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Mentors a source of advice, help
for new faculty members
September 28, 1998

Robert Gable and Joon-Ho Kang are engaged in lively conversation over lunch at the Nutmeg Grille. Their discussion about mutual research interests, teaching, and publishing is peppered with talk about skiing and sailing.

Gable, a professor of educational psychology and acting department head, and Kang, a new faculty member in Sport, Leisure and Excercise Sciences, are having lunch together as one of the first activities in a new mentoring program in the School of Education. Each of the school's new faculty - six this year - is paired with a senior faculty member with mutual interests to be a guide, friend and advocate. The mentor and new faculty member need not be in the same department.

Mentors are there to help with anything and everything: giving advice on filling out grant applications, reading drafts of articles for publication, discussing effective teaching strategies - even recommending a place for a good pizza.

Richard Schwab, dean of the School of Education, says that having a mentor helps new faculty feel welcomed and supported and gives them a sense of community. A mentor is a person with whom they can talk without worrying about being evaluated, he says.

"From day one, we work with our faculty to make them feel welcome and to provide a way they can understand how the University and the school work, both formally and informally," Schwab says. "We hire the brightest and best faculty and my goal is to keep them here and make them feel comfortable. They also have to know how the system works so they get the job done and don't spend two years figuring that out."

Sally Reis, a professor of educational psychology, has mentored new faculty informally for several years. "It is essential to the retention of good faculty to have new people realize there is somebody at the University who cares about them in addition to their department chair," Reis says. "This is a place where we work mutually to increase the talents of our junior faculty, as opposed to a place where competition is the norm."

Today, at their luncheon meeting, Gable, who has been at UConn for 29 years, talks with Kang about the importance of quality research, presenting it at conferences and publishing in quality journals. He also shares effective teaching tips. "I am helping him make a successful integration into the UConn family," Gable says.

Kang likes having a mentor. "It helps new faculty members adjust to a new environment, both academically and personally. I think we have a lot of common interests," he says.

Ron Taylor, a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for African American Studies, has informally mentored young faculty in sociology, political science and history for 15 years. "In many cases, young faculty may seek the advice and counsel of senior faculty in their own department," he says. "In other cases, depending upon their research interests or particular problems, they may seek out other people."

About 70 percent of the people he mentors are African-American. "They have a different set of concerns," he says. "They are not sure that their colleagues understand or value the kind of work that they do. Or they don't know how to deal with all the demands on their time from students who are not necessarily in their department, but see a black face and gravitate to them for advice and counsel."

Although a number of schools and colleges at the University make senior faculty available to new faculty members on an informal basis, George Allen, a professor of psychology, created a formal mentorship program when he became director of the clinical program in psychology 15 years ago. Defining it as a "job responsibility," he assumed that new people would "need to learn the hidden rules that exist when you go to a new place."

Viewing himself as " a resource and an advocate," he schedules at least one hour-long weekly meeting with each new faculty member. A wide range of issues may be discussed. "For example, who's who in the department, and whom do you see to get what done, who's who around the University, how to teach, how to determine grades, how to gAugust workloads that students can manage," Allen says. He also tries to "Instill a sense of priority for young faculty who can be under a lot of pressure to do lots of different things."

Michelle Williams, an assistant professor of psychology, has been mentored by Allen since she arrived in 1996..

When she first arrived, she met with Allen to discuss everything from interpreting memos to learning how to set up a research program. "I found it particularly helpful because I was coming straight out of graduate school, so the entire academic world was new to me," she says. "I always knew I had my hour when I could talk about things."

Sherry Fisher