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Why creating a mentoring program at your organization can be problematic

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The other day I was asked to lead a committee that would assess and make recommendations for the mentoring program in my department. I was a bit surprised, since I had no idea such a mentoring program existed. We talk about mentoring, of course. But the presence of a systematic approach to mentoring was news to me.

I’m normally a big fan of systematic approaches to things, but as I reflected on the idea, I started wondering whether mentoring programs actually make much sense. When I started teaching at the University of Texas in 2001, I was assigned a faculty mentor. I’m pretty sure I never actually spoke to him about anything related to mentoring. I’m not sure I ever spoke to him about anything at all. Part of the problem was that the department chair at the time had made it clear new hires were on their own—after asking about whether or not I should pursue an opportunity that had arisen, he told me, “it’s up to you; I’m not going to hold your hand.” That certainly was an excellent way to shut down requests for advice.

But there was another, deeper, reason I didn’t talk with my mentor: Power.

As with many mentorship programs, the idea was that senior faculty would pair with junior faculty and mentor them about all things academia. Most important in this was the tenure process, which is both challenging and arcane. The problem........

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