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The Power of Support

At any stage in the academic ladder, mentorship not only matters; it makes a difference
COACHE gears

At every stage of one’s personal or professional development, mentorship can make a profound difference. The mark of a quality mentor, in fact, can boost a mentee’s self-esteem, expand their professional network, and influence career decision-making.

Within the landscape of higher education, the practice of mentoring is also a critical part of a pre-tenure faculty member’s success and campus assimilation, according to a white paper issued by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

As part of its “Benchmark Best Practices” series, COACHE surveyed faculty at its member institutions — more than 200 colleges and universities across the United States — about the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of mentoring both on and off campus, while also gauging the adequacy of existing support at individual schools. In follow-up interviews with leaders of institutions with the highest reported levels of faculty satisfaction, a set of best practices emerged that can serve as a blueprint for universities seeking to improve existing mentoring programs.

“At our annual Leaders’ Workshop, we’ve talked about banning the word ‘mentor,’ because it expects too much of one person,” says Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of COACHE. “Support is best when it comes from all quarters of a professor’s network — in the department, elsewhere on campus, even outside the institution — and the best mentoring policies utilize all such connections.”

Among the key recommendations:

  • Ensure mentoring for assistant and associate professors.
  • Promote the mutual benefits for mentee and mentor alike: mentees learn the ropes, collect champions and confidants, and enjoy a greater sense of “fit” within their departments. Mentors feel a greater sense of purpose, even vitality, through these relationships.
  • Mentoring should meet individuals’ needs, so make no “silver bullet” assumptions about what type of mentoring faculty will want (or even if they will want it at all). Instead, provide multiple paths to mentors on faculty’s own terms.
  • Transparency is important, especially for women and faculty of color. Therefore, written, department-sensitive guidelines help both mentors and mentees.
  • For underrepresented faculty groups, finding a mentor with a similar background can be vital to success, yet difficult to find in some disciplines. Support mentoring networks beyond the department and divisions by reaching out to other institutions (e.g. through a consortium or system).
  • If possible, reward mentors through stipends, course releases, or other avenues of recognition (examples are in Benchmark Best Practices: Appreciation & Recognition).
  • Evaluate the quality of mentoring. Both mentors and mentees should be part of the evaluative process. COACHE results can be used to frame the conversation.

In addition to offering general advice on the promotion of mentorship, the white paper cites specific programmatic examples from Christopher Newport University, Hamilton College, College of the Holy Cross, Kenyon College, Middlebury College, and Stonehill College.

Read the full COACHE benchmark report on mentoring, with examples of successful initiatives by member institutions.


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