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Mentors Wanted

By Lester A. Gerhardt

Mentorship is a fundamental precept for achieving success in both life and career. From the first time each of us heard the word “NO,” we were being mentored by our parents as to what to do and not to do. As one whose hair has long ago turned the “color of wisdom,” I think we are obligated to convey our experience in life and career to the next generation.

Teachers mentor their students from kindergarten to college. Senior partners in a law firm mentor their newer associates, and physicians mentor their interns. Reflecting on our last ASEE conference in Nashville, the numerous bars in Nashville serve as the “classrooms” for the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow in country music, mentored by the stars of today. Ironically, as one enters the academic world in which mentoring has been a hallmark, the emphasis on faculty mentoring is less evident. How many of our universities have a structured system of mentoring, or a faculty evaluation process that incorporates mentoring of new faculty as a metric?

Some universities have a de facto mentoring system in place that I call “mentoring by metrics.” Usually brought about in the process of developing standards for promotion and tenure, moving-target metrics that are strongly quantitative and rank dependent are established. These may include the “pillar” metrics of teaching quality, research expenditures, refereed publications, the number of doctoral students in process and graduated, university and professional service, and awards and honors. For experienced faculty, this type of goal-setting may serve to be quite reasonable. But pillars alone do not a Parthenon make. The reality is that most mentoring required for newly hired faculty involves not just knowing the product standard, but counseling the individual as to the process of achieving the goal in his or her specific academic environment, without letting the process become the product.

Whereas a high school teacher’s background is steeped in pedagogy, the new assistant professor instructing that same high school senior only three months later usually has not taken even one course in teaching methodology. It is assumed she just knows how to teach and, of course, understands the workings of WebCT, studio course formats, interactive learning, and distance learning technology, as well as knowing all ABET requirements. Because the professor knows what to teach does not imply that she knows how to teach. Perhaps faculty members are expected to just naturally learn to swim upstream, like salmon.

Driven by either innate professionalism or by establishing it as a metric in one’s own performance evaluation, a senior professor in the same field needs to be assigned to each new hire. The reality is that the three basic tenets of faculty hiring—the three “S’s” of salary, start-up package, and space—need to include a fourth “S”: structured mentorship.

The mentor should aid in helping and evaluating a new faculty member’s teaching and help the new hire learn the ropes of research and proposal writing. New faculty members also need guidance on learning the promotion and tenure metrics, how to successfully negotiate the campus climate and constituencies, on which committees to serve, and how to gain visibility in their disciplinary professional societies as well as the interdisciplinary ASEE. They also need to know which conferences and meetings to attend, how to write and present effective and influential technical papers, and how to serve in the nominating process of deserving faculty for honors and awards. All these should be component aspects of the mentor’s responsibility.

As new ideas need to be socialized for better acceptance, so does the new faculty member. For people who take such special note of a new member joining their personal families by hosting an engagement party, it is ironic that, except for the selected senior chaired position announcements (which often more credits the university for the coup of attracting the particular person), we as educators do little to celebrate a new junior faculty member’s entrance into our academic family.

As parents, we know we need to lift a child onto our shoulders for a better view of the parade. As mentors, we must likewise lift new colleagues to become a key part of the academic profession.


Lester A. Gerhardt is associate dean of engineering and vice president of research administration and finance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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