Faculty sponsorship programs at small colleges

Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user  multitrack

Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user multitrack


Have you heard of professional sponsorship? I think most faculty have heard about mentoring programs for pre-tenure faculty, even if they don't exist at their own institution. Mentoring in general is ill-defined, but it usually involves someone being available to advise someone who is coming up the ranks. Sponsorship is different. The unique quality of such a relationship, as I understand it, is that the sponsor agrees to take an active role in the advancement of the sponsored person, helping them network, recommending them for opportunities, that sort of thing, with the understanding that both the sponsor and the sponsored person will benefit from career advancement. You can read more about sponsorships in this article, and find others by googling. 

I first heard of sponsorship at a women's lunch at an American Association of Physicists in Medicine meeting. It sounded like a fantastic idea, and I think it could be so effective for pre-tenure faculty. I wished for so long that there had been someone who could be my go-to person to ask when things got bizarre, to be proactive on my behalf, someone I knew for whom my asking of their time would not be only a benefit to me but also to them. As always, I have to acknowledge the tremendous assistance many colleagues gave me when I was pre-tenure, but it was always off the cuff and I always felt like I was bothering them.

When I was pre-tenure, I was on our faculty development committee and the issue of mentoring new faculty came up frequently. We toyed around with ideas, and even went so far as to survey pre- and post-tenure faculty to see who would be interested in formal mentoring pairings. We got responses, but with the regular turnover on the committee, nothing went any further.  But I think sponsorship would be great for pre-tenure faculty. I imagine it might involve a once-monthly meeting, perhaps the sponsor looking over yearly activity reports and making recommendations on how to present one's work to the institution, going over long-term career plans month by month, availability to ask the hard questions or maybe even be present for hard meetings, that kind of thing. 

I continue to wonder about sponsorship - what would it take for it to be implemented at a small college? Probably the hardest question to answer is what would tangible benefits be to senior faculty? I might be sponsored by a generous faculty member in history, but as a physicist they wouldn't be able to advance my career in a specific sense, and their sponsorship of a physicist wouldn't mean anything to them professionally to other historians. But here are some ideas I have on what might help make it work:

  • The college subsidizes the cost of meeting - maybe a voucher for a monthly lunch at a college dining space or a gift card for a local coffee shop for the cost of coffee for two each month for an academic year. That takes the awkwardness out of who is paying, in case the sponsor felt like they should be doing so. (And also helps alleviate that cost from pre-tenure faculty.)
  • My sense is that many colleges have a sort of pseudo-currency that is really meaningful to faculty. At my college, I think that currency is course releases. Teaching is our primary focus and use of our time and we took on our jobs accepting and welcoming that, but wow, a course release is so important for getting research done (which makes us better teachers...). When I apply for one internally and get it, I feel respected by my institution. Maybe if my college started a sponsorship program, there could be a fixed term of commitment between the sponsor and sponsoree, with a course release given to the sponsor at the end of the term. If colleges could find a way to fund the meaningful internal pseudo-currency specific to their college and reward sponsors with it, that would be huge.
  • If there is a points/tally/any kind of quantification system for promotion to full professor, sponsorship could be on the list of specific activities that demonstrate institutional service. Maybe it could even be used by someone to apply for promotion a year early?
  • If an institution has senior faculty service awards, it seems to me very reasonable for anyone signing up to be a sponsor to be guaranteed nomination for the award when they finish the sponsorship term. 

What do you think? Could faculty sponsorship programs work at your institution? What do you think would need to be in place for them to be effective? Let us know in the comments.