Reverse mentoring is a prominent example of intergenerational partnership in which students and faculty from recent generations share knowledge, perspectives, and expertise with more seasoned and veteran faculty. In essence, it reverses hierarchical relationships and creates a level playing field for the transmission of knowledge and skills. Although such mentoring programs are not widespread in higher education, a number of corporations—such as BNY Mellon, Dell, Estée Lauder, Procter & Gamble, and Time Warner—have realized its value in the retention of talent and in promoting diversity.
As Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell (2019) point out, reverse mentoring is not just about technology but often includes strategic issues, leadership, and the mindset of how to approach work. Such programs can result in the development of innovative ideas that inform workplace practices in general (Jordan & Sorell). Furthermore, reverse mentoring can shift the power dynamic between younger, more diverse generations and their senior White counterparts. And it can break down barriers that inhibit the advancement of minoritized individuals and promote a greater sense of belonging and inclusion for new entrants to academe. As Sharlene Gandhi (2019) explains, “Reverse mentoring programs . . . allow for the discussion and subsequent education to be extended beyond demographic silos and spread into the wider workplace culture.”
Higher education has unique advantages in implementing such programs given the presence of talented junior faculty and both graduate and undergraduate students who can offer perspectives on issues and provide in-depth expertise, such as in pedagogical methods, new disciplinary approaches, social media, and other digital technology. Given the presence of both formal and informal hierarchical relationships in higher education, one challenge of reverse mentoring is to ensure that both mentors and mentees feel comfortable with the program, their mentor-mentee assignments, and the program’s goals.
David Perlmutter, dean of Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication, describes the medieval guild system of mentorship that occurs in promotion and tenure processes and its top-down orientation. But, he reminds us, “assistant professors know a lot.” He describes a revealing experience he had teaching a course in social media with an assistant professor probably half his age and two doctoral student teaching assistants. Through that experience, he realized that he was far too dependent on what he describes as “Pleistocene PowerPoint habits.” By contrast, the style, tone, and content of his junior colleagues’ presentations evoked greater interest from the students and made him reconsider his own teaching style (Perlmutter, 2012). Nonetheless, Perlmutter recognizes that technology can create artificial divisions among faculty, despite the fact that many senior professors stay current in this area. In his view,
There is a real danger of a technology gap becoming a wedge issue between faculty members in the same way standards of promotion and tenure, the job market, and salary compression have been divisive issues—at a time when professors need to be more united than ever in address the challenges of higher education. (Perlmutter, 2011)
Yet according to Oliver Dreon, director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University, the use of technology and innovative pedagogical approaches varies according to the risk-taking disposition of faculty and is not always a generational matter. As he explains,
It’s a mixture; it’s almost like disposition. It’s more about how they believe people learn and if they are risk-takers, and so that risk-taking disposition cuts across all generations, people who are willing to take pedagogical risks in support of their student learning. (as cited in Chun & Evans, 2021)
Nonetheless, Dreon recognizes that some faculty may be less familiar with the challenges arising when students bring multiple internet devices into the classroom:
Because this connecting generation, the non-traditional students who are coming into our classrooms with three to five internet devises, that’s a little foreign to some of our experienced faculty, and they see that to a degree to be a nuisance, a distraction in the classroom, and they don’t always know how to use it to their advantage. But I would say that’s true of some of our younger faculty too.
As we describe in our new book, Leveraging Multigenerational Workforce Strategies in Higher Education, reverse mentoring can enrich both the mentor and mentee through a mutual exchange of ideas and expertise that strengthens cross-generational learning. A powerful example of reverse mentoring is the program Dr. Susan Finelli-Genovese developed in the College of Education at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. As adviser to the BW Tech Club of undergraduate studies, Finelli-Genovese saw the importance of ensuring technological integration across the education curriculum to prepare teachers for K–12 classrooms. She created the tech coaching program using the formalized model of tech consulting used in the master of education program. In piloting the program, she first worked with a group of pre-teachers and students to hone their technological expertise in the Google suite used in K–12 schools. The program was then offered to the faculty and was quickly viewed as a win-win for both faculty and students.
After a one-year pilot of the program, Dr. Finelli-Genovese began to more systematically train the tech coaches through a modular series of courses. The program has become a leadership opportunity for students who receive badges and an informal certificate as they complete each module. It also prepares students to become official tech coaches in K–12 settings, a feature of the master of education program that follows the coaching standards of the International Society for Technology in Education. Maureen Loudin, an associate professor of literacy who has worked in the field for 40 years, found the program helped her keep current since she realized that students would be less responsive to learning when professors do not keep up with technology. As she states, “I think it is vital that we work as hard as the students do and keep up with the new knowledge.” Loudin also sees the program as valuable in helping students gain confidence in their teaching ability.
Some practical tips in the development of such programs arise from the research literature and the Baldwin Wallace example. While these programs typically relate to technology, they can be expanded to include other areas, such as innovative teaching models:
Reverse mentoring programs can serve as a source of innovation and creativity with mutual benefits for both mentors and mentees. The bridging of generational divides will provide valuable perspectives that expand pedagogical repertoires, enhance classroom experiences, and strengthen student learning outcomes.
Chun, E., & Evans, A. (2021). Leveraging multigenerational workforce strategies in higher education. Routledge.
Gandhi, S. (2019, July 16). How reverse mentoring can lead to more equitable workplaces. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/how_reverse_mentoring_can_lead_to_more_equitable_workplaces
Jordan, J., & Sorell, M. (2019, October 3). Why reverse mentoring works and how to do it right. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/10/why-reverse-mentoring-works-and-how-to-do-it-right
Perlmutter, D. D. (2011, July 24).Bridging the generational tech gap. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Bridging-the-Generational-Tech/128304
Perlmutter, D. D. (2012, September 6). Why we need “reverse mentoring.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/why-we-need-reverse-mentoring
Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Chun teaches in the Human Capital Management Department at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies and is chief learning officer of HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm. Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent.