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Staying Power: Make Sure Mentoring for New Faculty Has Lasting Effects
August 2016: It’s a humid evening the week before classes begin at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), a teaching-focused, public honors college in the rural southern Chesapeake region, and the new tenure-track and full-time visiting faculty are in our colleague’s backyard nervously milling around the appetizers. As the associate dean of faculty, I’ve spent a few days getting to know this group at New Faculty Orientation panels. I suppress my impulse to swoop in and make introductions, watching as the tenured and nearly tenured faculty begin circulating to shake hands and chat. By design, no one is wearing name tags, a departure from the rest of the week’s programming to encourage people to seek out the other members of their preassigned cohort. Soon, the volleys of friendly pointing and bashful waves confirm that the group has sorted itself into clusters of four, each with a pair of new and a pair of established professors. This is the launch of the Faculty Mentoring Cohort (FMC), our pilot program designed to bolster new faculty retention.
Fast-forward to today: Now in its fifth year, the FMC has shown positive effects, as measured by retention to the third-year pre-tenure review, our initial benchmark for tenure-track faculty. In a comparison between the FMC program and the prior “one mentor/one mentee” program, retention of faculty to the pre-tenure review improved by 11 percentage points among the twenty-six faculty members hired in 2016 or 2017. SMCM is a predominantly White institution, and efforts toward increasing faculty diversity have also been promising: 100 percent (all seven) of newly hired faculty of color were retained from the fall 2016 and 2017 cohorts. As SMCM strategizes to support our increasingly diverse student body, the retention of faculty from marginalized groups is central to our initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Before the 2016 pilot, our longstanding mentoring program for new faculty consisted of pairing one mentor with one mentee. While some senior faculty volunteered annually, the program lacked meaningful institutional backing, and mentors often felt undervalued and unsure about expectations. They had little incentive to adhere to a meeting schedule with their mentee and faced no consequences if the meetings were abandoned altogether (a frequent outcome).
The shift to a cohort mentoring model began with a desire for a more sustainable format; a group of four builds in greater internal accountability, and if one member can’t make a meeting, the rest of the group can still carry on a rich discussion. Instead of relying on chance for good chemistry between a mentee and an assigned senior colleague, the FMC matches two established faculty members with two newly hired instructors to create between five and eight cohorts that meet for informal hourlong discussions each month, scheduled at the group’s convenience (my office sponsors campus dining hall meal tickets twice per semester for cohorts that prefer to meet over lunch). By creating teams that have both peers and mentors, the FMC widens the conversation regarding pedagogical and professional expertise and lessens the pressures of the one-on-one model—the pressure for the mentor to always deliver superb professional advice and the pressure for the mentee to unquestioningly accept it.
The FMC works in concert with other professional development programming; in addition to workshops available from our Center for Inclusive Teaching and Learning, a series of optional monthly seminars for new faculty covers subjects from time management to building an evaluation file. By contrast, beyond the initial welcome meeting, the FMC cohort meetings do not have assigned topics. At the beginning of the year, conversations tend to focus on classroom issues: recalibrating a syllabus that’s taken on too much material too quickly; devising a group project that effectively engages neurodiverse students; determining how much reading is appropriate for honors students. The participants compare approaches, and perhaps most significantly, contribute without regard to rank. As the year progresses, meetings might tackle other concerns, such as applying for an internal research grant or buying a house in the area.
The FMC offers a mentoring model that actively addresses mentees’ needs and pursues them with a more collective approach than many one-mentor-one-mentee programs. For example, frequent FMC mentor José Ballesteros, a professor of Spanish and the director of equity programming at SMCM, observes that his own graduate school experience offered little preparation for a professional life in the academy. Moreover, his most important mentoring relationship as a new faculty member was with his department chair. Programmatic needs took precedence over Ballesteros’s professional well-being, and the chair’s opinions, preferences, and occasional personal grievances shaped their conversations. The power dynamics were also increasingly intrusive. The one-on-one model “creates an additional burden where the mentee has to walk a tightrope between being guarded or openly vulnerable,” Ballesteros says.
Likewise, Angela Johnson, a professor of educational studies, recalls that her own faculty mentor was too busy with the demands of his own career to offer her much structured support. “There was no accountability for him when I didn’t push for mentoring,” she says. “We didn’t do the kind of collaborative problem solving that the four-person cohorts allow.”
As a mentor, Ballesteros acknowledges that he felt some initial resistance to the new cohort model in which he’d be working with another mentor. But the presence of a second mentor in the cohort relieved the pressure to play the role of the expert and instead created a dynamic in which four colleagues could have a genuine conversation. “Having more professionals in the room made me more thoughtful with what I said and how I acted,” he says. “I didn’t feel inhibited, but I also didn’t feel that part of my duties were to get on a soap box.”
While the cohorts largely manage themselves once the FMC launches each fall, I schedule time during the summer for setting up the new year. In mid-July, I send out the call for faculty mentors; once SMCM finalizes its hiring of all new full-time faculty in early August, I randomly assign the new hires and the mentors to cohorts to avoid unconscious bias. Afterward, each cohort is adjusted as needed according to the following guidelines:
• All four members should be from different academic departments to promote a wider campus network and to allow for frank discussion at a distance from their more immediate colleagues.
• Within the cohort, mentor-mentee pairings from analogous fields—two disciplines within science, technology, engineering, and math, for example—are helpful for discussing research expectations, classroom strategies, and other topics (although such pairings don’t suggest that they’re intended to work separately from other cohort members).
• Full-time visitors just out of a doctoral program often face different issues than their new tenure-track peers. Consequently, the visitors are grouped together and are matched with at least one faculty member with recent experience at SMCM or elsewhere as a visiting instructor. Their meetings frequently address balancing teaching with their ongoing job searches, as well as common classroom issues. On principle, SMCM works to extend professional development to all faculty, whether visiting or permanent. We’ve also found that the mentoring support for visitors leads to a better learning experience for our students.
• As is often the case, marginalized groups bear the burden of serving as de facto mentors for newcomers from similar backgrounds, a “cultural tax” not shared by nonmarginalized colleagues. We explicitly acknowledge that while we hope to arrange cohorts for mentees with mentors of similar backgrounds, this service on the part of women and faculty of color should be recognized as an option, not an expectation.
New faculty cite the immediate benefit of expanding their social circle on campus through the FMC, with three colleagues who are not just new to them but who are also each in a different department. New faculty also find it helpful to discover that they and their colleagues are often dealing with similar issues in their professional lives. “There’s a lot of transition from grad school/post docs to a teaching institution,” says Gina Fernandez, an assistant professor of psychology and a 2017 mentee, “and to know that my tenured colleagues were grappling with the same issues as I was made me feel less ‘impostery.’ ”
Argelia González Hurtado, an assistant professor of Spanish, was another 2017 FMC mentee. SMCM was her first experience at a predominantly White institution, a situation made additionally complex for her as a Mexican living in the United States for the first time. González Hurtado says that the conversations she had with her FMC cohort were invaluable to acclimate her to the American system of higher education. However, she noted that SMCM’s diversity initiatives have not yet produced a substantial pool of faculty of color. And as White Americans, her cohort’s two mentors couldn’t identify with the cultural and identity boundaries she was attempting to cross. They did, however, help her build a network of personal and academic connections. “So, thanks to this,” she says, “the anxiety decreased a little over time. My mentors and department colleagues helped me to address functional, day-to-day issues, such as understanding the health system, financial institutions, finding the better places to buy food, and the layout of the area.”
When asked about the lasting impact of her FMC participation, Jessica Malisch, a 2016 mentee then on the biology faculty, explains that she was able to cross-check her growing understanding of campus workings with a fellow new hire and to get a broader perspective from the continuing faculty. Her cohort also persisted as a personal and professional resource long after her program ended, resulting in collaborations, projects, and grants.
FMC’s continued success not only signals the expectation that all junior faculty will receive thoughtful, sustained professional support but also provides a model for collaborative mentoring outside the context of the FMC, including mentoring students. In 2019, Malisch received the Council on Undergraduate Research Biology Division’s early-career Mentor Award for her work supervising undergraduate research students.
Even as SMCM builds on its inclusive hiring practices, we know the work of retaining faculty from a variety of backgrounds is equally critical; faculty provide many of the same functions for their students that the FMC offers them, beginning with a sense of belonging.
Dave Kung, a math professor at SMCM, has served as a mentor with the FMC since its inception. As the principal investigator for our 2010–13 Emerging Scholars Program–Research Experience for Undergraduates, a National Science Foundation–funded summer research experience primarily for members of underrepresented groups early in their college careers, Kung researched questions of equity in STEM. He likens his experience living abroad in Shanghai to what it might be like when students of color first discover they’re taking a class with a professor who looks like them. “Meeting another American expat was an experience of whole-body relief,” he says. “I immediately knew we would have significant cultural and linguistic understanding, that I wouldn’t have to do so much mental and emotional work to communicate, to decipher, to understand, to not offend.”
Junior and psychology major Jasmine Player echoes this thought. While race isn’t the only factor in connecting with a professor, Player says, and while she enjoys rewarding relationships with some White faculty, “it’s not on the same level, and it’s not with the same comfort.”
SMCM students of color whom I spoke with reference the importance of shared experience with faculty from similar racial backgrounds. Because of the emotional labor that can come with facilitating that shared experience, the campus presence of a proactive Division of Inclusive Diversity, Equity, Access, and Accountability helps offset the pressures on faculty of color by providing other venues of support and guidance for diverse students.
Fernandez’s former advisee, Ruby Taylor, who graduated in May 2021, sees particular value in having faculty of color as mentors, a context in which students can begin to see themselves in a comparable role. Public policy major Jahmoni Bartee, who also graduated in May, describes how Assistant Professor (and 2017 mentee) Janna Thompson’s educational studies classes helped her navigate being an undergraduate at a predominantly White institution. “To be able to go to someone that can sympathize with your experiences makes you feel valued,” Bartee says.
When Player first visited SMCM, she fell in love with the waterfront campus and the warmth of the students and faculty. A successful high school student from an urban charter school of predominantly African American students and faculty, she was clear-eyed about the culture shift to a rural predominantly White institution. When she experienced some of the emotional challenges common to first-year students, Thompson referred her to a much sought-after African American academic counselor in the Office of Student Support Services. Conversations with the counselor introduced Player to new social connections via the Black Student Union (BSU), which ultimately led to a highlight of her first year: she was chosen to read a poem at an event honoring Elizabeth Barber Walker, SMCM’s first African American graduate.
The institutional benefit of retaining faculty of color, Player says, is not about shielding students of color from the experience of attending a predominantly White institution. In meeting faculty of color, Player says, “I actually branched out, I didn’t even just stay in BSU—BSU took me to another thing, and that took me [somewhere else] from there.”
In these telescoping accounts of SMCM faculty and students, collaborative mentoring invites student and faculty mentees to ask, “How do I envision myself as a part of this institution?” This is staying power: when the mentee has the resources and the agency to build a meaningful campus presence.
After numerous modifications to the FMC, five core guidelines have emerged that remain central to its success.
1. New faculty mentoring has been extended from two to three semesters for tenure-track cohorts. New instructors report that, initially, they are often too overwhelmed to process in-depth professional advice and look to the monthly cohort meetings for psychosocial support. By the end of year one, however, the mentees have gotten their footing. With an additional semester of meetings, tenure-track mentees return in their second year with more focused questions, eager to talk through longer-term professional development issues in their cohort meetings.
Mentors have found the three-semester format a manageable time commitment and have reported greater satisfaction with their mentoring experience. The downtime during the spring semester of year two before deciding whether to participate again has mitigated much of the mentor burnout reported under the previous model.
2. Monthly topics are mentee-driven, mirroring the shift to learning-centered approaches in higher education. To foster trust and cohesion, the first meeting icebreaker is a conversation on meeting expectations. Beyond this initial session, a discussion idea is circulated monthly (broadly related to teaching, research, and eventually the pre-tenure review), but cohorts have no obligation to adhere to those topics. Mentors are instead encouraged to defer to mentees’ interests.
If the goal of mentoring is to provide support that will facilitate professional success, then a large part of the process is adapting those resources to the individual needs of each new colleague. Past one-size-fits-all “New Faculty 101” sessions ended up being both unengaging and inequitable in the ways such sessions assumed a homogenous professoriate. Thompson, for instance, had extensive teaching experience in both K–12 and adjunct higher education courses before her appointment to a tenure-track position. Her professional development needs in year one at SMCM were distinctly different from new SMCM faculty hired straight out of graduate school. “I didn’t have the experiences or mentoring in research that many of my colleagues had during their graduate education,” she explains. FMC mentors take into account the varying needs of new faculty, and discussion within the individual cohorts meets the mentees where they are and adapts to what serves them best.
3. Expectations are defined for all participants to clarify the scope of the cohort meetings. FMC welcome materials focus on three building blocks for new hires: professional networking, psychosocial support, and providing a confidential sounding board. New faculty are also encouraged to consult frequently with department chairs, academic administrators, mentors in their discipline, and other offices on topics that require more targeted information.
4. New faculty are pre-enrolled but may opt out. In its first years, the FMC was expected for new faculty as part of orientation programming. Feedback revealed that some new hires (the more experienced visiting instructors, in particular) found another meeting more burdensome than helpful.
We decided that a sign-up approach would be equally problematic, potentially disadvantaging new faculty who declined to participate without recognizing the institutional resources available to them. As one mentee reflected, “I had no idea what to expect [in the FMC], because as with most new jobs, you don’t know what you don’t know. These monthly lunches wound up being my lifeline to help figure things out on the fly.”
Now I contact new instructors in early August to let them know about the full array of programming available to them upon their arrival. Incoming hires are pre-enrolled in the FMC with the clarification that, like our pedagogy workshops and grant-writing seminars, the program is an opportunity and not a requirement; anyone is free to opt out before the semester begins. By positioning the FMC as an initial point of welcome for all incoming faculty, we stand the best chance to support recent hires who might otherwise feel most isolated.
5. Faculty mentoring has been reframed from “volunteer work” to valued college service. Previously, faculty mentoring had been seen as volunteer work, something you tacked on when you could make time for it. The provost reviewed the successes of the FMC’s pilot year and affirmed that mentor participation would be valued faculty service, aligned with our institutional mission of teaching excellence. Mentors now receive recognition letters from the college administration that are appropriate for inclusion in evaluation and promotion files.
That institutional shift from “good citizen” to “professional leadership” mentoring, Johnson says, was a sea change. Because she has expertise in STEM pedagogy, new faculty often ask her for advice related to their teaching. “Of course, I want to offer that,” she says, “but I don’t necessarily have the time. When I was asked to mentor two different early-career women science faculty, it was wonderful to be given official recognition for the work.”
The chaos of the pandemic and its ensuing hiring freeze brought a short hiatus to the FMC in fall 2020; the pause before we restarted the program in fall 2021 allowed for reflection on the program’s first four years.
Despite the encouraging improvements in keeping faculty long term, the FMC has, of course, not been a cure-all for faculty retention. In 2020, an excellent pre-tenure social scientist returned to clinical practice (and life in the city) before standing for the third-year review. Midway through her fifth year, Malisch accepted a position at the county health department as director of the Office of Research and Epidemiology, no longer on the tenure track but still part of our affiliated faculty. All departures sting a bit, but these disappointments have pushed me to continue the search for better retention strategies. The seventy-one mentees and their mentors who have so far participated in the FMC were surveyed at the end of the program to ask about overall satisfaction with the experience, how well the program met its core goals, and the manageability of the monthly meetings. The mentees (in particular, the tenure-track faculty) have consistently reported high satisfaction with the program. Nearly two-thirds found that the FMC performed “well” or “moderately well” in its efforts to (1) provide broad guidance relevant to professional advancement, (2) facilitate collegial connection, and (3) provide psychosocial support. Both mentees and mentors, however, noted that their cohorts struggled to find common meeting times. In the coming year, this issue may be alleviated through the option of meeting virtually.
The mentors’ feedback also frequently mentioned the unexpected benefits of participating in the FMC. Johnson recalls the first time she and an experienced colleague were paired as mentors in a cohort. In conversations with their mentees, the other mentor also gave Johnson new insights into her own path as a midcareer faculty member. “He reminded me of why I was so glad to get a job at a liberal arts college in the first place,” she says.
A winter 2020 piece in the Modern Language Association’s Profession points to a curious paradox: academics without tenure often face the difficulties of a transient career. However, newly tenured and midcareer faculty may face the emotional hurdle of imagining a stationary career, permanently rooted in one institution. In designing a program to bolster faculty retention, I had measured success exclusively in terms of retaining new hires. But the overhaul to mentoring has also generated meaningful returns for established faculty: a reinvigorated interest in new pedagogies, a more positive view of campus events, and the opportunity to shape the next phase of faculty members’ professional identities. Faculty retention has become not just a count of the number of faculty who stay until retirement but also an assessment of quality as seen through long-term engagement.
As the FMC enters its fifth year, I will track retention of our mentees to tenure. Soon, our earliest pre-tenure participants will become senior faculty, and we’ll hope to see the momentum of both recruiting and retention efforts begin to compound as those FMC alumni serve as mentors. For new faculty, particularly those from underrepresented groups, participation in the FMC means finding the community and the support to build a future at SMCM, and in turn, creating that same campus community for our students. “It means you can ask for help,” Ballesteros says. “It means you’re seen. It means you deserve to be there. It means you have someone like you who made it. It means that you’re going to be OK.”
Many thanks to the faculty who have participated in the FMC and offered their invaluable feedback.
Katherine Gantz is the interim dean of faculty at St. Mary's College of Maryland.