The University Record, November 13, 2000

More than 90 participate in faculty mentoring retreat

Click here for a companion article about the retreat's focus groups.

By Jane R. Elgass
A half-day retreat on Nov. 6 titled “Mentoring, Quality of Faculty Life and Community Building” drew more than 90 school and college leaders—deans, associate and assistant deans, and department chairs—to Rackham Amphitheater for general presentations and focus group discussions.

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and planned by a faculty committee chaired by College of Engineering Prof. Linda Katehi.

In her keynote address, Provost Nancy Cantor set the agenda for the retreat, noting that, “We need to determine how we, as individuals, can work together to ensure a supportive and collegial environment, and how we, as an institution, can offer a climate that facilitates and enables faculty to prosper and achieve.”

Mentoring and community building need to be a focus at the individual, department, academic unit and even national levels, according to Cantor, and should address life transitions over the entire course of an individual’s professional career.

Cantor noted that the “ivory tower” is not the same place it was, even a generation ago, with an environment today that is more diverse, more complex, more international, with individuals of more varied backgrounds, “in a word, a far richer environment.” But that richer environment pulls people in many different directions, and an environment that also nurtures a “sense of belongingness and collective engagement” is needed.

She was candid in noting that there are impediments and potential obstacles that make the notion of “taking part” a challenge. “A central feature of a thriving community that encourages individuals to ‘take part’ is that there are multiple avenues for participation.” Yet while the “current passion for ‘doing it all’’’ may be viewed positively, we frequently set a high bar and expect top performance in several areas. This is particularly relevant for junior faculty. “We need to consider this context of ‘all-around performance’ as it relates to active engagement with the community,” she stated.

Other areas that must be considered include:

  • Technology, which can be a wonderful tool but also carries the danger of isolating individuals from true participation with others.

  • Increased diversification of the workforce. While this is ultimately a positive trend that the University values deeply, an inevitable consequence is that in this richer environment, it becomes more difficult to “figure out the system, to make connections and find an acceptable comfort level in an academic home so we can focus on the work we came here to do, often in the context of a less than fully accepting climate.”

  • Changes in the composition of the faculty—more spread between practice and theory, more interdisciplinary, less full-time, more split between teaching and research, more likely to engage in community collaboration. These changes raise the issue of how to make participation available to all.

  • Daily obligations that are much different than a generation ago, due in part to the changes in the composition of the workforce and the changing nature of family. This includes more single parents and situations in which both parents work.

    “We are literally reeling from the inevitable tensions that result from change of this magnitude as we try to figure out how to navigate the changing scene on the home front, how to manage new, additional sets of responsibilities, and how to fit all the pieces together in some sort of cohesive and sane ‘whole,’” Cantor said. “Most importantly, these new lifestyles leave little time for ‘caring for others’ at work. So how do we realistically build an institution in which individuals care for each other and for the whole?”

    Mentoring is one avenue to help build a sense of community, and the University needs to “consider whether faculty in their respective schools and colleges are working in a climate that encourages intellectual endeavors, encourages risk-taking and leaves them feeling not just evaluated, but also supported. We need to look at the forces we can control, and this is where mentoring comes into play.”

    Faculty mentoring already is being done at several campus units, but “mentoring needs to be part of the Michigan culture.” We also must reach a common understanding about what the term “mentoring” means. Historically, it is a “top-down” model in which the wisdom of the experienced is passed on to the inexperienced. This one-sided view, Cantor said, is only one perspective.

    “There is no single recipe for success.” A model she has found very helpful is the informal, colleague-to-colleague model. And it need not always be a relationship of a junior faculty member with a senior faculty member. “It is possible to be helped along the way from people we perceive as ‘equals.’ The most satisfying experiences, the ones from which we learn the most and take the most, often are reciprocal. Although these interactions don’t have the structure of a traditional mentoring system, I have found them to be my lifeblood of both social support and observational learning.”

    She also noted that there are both formal and informal strategies that can be employed, and mentoring should not just focus on research at the expense of teaching. Multiple mentors might be needed in some instances, based on an individual’s career choices. Mentoring individuals involved in interdisciplinary work is particularly challenging, because the work, by definition, cuts across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

    Cantor also indicated that mentoring need not be restricted to situations involving junior faculty, although that may, in many cases, be where the support is most urgently needed. Senior faculty also may benefit from mentoring, as might academic administrators who sometimes find themselves in this new role with little preparation. This is especially true in those units in which department chairs rotate every three or five years. Differing commitments at different times in one’s career also make it clear that “we need to build-in time for faculty to cultivate different passions and expertise across their career trajectory.”

    In order to build a sense of community through mentoring, several things must be ensured: opportunities for taking part, a sense of common fate, commitment to others, cultivation for the self—all elements that serve to foster individual and institutional well-being.

    Cantor indicated that she believes the University needs to adopt a flexible and expansive approach to mentoring, one that can be adapted to the varying needs of the disciplines. A good mentoring system, always subject to revision, should be:

  • Grounded in today rather than the past.

  • Realistic, building on the values of diversity while cultivating a sense of common fate and interdependence.

  • Cognizant of the multiple ways in which individuals can connect with each other.

  • Designed to take advantage of and address transitions over one’s career, allowing changes in direction and focus.

    “Healthy institutions,” Cantor concluded, “are ones that encourage participants to be engaged citizens, have a sense of common fate built on diversity, widespread caring for and commitment to each other, and opportunities to refresh oneself by taking on new tasks. Good mentoring should be directed at creating this kind of community here.”

    Retreat planning committee

    The idea of a retreat on faculty mentoring grew out of discussions at the Associate Provost/Associate Dean Group (APADG) least year, and steering committee members were drawn from that group.

    The committee was chaired by Linda Katehi, associate dean for academic affairs and professor, College of Engineering. Other members are: Mark Becker, associate dean for academic affairs and professor, School of Public Health; Robert Feigel, associate dean for graduate programs and facilities and professor, School of Dentistry; Carol Loveland-Cherry, associate dean for academic affairs and professor, School of Nursing; Robert Owen, associate dean for undergraduate education and professor, LS&A; Katharine B. Soper, assistant provost for academic and faculty affairs, Office of the Provost; and James Woolliscroft, executive associate dean, director of graduate medical education, Medical School.

    Comments and suggestions are welcome and should be sent to

    Quality of connections most important

    Jane Dutton briefed participants in the retreat on "Mentoring, Quality of Faculty Life and Community-Building" on the research she has done on high-quality connections at work. Dutton is the William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration; professor of organizational behavior, human management and corporate strategy; and professor of psychology.

    She noted that it is the quality of connections among faculty, "the nature and character of the tie between two people," that is most important for successful mentoring. It needs to be "strong and life-giving," she said, and the following points need to be considered:

  • Elements directly affecting individuals include physical and psychological life, the person's attachment and loyalty to the unit or organization, and engagement and effectiveness at work.

  • Those related to the unit, which incorporate those affecting individuals, include the rate and quality of collaboration and the ability to adapt to change.

    "Each of you," she said, "can affect the environment for quality connections." Efforts to foster and nurture that environment can include such things as creating community-building and mentor programs, seeding and supporting informal programs, investing in "boundary-crossing" events and programs, designing and supporting incentives and performance review programs, creating annual rituals, and making leadership choices and designing committee structures that will enhance collaboration.

    "You need to develop a social architecture to create and sustain this kind of environment," she noted.