Fostering a Mentoring-Friendly Culture: An Administrative Viewpoint

February 28, 1999

The efficacy of mentoring as an agent for strengthening the fabric of academic life appears to be gaining acceptance, if the frequency with which the topic is mentioned is any indication. In spite of the reluctance of young professionals to reveal that they weren't born knowing how to be maximally effective in the complicated role that faculty members play, and despite the curmudgeonly observation by some seasoned faculty that they were given no particular help upon being hired, we can hope that, little by little, the wisdom of nurturing our most valuable resource-people-will prevail.

In the past few years, I have thought a great deal about mentoring and the role it can play in departmental life. My view was enriched by my experience as an assistant dean, and I thought I had a reasonably good grasp of the issues involved. Then I became Interim Chair of my department, and I found that, from this vantage point, another issue has become clear: the crucial role the chair plays in promoting an organizational culture wherein mentoring can thrive. I welcome the opportunity to expand upon this issue now.

One of my concerns about CMS's mentoring initiative has been, and still is, that it should not lose its appeal or its importance after mentoring loses its "hot-topic" status, as it inevitably will. One way we can avoid an erosion of interest in mentoring is by being careful about the contexts in which we use the term. Having served a university in two administrative capacities while carrying the responsibilities of a faculty member as well, I now believe that we need to make a distinction between what I shall call here operational issues and professional issues. For the purposes of this discussion, professional issues are also distinct from strictly discipline-related ones, or the command that one has of one's discipline.

I maintain that there is a difference between giving a faculty member the information he or she needs simply to do the job competently and entering into a collaborative relationship wherein a faculty member seeks and receives the guidance necessary to grow, to be successful, to fulfill one's own potential, and to do the job well. This statement drew surprised response from attendees at a panel presentation at the Annual Meeting in Puerto Rico, some of whom remarked that they had been delighted when someone took the time to explain operational issues-how, for example, to order textbooks, when to turn in annual performance reports, what the provisions of the Buckley Amendment are, and what the university requires in a syllabus. They thought they had been mentored, and those who were thoughtful enough to share that important information may also have thought they were mentoring.

Perhaps it doesn't matter who passes on this information or what we call it-all of it is essential. But in the same way that we may find it useful to consider the difference between management and leadership, I think we may find it instructive to make a distinction between the mechanics of our profession and the essence of it. I think we might avoid wearing out mentoring's welcome, so to speak, if we devote ourselves to solving the right problems, and in this endeavor, administrators-especially department chairs-can make important contributions.

The problem, it seems to me, is not deciding whom to match up in a mentoring relationship, or even determining the nature of the information to be shared, but rather encouraging a culture whose expectations and characteristics are such that faculty want to match themselves up. At its best, mentoring is site specific, and better yet, it offers an opportunity for both the mentor and the prot?g? to grow. It is essentially spontaneous, once the way is prepared for it.

So how do we prepare the way? Experience tells me that the dean's office can play an important role by adopting a supportive tone, if nothing else. But the real work is done in departments-by faculty members who enjoy helping their colleagues and by chairs who enjoy seeing their departments as successful and, dare I suggest, essentially happy places to work.

Chairs can create a mentoring-friendly culture by encouraging mentor-prot?g? associations among faculty members, but more important than this, by working toward a unified department in which faculty members are committed to common goals. They can (1) exercise even-handed advocacy for the department's several areas, (2) recognize the work of the faculty and giving credit where due, (3) promote the notion that what enriches one benefits all, (4) facilitate the free flow of information up and down the administrative "chain" and among faculty members, and (5) see to it that everyone has the operational training to do the job.

Typically, universities have not been particularly concerned with this operational training (other than in brief orientation programs for new teaching staff), the assumption apparently being that intelligent people will find their way. Intelligent people usually do survive the system, but along the way a great many wheels get re-invented-not a very efficient approach to managing any of our resources, especially that rarest of commodities: time. We can look forward to a time when equipping faculty members with the tools to do their jobs (the operational information described here) will be a standard expectation, a time when mentors and their prot?g?s can devote their energies to exploring the truly exciting aspects of teaching and of developing professional life to the fullest.

The CMS Task Force on Mentoring, initiated in January 1997, became a Standing Committee at the last Board meeting [see this Committee's mission statement on page 9]. There is certainly plenty of work left for the new committee to do. I will not presume to predict the course of the professoriate within the coming years, but I think that we can foresee some changes that will have significant effects upon academic life as we know it. Whether or not tenure is with us long into the next century, universities will continue to find "creative" solutions to the problems produced by inadequate operations budgets, solutions which-in the case of departments of music-are not likely to reduce dependence upon adjunct faculty. These independent musicians, who find themselves quilting together a variety of part-time positions, are already marginalized and, in many instances, disenfranchised. By reason of its essentially itinerant nature, such an adjunct teaching cadre, however talented, may find investing in either the position or the students difficult. Learning how to leave the profession gracefully is another issue that deserves some consideration, as is the condition of the "independent musicians and scholars" outside of academia mentioned in the Mission Statement of The College Music Society [and discussed in the AMS Report, beginning on page 4 of this Newsletter]. Accountability-another buzzword-will continue to be scrutinized, and legislators will continue to fume and the public to fret.

The sink-or-swim approach to faculty development so prevalent in the past has done much harm to the reputation, and in some cases to the actual "product," of higher education. Such harm will be difficult to undo. But true academic leadership and dedicated mentoring can provide guidance for an academic life that grows increasingly complex and demanding. Perhaps thereby we can avoid some of the pitfalls of the past. I wish my colleagues on the new CMS Committee on Mentoring well.

3518 Last modified on May 1, 2013
Login to post comments