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October 26, 2006

Senate plenary session: Panel discusses mentoring

Patricia Beeson, vice provost for graduate studies, outlined progress on the University’s pilot program for mentoring new faculty. Cecil Blake, chair of Africana studies, offered his perspective on special issues in mentoring non-white junior faculty, while John Weidman of the School of Education discussed mentoring graduate students.

They, along with keynote speaker Jeannette South-Paul and event co-chair Ellen Olshansky, fielded audience questions on issues ranging from sexual harassment to compensation for mentors.

Beeson noted that mentorship is integrated into the fabric of life at Pitt, both in one-on-one relationships between undergraduate researchers and their supervising faculty members and between graduate students and their research advisers.

The importance of those relationships was demonstrated last year when a new award for mentoring doctoral students drew more than 70 nominations.

“It was amazing to read the testimonials that came from the students and from the faculty colleagues honoring and respecting and talking about the relationships these faculty have with their students,” she said.

Beeson acknowledged many mentoring opportunities, both formal and informal, already are in place around the University. Some of those relationships spring up naturally between colleagues within the same discipline. Some academic areas have instituted more formal mentoring opportunities, she said, noting the formal assignment of mentors in English, or workshops and mentoring groups focusing on tenure issues in Arts and Sciences or the Graduate School of Public Health, among others.

Both the provost’s advisory committee for women’s concerns and a Senate ad hoc committee on the advancement of women have been examining issues involving the recruitment, advancement and promotion of women within the University, prompting discussion on what could be done at an institution-wide level to facilitate mentoring.

A pilot project emerged from those parallel interests, designed with special care not to undermine the mentoring initiatives that already are working well.

“We didn’t want to set up a system that was going to displace or interfere with that,” Beeson said, adding that the new program is designed to fill the gap for those who haven’t found a mentor in other ways.

Instead of one-on-one mentoring, the committee has devised mentoring circles consisting of a senior faculty member and four or five new faculty who work together in peer mentoring to help the newcomers acclimate to the University.

Last summer, 256 new faculty (those with three years or less at Pitt) were invited to participate. Of those, 82 expressed interest and 21 were chosen at random for the pilot.

Mentors were trained in a workshop presented by Audrey Murrell of the Katz Graduate School of Business and, in September, the teams met to set goals and ground rules for their individual circles. Progress will be tracked throughout the year. Recommendations will be made to the provost at the conclusion of the academic year, Beeson said.

Blake, a native of Sierra Leone, began the discussion by noting that he believes people who grow up in societies where oral tradition prevails have an advantage when it comes to mentorship.

“In the way we are raised, in the evenings we listen to short stories,” he said. The characters in those stories “always teach you how to survive and how to succeed across the spectrum. And they also teach you about difficulties at times for people who may not look like the rest of the people assembled in that small community,” he said.

“Some of us have the advantage of being born into this milieu and it becomes for us sort of a natural feel when we work with colleagues or others,” he said.

Blake noted that, in his experience, non-white junior faculty are mentored to survive and succeed, while their white counterparts generally are mentored simply to succeed.

“The challenges are just horrendous,” he said, adding that some of the difficulty comes in feeling obliged to speak frankly about dealing with racism while also running the risk of being perceived by idealistic young faculty as having baggage to unload on them. “It’s really a difficult thing,” he said, adding that young faculty may not believe his cautionary tales “until they get hit,” he said.

He recalled receiving racist literature in his mailbox and being harassed as one of two nonwhite junior faculty members early in his academic career.

Survival also involves dealing with students who may not have experience being taught by a black professor, or who may give negative evaluations.

When mentees come to his office enraged, in tears or wanting to quit, “I am inclined to say welcome to the club,” he said. “The bottom line is you are going to get this kind of stuff throughout your career.”

Publishing also may be problematic for non-white junior faculty whose research interests fall outside the mainstream, making promotion difficult in a publish-or-perish environment. “When you write, either editors have no clue in mainstream journals or they’re not willing to even send out your manuscript to people who may have a clue in what you’re talking about,” he said. “The rejection letters begin to flow,” Blake said. “Rejection, rejection, rejection. It is a horrifying feeling.”

Blake cautions junior faculty members to be wary of seeking jobs at schools that don’t respect their scholarship. “If the institution does not have mechanisms and a leadership approach that respects diverse opinions, that respects the possible existence of multiple paradigms on a given discipline, I don’t want to be there,” Blake said.

The bottom line: “Is the institution committed to retaining junior faculty?” he said. “Do you have mechanisms at the highest level that will ensure the retention, the survival and success of junior faculty?” Blake said.

Weidman finds mentoring to be a core process of socialization for students and noted that mentors of graduate students must consider the varied experiences the students — international students, for example — bring, as well as keeping in mind other demands on students’ time, including marriage, having children and dealing with the death of parents as issues they may face in their mentoring relationships.

He also said that it’s not necessary for a single mentor to meet all of a student’s needs for guidance. “It’s important that people not put all their eggs in one basket,” he said, noting that different mentors can serve different purposes at different times.

The panel fielded several questions from the audience on compensation for mentors. Beeson noted that the senior members on the University’s pilot program teams all are volunteers.

Olshansky added that the value of the relationship isn’t necessarily tangible. “In an ideal world, the mentoring relationship is reciprocal, so hopefully the mentor gets something out of it in the interpersonal relationship and learning from the mentee,” she said.

South-Paul suggested exploring partnerships with businesses as a possible way to support mentoring relationships financially, adding some of the University’s responsibility is to produce a product for companies to hire. “Since mentoring is the crowning cohesive element of the knowledge we’re trying to transmit, wouldn’t it be great to have them support that time?” she said.

Another question from the audience focused on advice for dealing with potential sexual harassment issues, with some professors feeling uncomfortable joining a student in a bar for a drink or being alone together behind a closed office door.

Noting that there are lines that cannot be crossed, Beeson said fear of harassment issues shouldn’t prevent faculty from developing close mentoring relationships. “You can still have camaraderie, but leave the door open,” she said.

Blake acknowledged that potential liability fears caused him to cease inviting students to his home for celebrations at the end of classes, adding, “the human side is really suffering.” He advised faculty to read carefully and be familiar with their institution’s policies. “At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal judgment,” he said.

South-Paul suggested focusing on group events in neutral environments. Meeting in a coffee shop is one possible solution. While there are costs attached, “to me it’s absolutely worth it,” she said.

When inviting students to her home, it’s with her husband present, she said.

And, although harassment is an unpleasant issue, “ We have to be aware of it because it changes the environment in which we work.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 5

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