Mentoring Junior Faculty Members

It can be as simple as providing a map of the city, as fundamental as letting them know when meetings are scheduled, or as serious as shepherding a new scholar's research.
by Meg Sullivan
When Estela M. Bensimon and William G. Tierney conducted the largest study to date of conditions faced by junior faculty on the tenure track, they were professors.

"We were able to deal with the issues we uncovered from only one perspective - that of senior faculty," Tierney said.

But since the publication of their findings, both have taken on administrative duties.

Tierney, who came to USC in 1994 from Pennsylvania State University to found the School of Education's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, started work this month as chairman of the school's Educational Policy, Planning and Administration division.

Bensimon, a former Pennsylvania State colleague who followed Tierney to USC in 1995, was named associate dean for faculty and research last April.

Both now are in the position of helping the sort of faculty who complained in the study of being ill-equipped for their jobs or stranded without guidance or mentors.

"We have to walk the walk and talk the talk," said Bensimon.

So how do administrators who have heard horror stories from 300 faculty and administrators across the country manage their responsibilities to junior faculty?

The largest part of success, both agreed, is merely taking those responsibilities seriously.

Bensimon views monitoring the progress of the school's eight junior faculty as "one of the most important aspects of my job."

"It is common for someone to be charged with that responsibility, but we found there isn't much of a systematic approach to work with junior faculty," she said.

Bensimon and Tierney offer themselves as mentors to junior faculty not only in their divisions and school but also to up-and-coming scholars in their field nationwide.

"Plato said a teacher's role is to hold a candle in the darkness and help others out of the cave," Tierney said. "For senior faculty, that should be as true for junior faculty in our school and discipline as for undergraduate and graduate students."

For example:

Months before this year's new hires appeared on campus, Bensimon made sure they had e-mail addresses so that they could receive the School of Education's regular electronic communiqués.

"In our research, we found an instance where a new professor missed a month's worth of meetings because department meetings were only advertised over e-mail and she hadn't been given an account," she said.

School secretaries learned about the arrival of new faculty well in advance so they could begin to set up their offices.

"Our research turns up numerous instances where junior faculty had to struggle along without offices or in some cases even computers because no one had taken responsibility for the proper arrangements," Bensimon said.

New faculty received The Thomas Guide map of Los Angeles, a guide to restaurant and shops, a newcomer's guide to Los Angeles and a copy of The New Faculty Member, a 1992 guide for junior faculty by SUNY educational psychology professor Robert Boice. In some instances, they even received advice about real estate.

"A lot of this is common courtesy, but our research found that so little of this normally gets done," Bensimon said.

Promotion and Tenure revealed widespread confusion among junior faculty about expectations for achieving tenure. One problem stemmed from journals valued by tenure committees. In one instance, a dean told junior faculty that articles in one journal would not "count" toward tenure, but the department chair and senior faculty contradicted him.

Here, a quick survey revealed the publications most valued by the School of Education faculty, and a list was provided to tenure-track faculty. The school also notifies faculty of deadlines for presenting research at the discipline's most important convention, the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Assn.

"Now everyone knows what are considered the most important forums for research," Bensimon said.

Bensimon also has met with the school's six junior faculty to learn about their research.

"Junior faculty often complain that they're toiling away in a vacuum," Bensimon said. "It's very difficult if you're not talking to anyone to see how important your work is or how it will be received or how it fits with institutional priorities."

Tierney takes the process a step further by suggesting opportunities for collaboration with junior faculty.

"It's often easier for a senior person to get published and to come up with publishable topics and get fundable grants," he explained.

Steering junior faculty away from obligations can be as important as guiding them toward opportunities.

"I view part of my role as protecting junior faculty from being asked to do too many things that I know won't count toward tenure," Bensimon said. "Junior faculty are in a powerless position; they don't feel they have the privilege of turning down an assignment."

Shielding junior faculty from extraneous assignments is especially important for minorities and women, who tend to be called on to serve as role models, the study found.

One-hour annual reviews with junior faculty are essential, Tierney added.

"Our research found that not all deans and division chairs meet formally with junior faculty," Tierney said. "The assistant professors aren't clear how they're doing, so it's often a surprise when they don't make tenure."

Less formal exchanges are important, too. "I pop in on people to find out how things are going - that means e-mail and phone calls as well as personal meetings," Tierney said. "Our research showed that junior faculty often feel cut off."