target that specific group, ask a sample of them to name the most pressing problems they experience on a daily basis and what they want from a support program. You may already have that data from the climate survey that you described, but I encourage you also to have several direct conversations so that you can hear how people describe their daily reality and be aware of the specific words that they use.

For example, whenever we work with tenure-track faculty members, their primary concern is getting tenure. But once we scratch the surface and ask about their specific daily challenges, they quickly start to describe solvable problems -- like finding time to write, managing classroom issues and conflicts with their colleagues, feeling overwhelmed by service requests, and/or balancing work and family.

Question #3: What Pain Point Can Your Program Realistically Alleviate?

Our mentoring programs produce positive outcomes because we build them on the articulated needs of faculty members -- rather than organizing them around what we think they should know. We do this by helping faculty members to address immediate and pressing problems. In other words, we identify existing pain points and then present solutions in ways that make those problems solvable through new skill acquisition, peer accountability, laser coaching and self-assessment.

Given that so many faculty members have said they want more mentoring, it may seem counterintuitive to frame your program more narrowly. However, we’ve found that when we invite time-crunched faculty members to a mentoring program, the ambiguity of what they will receive makes it difficult for them to invest their most precious commodity -- their time. They’re left with the internal calculus of “Should I grade this stack of papers on my desk or schlep across campus to be ‘mentored’?”

The most pressing concerns that pretenure faculty members bring to us are: 1) struggling to find time for research and writing and 2) feeling miserable because they are working all the time. When we get highly specific about these two pain points and design a program to alleviate them, we observe different levels of participation. The fact is that there’s a differential response between “Would you like to join a mentoring program?” and “Would you like to become more productive and have better work-life balance?” The former is so generic that few people show up, while the latter is so specific and desirable that we end up with a waiting list each session.

And please don’t miss the fact that faculty members will raise a wide range of concerns, some of which are beyond the scope of mentoring. A mentoring program cannot solve structural problems -- that requires collective movements over long periods of time. An effective one focuses on solvable problems at the individual level. In other words, you want to identify the issues that are under the faculty member’s control and can be alleviated when that person learns and implements new skills. The success of the program you build on your campus will depend on your ability to discern that difference between the structural and the immediately solvable.

Question #4: What Will You Teach?

An effective program will require content. Sadly, what passes for content in many campus mentoring programs are panels of senior faculty members sharing their individual stories about how they personally navigated their own career transitions. While shared stories are helpful in creating community and opening up important conversations, anecdotes are no substitute for rigorous professional development training.

To deliver on the promise of alleviating the real pain points your faculty members are experiencing, you need to have some meat on your program. As such, you must be prepared to teach and provide a context for engaging in whatever empirically documented practices will alleviate the identified pain points.

The great news is that there are ample faculty development researchers, facilitators and trainers (both on and off your campus) who are knowledgeable about best practices and available to share them with your participants. You can bring in an expert facilitator or contact your campus-based faculty developers to deliver it, but you must provide content beyond individual stories if you want to see measurable outcomes.

Question #5: How Can You Create a Supportive Community for Experimentation?

What we know about mentor matching is that it may produce good advice, but it keeps faculty members isolated and rarely results in implementation. In other words, it’s one thing to learn a solution, and it’s a wholly different matter to experiment with that solution. What would it would look like to build a community to support faculty members in practicing what they learn, creating positive accountability structures and celebrating one another’s successes as they occur?

There are so many ways to create supportive communities! You can establish write-on-site groups or writing retreats where faculty members gather and write together. You can form accountability groups for faculty members who want to support one another in meeting weekly goals or pair up accountability buddies among peers who want to encourage each other in experimenting with new skills. These are neither expensive nor difficult to organize, support and assess.

Question #6: How Will You Measure Success?

The biggest mistake I observe when busy administrators create mentoring programs is that they don’t consider up front how they will measure whether their program is successful. Nobody seems to know what it looks like when mentoring has occurred or when it fails. And if you don’t have data, all you’re left with are anecdotes from those who had either very good or very bad experiences.

As you start building your program, I encourage you to identify how you will gauge success and what metrics you will use to measure the effectiveness of your program. If you get clear up front what you hope to achieve, you’re more likely to build a program that ensures the success of your participants and can be implemented institutionwide in the future.

I hope these six questions will help you to create an effective mentoring program on your campus in the very near future. I’m sure that readers will have additional ideas and examples to share, and I encourage that collaboration in the comments section below.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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