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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

David Kiel discusses campus efforts to strengthen mentoring programs for junior faculty

David Kiel joined the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) in July 2010 as its leadership coordinator. Just before Kiel came, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Bruce Carney asked each unit to develop its own plan for faculty mentoring. Helping in these efforts then became part of Kiel’s job description. He and his CFE colleagues provide information, workshops and planning assistance for improving faculty mentoring. The Gazette spoke with Kiel about these efforts.

Why is this mentoring so important?

Providing good support and guidance for new faculty has become an expectation for leading universities. It’s also the right thing to do.

Every unit has a set of tenure and promotion standards that faculty members must meet. Without guidance, a new faculty member might be at risk of failing to understand how those standards apply to his or her unique situation.

Faculty members are working against a six-year tenure clock in most cases. If a new faculty member was off course for some reason, without good mentoring he or she may not be guided back on the right path until it’s too late. This would be bad for them and bad for the department or school.

I’ve heard the provost say we are not a university that hires faculty and then lets them sink or swim, or uses them up and throws them away. We are a university that hires talented faculty and helps them become our next generation of leading scholars.

What factors led to this increased emphasis on faculty mentoring?

The expectations for faculty grow ever higher. National surveys show that junior faculty members are looking for more clarity, guidance and collegiality.

In addition, fixed-term faculty members are playing increasingly important roles. This growing group of faculty has not typically had focused career development or mentoring support so there is a gap there that we need to close.

Finally, with increasing numbers of women faculty and more inclusion of faculty who come from under-represented groups, or from other countries, departments and schools are finding that attention to mentoring also surfaces and addresses diversity issues. Diversity is another UNC priority.

What does faculty mentoring consist of?

Clear and consistent guidance is most important. Guidance about tenure and promotion guidelines is basic, and help in preparing review packages and tenure dossiers is needed.

New faculty members also need support in difficult times and constructive criticism to improve research and teaching.

Time management and priority-setting advice can be critical. Since there is a six-year tenure clock in most cases, faculty may need help with sequencing and staging their efforts so they end up with a strong tenure case.

Faculty also need help to build networks of colleagues in the department, on campus and in the discipline. These contacts lead to ideas for improving teaching, research collaboration and opportunities to be visible nationally, all of which are important for faculty career development.

Why doesn’t this happen naturally, in every case?

I think there is a justified concern that if this is an informal process, some junior faculty will lose out. Some young faculty members may fail to seek help when they need it, in the mistaken view this will compromise their independence. They may also fear to seek help from the senior faculty who they think might evaluate or constrain them.

Senior faculty may be too busy with their own work to reach out to younger faculty and may not see that as their role or obligation. Or they may fear that their offers will be seen as interference. They may not have had effective mentors and may be unsure how to perform the role.

If you are a new minority faculty member or a new female faculty member in a traditionally male department, there is a chance you might feel quite isolated if someone did not reach out to you and help you become part of the group – and guide you through the tenure process.

On the other hand, faculty may be uncomfortable in reaching out because they don’t want to emphasize differences. So there may be all kinds of confounding factors at work.

How do mentoring programs vary among departments in terms of their structure?

To address these and other issues, chairs and deans are making it more explicit that senior faculty are expected to be mentors and that junior faculty are expected to ask for guidance.

Less formal mentoring systems seem to work better in smaller units. Often the chair will pair a senior faculty member with a junior colleague after consulting both parties. In addition, in some small departments the whole faculty group discuses the progress of junior faculty.

Larger units are creating more structured programs with assigned mentors and/or mentoring committees that meet regularly and issue progress reports. Size is not the only factor, though. Some disciplines seem to favor less structured approaches over more structured approaches and vice versa.

What support systems are needed for young fixed-term faculty, who are not on the tenure track?

Fixed-term faculty play a variety of roles. They can be hired to focus on research, teaching or clinical work, or some combination. They may have individualized expectations that are not as standardized as those for tenure-track faculty. They also need support, guidance and clarity.

Some departments are now making the process for development and promotion of fixed-term faculty more regular. In some areas, fixed-term faculty are being assigned mentors and becoming part of mentoring committees.

Since fixed-term appointments are more common in the health sciences and some of the professional schools, those parts of campus are in the lead in thinking about how to mentor and guide faculty in these roles.

What are some surprises in talking with people across campus about their mentoring efforts?

Mentoring is no longer limited to the junior-senior departmental pair, nor is it limited to formal systems. Group mentoring and peer mentoring are fostered in some units.

Mentors can also be outside the department, even outside the University, though faculty still need guides in their units. Junior faculty members are becoming adept at mixing and matching mentors: this one for support, this one for critique, this one for networking advice, etc.

How far have we come in addressing the need for mentoring?

When I first came here, I conducted a telephone survey with most of the chairs in the College of Arts and Sciences and most of the deans of the professional schools. In the past year, I have worked intensively with several departments and schools on campus on improving their mentoring programs.

I am fairly confident that most units are now thinking about how to improve what they are doing in this area.

Where do we go from here?

The next frontier in improving faculty mentoring is helping faculty who are recently tenured and those who are at mid-career. This is becoming a national concern, and the CFE will sponsor a program for faculty leaders on this topic in the spring.

Will the effects of this initiative be lasting?

I think this is absolutely a permanent part of Carolina’s culture going forward. It has to be. Universities are in competition for talented faculty. The stronger our reputation for caring about the needs of faculty in their early years is, the easier it will be for UNC to recruit outstanding faculty.

For information about the Center for Faculty Excellence mentoring initiative, see go.unc.edu/n5SMp.