Earlier today, a dean came to see me regarding the future of a faculty member. This faculty member came to Hofstra with outstanding graduate school credentials and is an outstanding teacher. This person also has a much sought after area of specialty and has been very active in University service. At this point in time, the faculty member is getting ready to stand for tenure and the dean voiced a concern that the faculty member did not yet have sufficient scholarship to stand successfully. At the end of the day, the standards for tenure are the standards for tenure. If at the conclusion of the tenure probationary period, the faculty member’s record in scholarship doesn’t meet the approved standards, the person should not and will not stand successfully. This is especially clear since these criteria originated with the tenured faculty in the department involved. But how does an untenured faculty member who is outstanding in teaching and service end up in a position like this. There can be any number of reasons but one often stands out — a lack of mentoring. Untenured faculty need systematic periodic feedback and higher education usually does that well: annual evaluations, reappointments, all provide (hopefully comprehensive) feedback on a regular basis. But the feedback alone is a necessary but often not sufficient condition to assure a successful tenure candidacy. Mentoring can make a enormous difference. The human element — taking the time and effort to work closely with untenured faculty — is critical so there is not only regular structured feedback but also continuous informal feedback and support. For example, a mentor with experience and a track record in research is in a position to co-author an article or book with the untenured faculty member. In this way the person’s initial efforts to be published are supported and facilitated. In other cases, having a mentor read your work before submission serves as a valuable review which can ultimately increase your chances of having an article accepted. Even advice on which journals to submit to is another valuable mentor service.
Shouldn’t the chair carry out the mentor function for all tenure track faculty in that department. There are good arguments on both sides of the issue. A chair, in her or his role as a department leader, should view mentoring as part of the job. It is not unreasonable to assume that for any chair, support of the department faculty has to be a top priority. Some chairs do this very well; others rarely do it. And it can’t work without there being a proper chemistry between the individuals. But some tenure track faculty believe — rightly or wrongly — that having a chair as their mentor places them in the awkward position of talking through issues and concerns with the person in the organization that will be making a pivotal judgment on their reappointment or their tenure or their promotion. Can a chair be a source of both formal and informal feedback? Being candid with such a person raises the worry that the information you share will ultimately be used against you; usually not the case but there are no guarantees.
All departments should develop a formal mentoring process from the day that the person starts through the time the person stands (hopefully) successfully for tenure. The process should start with and focus on the chair but there also need to be alternatives that involve senior faculty members in the department collectively (with the chair) making sure every tenure track faculty member is continuously mentored and supported.
Many chairs and many faculty will tell you that mentoring takes places so that there is no need for another formal policy. It does take place but this safety net isn’t always in place across the board and consequently good tenure candidates could be lost in the process. We can do a better job for these candidates which ultimately means we are doing a better job for the department school or university involved. We are also then treating tenure candidates the way we would want to be treated.