Opposed to Mentoring

What do you do when people on your campus resist the establishment of a new faculty mentoring program? Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers advice.

March 16, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

Our campus climate survey revealed that pretenure faculty members on our campus believe our efforts at mentoring and professional development are insufficient. I’ve been asked by my dean to create a new faculty mentoring program in my department. I love the idea of network mentoring, and our new faculty members seem enthusiastic about building mentoring networks (as opposed to being assigned a single “guru mentor”).

My problem is that many of the tenured faculty members in my department are opposed to the idea of mentoring. When approached, they say things like: “I never had a mentor; I had to figure things out on my own,” or “Why are we infantilizing these new faculty members?” or “Figuring things out is part of the test.” None of these sentiments are particularly helpful to meeting new faculty members’ needs or to building a mentoring program. I’ve never created a program before and assumed this would be easy, because I never imagined that people could be opposed to mentoring. As such, I’m shocked by their resistance. Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with people who don’t want to change?


Baffled by Opposition

Dear Baffled,

Because I regularly speak on campuses about how to create effective mentoring programs for new faculty, I am quite familiar with the sentiments that some of your senior colleagues have expressed. I call this the sink-or-swim mentality, and it is pervasive in academe.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the sink-or-swim approach to faculty development is inefficient, ineffective, financially costly and organizationally unhealthy. But you know that already, and yours isn’t a question of logic but one of tactics: How can you manage people who don’t want to change? To assist you in moving forward, I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:

Are you in this alone? I understand that you accepted a request to create a new program in your department, but are you developing that program in isolation? In other words, you have the general campus climate data and a mandate from your dean, but who is helping you to create the program? Specifically:

  • Are you in conversation with pretenure faculty members about their specific needs (or are you assuming you know what they need)?
  • Have you solicited feedback from your senior colleagues as you created the program (or did you present it to the group fully formed)?
  • Do you have a group of allies who are willing to act as sponsors when people are talking about the program and you’re not present (or are you the only one with the vision and the details)?
  • Are you in conversation with people in other departments who are also in the process of developing new mentoring programs or already have successful programs up and running (or are you reinventing the wheel)?
  • Have you consulted the faculty developers on your campus who are experts in the research literature on faculty mentoring (or do you imagine that research in this area is irrelevant)?

If your answers to these questions reveal that you are in conversation and collaboration with others, that’s great. But if you’re sitting in your office alone creating a program without feedback, support, empirical evidence or allies, you’re setting yourself up for an uphill battle.

I realize that getting a broad range of feedback, building consensus, grounding your program in empirical research and opening feedback loops can slow the process down. But it also increases the likelihood of getting the support you need and minimizes the type of reactive pushback that occurs when people are hearing an idea for the first time.

How serious is the resistance? Given that your dean has asked you to establish a new program, something needs to happen. You’ve said that people are resisting and have made unsupportive comments, but I want you to get concrete about who, where and how that resistance has manifested. Specifically:

  • What percentage of tenured faculty are resisting? A few or the majority?
  • Were the comments you described made to you individually or as part of a public discussion?
  • How intense is the resistance? Are your colleagues taking direct and organized action to thwart your efforts, or is it mostly a failure to volunteer to help your new program?

If the majority of tenured faculty are actively organized against your new program and publicly denouncing it, then it’s time to take a step back, regroup and gather some allies to create a new strategy. But if you’re like most departments, you probably have a handful of people who have made one-off, negative comments to you personally that were annoying, frustrating or hurt your feelings.

Guess what? When you work toward change, it’s perfectly normal to encounter resistance! And if you’ve worked hard to create something new, it’s also common that a lack of enthusiasm, challenging comments or negative responses can feel painful. But I’ve never seen an initiative in an academic department where 100 percent of the faculty members are enthusiastically supportive of change. In other words, it’s normal to have a diversity of opinion and a wide range of support for any new initiative.

Does it matter? Knowing that you will never get 100 percent of your colleagues on board with change, you can take a look at the list of resistors and decide whether their support really matters. For example, are people on the list whose support is crucial to your new program’s success? Are people on the list who resist every proposed change and support nothing? And do you have generally positive or negative relationships with your resistant colleagues? How you answer these questions matters, because it will directly impact how you manage your resistant colleagues.

For some of your resistors, it will be clear that their support does not matter to the long-term success of your program. They fight every change indiscriminately and won’t be won over no matter what you say or do. That’s no problem. You can politely thank them for their opinion when offered and go right on working around them.

Other resistant colleagues matter significantly and directly to the success of your program, so you should to invite them to coffee and have an enrollment conversation. That will be a different kind of conversation, because you will want to take their objections seriously, be prepared to nonreactively share your own ideas and then engage them in the vision of what your program will provide for the department as a whole.

For example, let’s say you have a resistant colleague who would be an enormous asset to the new program because he has been highly successful in obtaining external funding. You could invite him to coffee, remind him that your dean requested that a mentoring program be created and ask him directly what his concerns are. Maybe he believes that “figuring it out is part of the test.” You can gently remind him that new faculty members in this cohort have higher research expectations to meet than any time in the past, and they are doing so in a more competitive funding environment than ever before. (Stick to observable facts.) If he’s rational, he will recognize that is the case. And then you can contextualize the new program as a way to accelerate your new colleague’s productivity and as an enhancement to the department’s intellectual community.

You can also quickly and directly make a specific request, such as: “Would you be willing to have lunch with a few of the new faculty members and answer questions about how and why you’ve been so successful in winning grants?” Having a meaningful conversation, sharing what you are building and giving someone an easy opportunity to say yes (and a free lunch) can be a winning strategy to building support for change.

And if you’re unsure whether a resistant colleague’s support will matter to your program’s success -- or if you just have a large number of resistant colleagues -- why not ask them quickly and individually to commit to a specific type of assistance (without calling it mentoring) that would have a powerful overall impact to the resources available to your new faculty members? For example: Would you be willing to read a colleague’s draft of ______? Would you answer questions about ______? Or would you share how you ______?

How will you measure success? Finally, it’s vitally important to decide up front how you will measure the success of your program. How will you know if it’s effective? What outcomes can you expect to see change over time as a result of the program? And how will you measure those outcomes?

I’m not trying to make more work for you, but one thing I’ve noticed is that, over time, successful programs win over initial resistors. So pick your metrics carefully, collect and analyze your data each year, and generously share your success with your colleagues.

I know this may seem like a lot of work to get something that seems so obviously beneficial up and running! But putting in some extra effort up front is likely to increase the success and impact of your work overall. I’m sure readers will have suggestions for additional ways they have navigated resistant colleagues, and I encourage that sharing below in the comments section.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

P.S. I love receiving your questions! Feel free to send them to me at [email protected].


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