Reinventing the Wheel: Basing a Mentoring Framework on Pieces of the Past and Hopes for the Future
Faculty across the US learned a lot of hard lessons during spring 2020 and beyond, as we became isolated from our students, our colleagues, our physical classrooms, and our research spaces. Unfortunately, those most affected were the most vulnerable: faculty from underrepresented populations, new faculty, and faculty not on the tenure track. As we continue to understand how that time of isolation affected us, one thing seems certain: the lack of human connection with our colleagues led to feelings of inadequacy and deficiency as we tried to navigate our teaching, research, and service obligations alone at home. We missed interactions—formal and informal—with our colleagues and mentors during which we could talk about classroom activities that flopped or new projects we were struggling to revise for publication. In short, we missed having opportunities for meaningful mentorship, and that exigence spurred new conversations at our university about faculty mentorship.
The Faculty Academic Center of Excellence at Towson (FACET), founded in 2019, is Towson University’s faculty development hub. It was created pursuant to the visionary work of a task force beginning in 2016 to support faculty teaching, scholarship, and mentoring through programs spearheaded by faculty. Through an annual competitive process, one such program identifies FACET Fellows who meet their colleagues’ needs by offering consultation services and programming to faculty at all stages of their careers. The FACET Faculty Mentoring Fellow, specifically, was initially charged with conducting research in academic departments and, consistent with evidence-based practice, developing a framework through which any faculty member could seek and receive mentoring at any phase. This essay articulates the work of the FACET team to build and implement a framework at our university, and we begin by discussing why and how we built it, how we plan to assess it, and how others may learn from our process when building their own mentoring programs.
The mentoring framework
The FACET Faculty Mentoring Fellow’s first task was to assess mentoring practices at Towson. This assessment indicated that while there were pockets of faculty mentoring underway in some parts of the institution, there were many gaps and no coordination of mentoring activity. Further, interviews with deans, associate deans, and department chairs revealed that many academic leaders viewed mentorship narrowly and understood it primarily as a component of required promotion, tenure, and reappointment meetings. Leaders didn’t have consistent ideas about what kinds of faculty mentoring are most useful, who should coordinate mentoring, or how it should be assessed. Surveyed faculty, on the other hand, had concrete ideas and requests about their needs for mentoring: they could easily identify positive, wide-ranging mentoring experiences and articulate the obstacles to being mentored well. These findings became the foundation for the mentoring framework.
At the outset, we sought to build a university-wide mentoring framework rather than a series of portmanteau programs. Like many universities, ours had certainly tried mentoring before. Some of these piecemeal programs were successful, but some were not, and there was rarely any institutional memory to build on those successes and learn from those failures. One of us remembers meeting a more or less randomly appointed mentor in a different field for coffee once—simply because the university had given each of us a voucher. At the same time, the needs assessment demonstrated that smaller programs at the departmental level could succeed. Moreover, we knew that informal networks of faculty members could also be important in mentoring outcomes. In the end, we strove to create a program that provided multiple and varied mentoring opportunities throughout the university over the course of the entire faculty career, with a special emphasis on mentoring faculty within historically marginalized groups.
Accordingly, we sought to build a framework that would accommodate existing programs, provide flexibility for new initiatives, and support an admixture of formal and informal mentoring. The success of this approach depends on three factors: institutionalization, training, and assessment. Institutionalization here means programmatic buy-in from every level of the university, from top administration in the provost’s office to college-level deans and individual departments. This was accomplished through a deliberate vetting process that included and valued input from the faculty senate, among other important entities. The second piece is training, and we built a program to train mentors and liaisons across the university. That training, currently in its second iteration, combines current literature on mentoring with prerecorded lecture content, case study–driven reflection, and activities that are simultaneously tools and instruments for faculty mentoring (e.g., needs assessment worksheets). Over three weeks, participants complete modules covering diverse issues, including an introduction to our framework, mentoring basics, DEI, ethics, and confidentiality. Combining self-paced, asynchronous instruction with face-to-face meetups, the training program aims to provide ready-to-use tools for prospective faculty mentoring while building a community of mentors. Feedback has so far been positive, and the goal is ultimately to train mentors in every department. The final factor is assessment of individual pairings, workshops, training, and mentoring activities that occur at all levels of the university. We recognize that assessment is essential in building sustainable mentoring practices as we bring more faculty into our mentoring framework.
The mentoring wheel below represents the framework we built (Figure 1). It identifies mentoring opportunities at the department, college, university, and informal levels and offers examples of mentoring opportunities that range from those that can be done immediately and with few resources to those that require more planning, resources, and commitment. The framework represents opportunities for faculty mentorship at all ranks and career stages and recognizes that faculty needs for mentorship are complex and ever-changing.
Within each section of the wheel, a similar organizational structure ensures that most or all mentoring activities are recorded and understood. In the “Department” section (Figure 2 below), for example, the activities on the outer rings describe mentoring that may already exist at the departmental level (e.g., workshops helping untenured faculty prepare annual reports). Closer to the center of the wheel, however, new programs and initiatives are introduced that most likely do not exist in the department and that, moreover, will demand planning and resources to implement. “Onboarding,” for example, may be relegated to highly “informal” mechanisms but, as a deliberate program, would require the preparation of onboarding materials (a handbook, worksheets) and experienced faculty to guide the mentee through the process.
Overwhelming research shows that the mentoring of faculty—at all stages of their academic career—creates a positive sense of community and place that supports individual and collective success, and this is particularly important to the retention of faculty of underrepresented communities. In response to this, when building the framework, we were committed to infusing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion into all facets of the framework. While there are some wedges of the framework that directly address DEI (e.g., DEI Formal Mentoring), we also recognize that the mentoring needs of faculty may at times require some identity-based mentorship and in other instances necessitate discipline- or task-specific mentoring. We wanted inclusive practices of faculty mentorship to be at the forefront of our framework, even when mentoring activities were not specifically DEI-focused or labeled as such. To accomplish this, we created a full module of mentor training that addresses DEI issues, asks mentors to consider their positionality and identity, and encourages mentors to center diversity in their own mentoring practices. While the module reflects current scholarship on DEI mentoring, we expect it—and all the other elements of mentoring training and the mentoring framework—to change as part of an evidence-based practice rooted in assessment and stakeholder evaluation.
Assessment and next steps
We have developed a multi-method assessment approach to measure impact and incorporate feedback results into training programs to ensure continuous improvement. This approach combines quantitative and qualitative measures and data collection from several sources, including
- self- and peer assessments of mentoring, teaching, scholarship, and service that are part of the promotion, tenure, and reappointment process;
- retention data and exit interview information, particularly for minority faculty;
- faculty needs self-assessment data collected by FACET from faculty, and new faculty in particular;
- mentor training exercises and assignments; mentor and mentee surveys and self-assessments;
- dean and chair interviews;
- faculty workshop evaluations;
- new faculty orientation evaluations; and
- department and college mentoring program assessment data.
This multi-method assessment approach recognizes the varied ways in which mentoring activities take place at a large university and attempts to measure mentoring in the same way that it employs the framework—by assessing mentoring at multiple levels and entry points and across a variety of activities. This academic year, we will focus on these assessment practices, mentor training, and mentor activity coordination across the university so that we can continue to refine our framework and provide meaningful mentoring at the university. The goal here is to build an iterative approach to mentoring that acknowledges the changing needs of faculty and the changing conditions of the university.
If your institution or unit is considering building a mentoring framework, we offer ours as an example that we believe is unique in its approach to mentoring activities that are broadly coordinated with training and assessment, offer mentorship at multiple levels, and provide support for faculty at all career stages. Our experience with mentoring programs thus far has revealed that chairs and deans want to support their faculty and provide mentoring opportunities, but they don’t always know how to create and scaffold programming and they don’t necessarily have the time to commit to the project. We contend that having someone at the university who can coordinate activities, serve as a resource for departments and colleges, train mentors, and assess mentoring programming provides infrastructure that allows for strong mentoring programs, ultimately leading to faculty and student success.
Jennifer E. Potter, PhD, is a professor and chair in the Department of Communication Studies and serves as the FACET Faculty Mentoring Fellow at Towson University.
Samuel Gerald Collins, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice and serves as the FACET Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at Towson University.
Patricia L. Westerman, PhD, is the assistant provost and director of the Faculty Academic Center of Excellence at Towson University.