Sending the Wrong Messages

College send subtle and not-so-subtle messages to new faculty hires, and frequently these early lessons hurt morale and the sense of community, writes Becky Wai-Ling Packard.

March 18, 2015
 

It’s hiring season. We are getting to know the new faculty colleagues we recently hired, and are in the process of interviewing others. Higher education is no exception to the demographic shifts taking place nationwide. Colleges and universities are seeing baby boomers, with their large shares of the faculty landscape, entering retirement, albeit not at the pace once expected. Getting permission to hire is fiercely competitive.

And expensive. Consider the financial cost of a nationwide search, not to mention the time and energy: it’s significant. With tenure-track positions few and far between, we can’t afford to make serious and expensive investments in our organizational futures without regard to faculty trajectories. As a mentoring scholar, and as a senior faculty member, I’m stunned by the messages new faculty receive from colleagues after the offer is made, given what went into securing their lines. Colleagues, consider these messages.

For one, new faculty are often provided only a minimal amount of start-up funds, which is understandable given tight budgets. But many have to guess what to negotiate. Senior colleagues could guide them toward what to request, but that is not part of the negotiation process. Shortchanging faculty on their initial start-up costs, before they can secure external funds (particularly in this challenging funding climate), is analogous to spending heavily on student admissions but then scrimping on the student services crucial for retention. It shouldn’t be only the savviest of new faculty, or those in departments with deeper pockets, who are on track to thrive from the get-go. New faculty talk to each other; some feel set up for failure. Talking candidly about the new hire’s needs, and what the institution can and cannot do, sends a better message.

Second, new faculty are often asked to teach the most challenging courses that are at the crux of internal department politics. They learn about the issues after they begin teaching, when they get conflicting advice. Why do this? New faculty in this situation will most likely stop teaching the course after they get promoted, if they choose to stay. An ineffective cycle, for sure. Thinking that new faculty, who are untenured or adjunct, can speak freely, without backing from senior colleagues, is naïve. We need departments to talk openly with new faculty about what is particularly vexing, and how they will contribute to brainstorming about necessary resources and, ultimately, the changes. Feeling part of a collaborative solution also makes new faculty feel part of the collaborative future.

Third, we encourage new faculty to build a network of mentors, internal and external, but still frequently assign new faculty to a one-on-one mentoring match. New faculty and senior colleagues alike are often locked into the arrangement for an entire academic year. Most new faculty are not looking for a parental substitute, and cringe at a model that infantilizes or oversimplifies their needs.

Campuses can offer shorter mentoring rotations, which work to build that network so critical to career advancement. For example, matching new faculty with more than one senior faculty member outside of their home department, for a semester at a time, can help them to address relevant issues, such as a new course prep or an upcoming grant application. Shorter rotations are less burdensome and more effective for all parties.

An external professional mentoring program is a valuable complement to internal efforts. For example, an outside scholar can be invited to campus to provide a lecture, informing colleagues about the scholarly area of the new colleague, and also provide the new faculty colleague counsel about a manuscript in development or a particular research methodology. Those without grants can leverage the department’s lecture series for the same purpose. And peer mentoring circles (such as the Mutual Mentoring Program at University of Massachusetts at Amherst) can be catalyzed through minigrants, bringing together faculty across disciplines and ranks at low cost. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity offers access to distance writing groups for faculty across the country. A combination of resources sends a solid message of wanting to build the careers of new faculty.

And four, we encourage new faculty to look forward to the future, while disregarding the colleagues representing the very future we expect new faculty to covet. It’s not surprising that many associate professors express low morale. Many colleagues get promoted and are immediately asked to take on a serious administrative responsibility such as department chair or a leading a major committee. Many do this because they want to, and then are surprised when they are not supported. New faculty see how those associate professors are treated. And it scares many of them.

Chairing is not easy; most chairs face difficult dynamics, the kind of challenge that benefits from support. Many department chairs find learning communities to be effective places to strategize about curriculums or to practice active bystander interventions. More experienced chairs within the institution and chairs from peer institutions are valuable resources. The combination of internal and external mentoring? Still relevant after tenure.

With demographic shifts affecting the composition of our faculty and students, it is crucial to invest in the mentoring of a new generation of faculty and our more seasoned colleagues. At a time when institutions are strapped for resources, campuses may feel they can’t do any better. And deep down, some senior faculty might resent mentoring initiatives when they received so little and did just fine. But what are new faculty and midrank faculty learning? One of the biggest predictors of future mentoring is the experience of being mentored. Let’s send the message that we invest in our colleagues for the longer term. When we shortchange our investment in mentoring, we shortchange our institutions, our students and ourselves.

Bio

Becky Wai-Ling Packard is a professor of psychology and education and director of the Harriet L. and Paul M. Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College.

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