University at Albany

Mentoring Best Practices

A Handbook


Chapter Two: Best Practices in Mentoring for Colleges and Departments

This chapter presents deans with ideas and resources for how to foster mentoring for a whole college; and department chairs with strategies for developing and nurturing mentoring within departments.

What are best practices at the college level?

What are best practices within departments?

What are best practices at the College level?

Mentoring most effectively occurs at an institutional as well as at the department and the individual level. The dean and the college administration can play an important role in setting expectations for mentoring and for a supportive climate for junior faculty. Crucial to the success of any college-level mentoring initiative is that the leadership of the college spend time emphasizing the value of and reasons for mentoring within the college.

One key reason to support mentoring is the cost of losing a junior faculty member that the institution has spent considerable efforts to recruit. The University of Wisconsin at Madison recently estimated that it spends an average of $1.2 million in start-up costs for each new professor and that “It typically takes eight years for a professor to bring in enough research money to cover that cost…”1 A more conservative estimate of what it costs an institution to lose a faculty member includes: funds spent on advertising; person hours for the search committee; staffing costs; travel for three candidates; relocation expenses; a $50,000 start-up package; and funds and person hours spent on orientation of the new faculty member for a total of $96,000 in just the first year.2 Of course, such amounts vary by institution and even more by discipline, but effective mentoring can help a university retain its new faculty long enough to pay off significant initial investments.

A congenial climate is another benefit of effective mentoring initiatives, and one that leads to greater productivity within departments (and thus to greater departmental success). When junior faculty see clarity in expectations for tenure and promotion and feel as though their careers are genuinely being fostered by their colleagues they become more productive. Because they do not have to spend time and emotional energy second-guessing others’ motives and worrying about their own success, junior faculty in departments with positive climates can focus more readily on the real work of research, teaching and service. Senior faculty who retain a constructive influence over the direction and success of the departments that they have invested their lives in building remain more engaged, rather than spending time infighting or avoiding the important business of the college or department.

What can the dean do to foster mentoring at the college level?

The dean might sponsor a once-a-year meeting, open to all tenure-track faculty, to discuss the requirements for tenure and promotion and the tenure and promotion process. Chairs and directors should be strongly encouraged to attend so as to introduce transparency into these proceedings. Especially important for junior faculty is a view into the various audiences that will read their tenure dossier: what does a chair look for in a dossier? What will a chair ask external reviewers to consider? What does the dean see as most important in a successful bid for tenure? What do the conversations in the college and university level promotion and tenure committees focus on? What are common pitfalls—why might a candidate not receive tenure? What are best practices to prepare for the tenure review? These are all questions that should be covered in this annual meeting with the junior faculty as a whole. Because of their uncertain position, junior faculty will often press for ever more clarity, including making requests for ‘checklists’ that can tell them exactly how many and what kind of publications they should have on their CV by tenure time. Of course, such exact measures are impossible to determine, both because the conversation will comprise the realities of various disciplines, and because the tenure decision is a qualitative judgment about the whole trajectory of an early professional career. It is important to expect such requests, and critical to be prepared to explain why such checklists are not adequate to evaluate the professional arc of a 5th year faculty member’s career. Junior faculty often emerge from such discussions with a heightened sense of anxiety, but over time, with repeated discussions and solid mentoring behind them, they usually settle into productive habits that will serve them well at tenure time.

To address individual issues of particular faculty members who might have specific realities that bring with them extra challenges, the dean and associate deans should be prepared to hold meetings with groups of junior faculty who wish to speak with them about such issues. Examples might include faculty with joint appointments, faculty who conduct new or interdisciplinary research, etc.

To stress the importance of mentoring at all levels, the dean might expect of all chairs and directors to include in their annual reports a section on the mentoring efforts within the department. Mentoring should be a regular part of the conversation between the dean and chairs and directors in their annual review conversations.

In departments with very few women or minority hires, the dean might work with chairs and directors to help ensure that the climate in these departments is collegial and inclusive. The gender and race schemas that affect how women and minorities are viewed and evaluated by even well-intentioned, non-racist people are usually entirely outside their consciousness. All people, whether young or old, men or women, whites or people of color use gender and race schemas to make decisions about others. 3 Resulting patterns of unintentional underestimation of women and minorities can seriously affect the retention of highly qualified faculty members. Additionally, departmental climates of intense internal competition may be unattractive to potential hires, especially women and people of color, and thus can negatively affect the hiring of promising junior faculty members in the first place. Establishing collegial departmental climates is essential for the well-being of junior faculty and the productivity of entire departments.

The dean’s office can sponsor an annual information session on effective mentoring for new faculty members, for mentors and for chairs and directors, and offer to host occasional mentor-only and mentee-only discussions to exchange views on what resources might be needed by both mentors and mentees.

The dean’s office should compile and make available to chairs, directors and tenure-track faculty members a list of resources available on campus to improve teaching, facilitate mentoring, provide information about progress toward tenure, etc.
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What are Best Practices within Departments?

We begin this subchapter by discussing a number of general principles that will productively inform any departmental mentoring initiative. The second part of the chapter will focus on best practices.


The most obvious principle is that the whole department, including its leadership and its faculty members, accept as its responsibility to mentor junior faculty in ways that help them to reach their full potential in teaching and research and to be successful in the tenure process and beyond. Mentoring should be seen as a collaborative responsibility of all the tenured and tenure-track faculty members in a department, and a particular responsibility of the chair or director. This principle requires that the department chair spend time, like the dean at the college level, setting expectations for mentoring with senior faculty and discussing the intended benefits of instituting a mentoring initiative. As with any new initiative, there may be resistance to this idea: faculty may perceive such an initiative as a new way of imposing an increased workload, while others may argue that they made it without special mentoring programs and that “coddling” or “enabling” junior faculty is not conducive to excellence in the discipline. As we discussed in an earlier chapter, we see such an attitude as unnecessary academic hazing that wastes faculty resources and actually hinders the achievement of excellence in the discipline. Nevertheless, the chair must be prepared for such nay-saying and persist in his or her setting of expectations and support for mentoring in the department. Supportive opinion leaders in the department can serve as strong allies in this process (see chapter one, section iii: “How do I begin to build a mentoring program?”)

Mentoring must be seen as both a formal and an informal activity within the department, and one which encompasses guidance on teaching, research and service in the academy in addition to external measures of success such as in which journals one publishes.

It is important for chairs and directors to recognize that some candidates may in some contexts (e.g., women or minorities in departments/programs with very few such people, or faculty doing unusual and ground-breaking research new to the discipline) face special challenges in being fully accepted into the department/program and in receiving the kinds of informal mentoring that help their careers and make them feel comfortable. In such instances where a junior faculty member is in the extreme minority, the chair or director may wish to work with the college to find mentoring structures outside the department in addition to within it. Particular attention will need to be paid to departmental/program behavior in both formal and informal settings to ensure that the department is fully and respectfully inclusive of all faculty candidates and of the scholarly interests for which they were hired.

Finally, to maximize the impact of the mentoring initiative, department or program members need to conduct themselves in ways that mentor by example, in both formal and informal settings. The chair may need to encourage senior faculty to avoid inducting new faculty into old battles and personal arguments; use of innuendo about colleagues and unnecessary sharing of historical examples of infighting is not conducive to the junior faculty member’s well-being and professional success.

Best Practices

Even before a candidate is offered a position, the chair can foster a collegial working environment for new faculty by preparing existing faculty in the department for an effective and inclusive search process. Offering departmental colleagues and especially search committee members tools for effective recruitment practices will go a long way toward building a strong pool of applicants and ensuring that on-campus interviews are conducted smoothly, legally, and in a spirit of collegiality that will encourage promising candidates to accept an offer. Hosting potential colleagues is an important part of recruiting the best candidates. Emphasis should be given to the kinds of questions people will ask the candidate, ways of putting him or her at ease so that interviews don’t turn into interrogations, and connecting the candidate to positive and successful colleagues. Make sure the candidate has contact with any potential research partners, mentors, effective senior faculty and junior faculty peers in the course of the campus visit. The faculty the candidate meets will give him or her the sense of the climate, values and productivity of the department, and can contribute to the decision to accept an offer.

As soon as a candidate has been offered and accepts a position, the chair or director can begin to work with his/her colleagues to develop a mentoring plan for the new faculty member. The prospective faculty member should be consulted in developing this plan: including the junior faculty member in this planning ensures that his or her interests are taken into account and provides an early introduction and orientation to the ‘mentoring climate’ of the department. An effective plan includes attention to teaching, graduate supervision, and development of a research career. Ideally, this mentoring plan includes participation by several members of the department/program during the six years of the candidate’s progress towards tenure, since it is important for the junior faculty member to hear multiple perspectives and ideas about how to succeed in the department.

Prepare your faculty and the department’s students for the new hire’s arrival by alerting them to the new hire’s date of arrival on campus. Encourage faculty to extend invitations to meals or events, and discuss with them the assets and opportunities the new faculty member brings to the department. Introduce and warmly promote the new faculty member to students at the beginning of the semester. Make sure that the new faculty member has the information and resources necessary for survival, such as the keys to a functional office, a classroom tour, any materials such as faculty handbooks and guidelines for reappointment, tenure and promotion, etc.

Develop procedures for choosing mentors and then provide mentors with guidelines on how to communicate expectations for tenure in the department. Ideally there will be written expectations, but even in the absence of such documents, regular discussions with junior and senior faculty on effective communication, successful mentoring strategies, and challenges mentors and mentees are likely to encounter will help ensure a smooth process for the junior faculty member.

Departments and programs that work to develop a “climate of mentoring” in which all members of the department spontaneously and informally mentor their new colleagues are of course most effective. Regular collegial conversations about the intellectual concerns of the department are one of the best modes of informal mentoring. The chair can encourage such conversations by ensuring the existence of departmental colloquia and seminars, and ensuring that new faculty members are included as both audience and presenters.

Provide junior faculty with information about any mentoring being made available to them either by the department, the college or the university. Encourage new faculty to choose multiple mentors, both from within and outside the department and to be proactive in their mentoring relationships. Encourage both peer mentoring and networking with senior researchers in the department, across the university and nationally.

To maintain transparency and increase the chances of forestalling any nascent problems a junior faculty member may be having, give tenure-track faculty the opportunity at least once a year to formally review their teaching and research in relation to their progress towards tenure. These reviews are most useful when conducted in a constructive and diagnostic manner, that is: without predicting success in the tenure process, they address areas of strength and areas for improvement in the faculty member’s teaching, research and service. Importantly, by the end of the meeting, the chair should be able to make concrete suggestions about appropriate goals and strategies for improvement. Depending on the intended role of the mentor as designed into the mentoring initiative, departmental mentoring guidelines and the departmental tenure and promotion process, it may be useful to include an assigned mentor in this conversation. If the mentor is included in the conversation, the chair and the mentor should agree on what will be communicated in writing to the candidate after the meeting. At all times, the chair needs to communicate clearly the requirements for tenure and suggest ways to meet these requirements given the documentation the candidate has presented for this discussion.

Review the candidate’s work assignments carefully to ensure that the junior faculty member is not being unduly burdened by an excessive number of new course preparations, large classes, or demanding service assignments. This is not to say, however, that junior faculty should never be given such assignments. Junior faculty members need the opportunity to meet and teach the undergraduates as well as the graduates in the department, and to learn about departmental and institutional culture by being given carefully chosen service assignments.

Junior faculty members who are given the opportunity to teach in the area(s) of their research at the senior undergraduate and graduate levels during their first five years are often most successful because they can document the progress they have made in their teaching with various student populations in the department. Offering them such opportunities also may ensure a healthy connection between research and teaching that can help junior faculty balance their career more strategically.

Formal contract renewal guidelines are key opportunities to communicate expectations to both junior and senior faculty members. As part of the contract renewal process, departments can assign a committee of mentors/reviewers which includes the chair and senior faculty from the department, and which assesses the progress of junior faculty as they work toward tenure. This committee can review the candidate’s dossier at contract renewal, and help frame the information that is shared with the candidate on how he or she is performing and what might be improved before going up for tenure.

Because interdisciplinary projects are increasingly recognized as ways to foster cutting-edge disciplinary discoveries, chairs need to think about how best to support collaborative teaching and research activities that connect their junior faculty members with others across the campus and beyond the narrow discipline in which they work. Interdisciplinary research projects, team-teaching, and interdisciplinary teaching efforts on the part of junior faculty have intrinsic value, but such collaborative work is also itself a form of and opportunity for mentoring. It will be important for the chair to find mechanisms to ensure that interdisciplinary research and teaching is given full credit in annual reviews, at contract renewal and at tenure and promotion.

In the case of joint appointments, special care must be taken to communicate expectations clearly to both the senior faculty evaluating a tenure file and to the junior faculty who carries a joint appointment. The two chairs or directors need to agree at the moment of appointment how the candidate will be reviewed annually, at contract renewal and at tenure time. This agreement should be set down in writing, with the candidate given a copy of the document upon arrival on campus. Ideally, such a document would also be filed with the person in charge of the tenure and promotion process at the college level. The chairs should meet together with the candidate rather than separately, to ensure that their respective advice to the candidate is consistent. The chairs need to review their respective requirements of the candidate each year to ensure that they are not, together, demanding too much of one person. Particular attention should be paid to teaching and service requirements to make sure that candidate is not doing “double duty” in teaching large introductory lectures or committee and advising assignments.

Provide opportunities for new faculty to attend workshops on time management, effective communication, teaching, publishing and grant-writing. Chairs should be prepared to work with the Institute on Teaching, Learning and Institutional Leadership (ITLAL) to help new faculty take full advantage of the support for successful teaching and leadership development that it offers. Chairs might co-sponsor workshops with other units and ITLAL, and should ensure that junior faculty members are fully aware of extra-departmental/program opportunities offered by ITLAL and other faculty development units at UAlbany.

Ensure positive communication habits by cautioning new faculty about “negative networking” such as gossiping, and address negative or hostile comments or actions toward the junior faculty immediately. Do not wait to address negative communications, hoping the situation will go away.

Finally, give faculty mentors in the department the opportunity to meet occasionally, but regularly to discuss problems and strategies in mentoring, to share their knowledge of the mentoring process and to communicate any needed resources for either mentors or mentees. Mentoring junior faculty can be an isolating experience if mentors never get the chance to discuss successes and challenges with their peers. Of course, such a conversation must take care not to violate the confidentiality of the mentoring partners’ conversations, while still allowing mentors to brainstorm solutions to challenging situations.
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1 “Wisconsin's Flagship Is Raided for Scholars,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 18, 2008, p. A19
2 COACHE is Harvard’s “Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher education
3 Valian, Virginia, Why so Slow? The Advancement of Women, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1998

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