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Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 45–52 

Mentoring in Higher Education

Ron Penner

Experience forges wisdom and wisdom leads to effective living. In this issue of Direction we offer tribute to people who have walked the road ahead of us and offered guidance and encouragement for our development. Walter Unger is one of those people who have devoted a lifetime to a cause and to a place. During his more than thirty years of teaching and administration, he has served as a mentor for faculty, staff, and students. He has oriented, trained, coached, and introduced people to new and greater professional opportunities. In recognition of that role this article explores the concept and practice of mentoring in the world of higher education. Focus will be limited to a brief overview of the concept, an exploration of its various expressions, and identification of facilitative measures that schools can take to foster mentoring.

There is less likelihood that persons will fall prey to personal or professional bad decisions or moral failure if such persons are in an open, caring, ongoing mentor relationship.


The term mentor stems from Greek mythology in which Odysseus entrusted the care and education of his child to a friend named Mentor while the father was away on his adventures and travels. Mentoring has come to be used for a variety of relationships. Some of its synonyms include role model, coach, guide, sponsor, friend, and adviser.

Here is a sampling of definitions from mentoring literature. {46}

  • Mentoring is a lifelong relationship in which a mentor helps a protégé reach her or his God-given potential (Biehl, 19).
  • Mentoring provides, first, an instrumental or career function (e.g., sponsorship, coaching, corporate culture instruction), and second, an intrinsic or psychosocial function (e.g., serving as a model, a confidant, a friend) (Cunningham, 443).
  • Mentoring is a power-free partnership between two individuals who desire mutual growth. One of the individuals usually has greater skills, experiences, and wisdom (Weinstein, 11).

The person offering the mentoring is usually referred to as a mentor, while the recipient or partner may be identified as a mentee or protégé.


The elements of a mentoring relationship have numerous permutations.

  • Initiation. Such a relationship may be initiated by a mentor, the mentee, or a third party such as Academic Dean.
  • Time frame. The relationship may be time limited, lifelong or open-ended.
  • Formality. The relationship may be quite informal or may involve an articulated, jointly forged formal agreement.
  • Intensity. Participants may connect only occasionally or meet regularly according to a prescribed schedule.
  • Reciprocity. The relationship may be viewed as substantially in place to benefit the mentee or, as in the Weinstein definition above, be seen as mutually beneficial and power-free.
  • Agenda. The agenda for the relationship may be quite focused on professional matters or more holistically include other aspects of life. Generally, the mentee’s agenda is considered primary, but in cases of a more reciprocal relationship, there will be more balance in agenda focus.
  • Medium. Most often, mentoring relationships are face-to-face. However, there is an emergence of mediated connection via telephone and e-mail.


In the context of higher education, such relationships can occur in one or more of the following settings.

  • Senior faculty with junior faculty. These relationships can be one-to- {47} one or even a team identified to work with one new faculty member. It can also describe a group of departmental faculty meeting together for the express purposes of networking and professional development.
  • Faculty with student. These relationships often build around an advisory relationship focused on fostering a student’s choice of program and courses as well as career development.
  • Returning student with entering student. In some cases, schools equip and employ senior students to provide peer mentoring to new students.


Benefits of mentoring include the following.

For the Mentor

Enrichment through seeing someone else grow and succeed. Human development theory holds that among persons reaching mid-life there is a need to develop the next generation (Levinson). Investing in the success of one or more persons earlier in their life and career development provides opportunity to fill that need.

Creativity generated by issues and ideas generated by someone younger and newer. When someone comes to a role or organization with questions and new ideas, creativity is stimulated. Pairing a senior and junior faculty member could provide stimulus for the senior faculty member’s ongoing creativity.

Friendship. While the basic value of mentoring may be either an organizational or personal benefit to the mentor, the possibility exists that the relationship may develop into a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Biehl advocates that mentoring relationships be considered lifelong relationships.

For the Mentee

Speedier adaptation to a new role and/or organization and reduced likelihood of frustration and failure. One of the values a more experienced mentor brings is access to information and suggestions for success. To have someone be proactive in behalf of one’s orientation and success should speed up the adaptation process and reduce the chances of making organizational gaffes. This would be true for either new faculty or students.

Increased exposure to ideas and connections. By definition one of the contributions of a mentor is to offer the mentee helpful information, suggestions, and even introduction to others who can be helpful to the person.

Friendship. While initially one cannot expect friendship, it may well be an outcome and long-term benefit. {48}

For the Organization

Stronger individuals offering higher quality performance. Since one of the goals of a mentoring relationship is professional success, to the extent it is operational in a college, one should see overall teaching quality rise. Mentoring also is positively linked to student retention (Ross-Thomas).

Increased connectivity and caring. People enjoy working in caring and connected workplaces. Creating a network of good relationships among faculty raises the general relational climate in an organization and is of overall benefit.

Support to formal employee orientation and development programs. Mentoring programs are generally not seen as substitutes for orientation and training. These still need to be in place. However, the mentoring relationship can be a wonderful reinforcement for the training and orientation received at the time of entry.

Greater spiritual protection for persons and the organization. From a Christian perspective, there is less likelihood that persons will fall prey to personal or professional bad decisions or moral failure if such persons are in an open, caring, ongoing mentor relationship. In that sense, when there is such care, including prayer support for one another, the organization enjoys greater spiritual protection.


What kinds of mentoring are occurring in higher education and to what extent? This segment reports on the research findings around faculty-to-faculty mentoring as well as a more anecdotal acknowledgement of the two other major types of mentoring: faculty-to-student, and student-to-student.

Faculty to Faculty

Shelley Cunningham recently explored the nature and extent of mentoring within colleges in the Christian College Coalition. She replicated an earlier study by Sands, Parson, and Duane using essentially the same instruments and procedures they had used to study secular schools. Two hundred and eighty-seven faculty members from nine colleges of various sizes responded to the survey. Some of her findings are summarized below.

  • While seventy-seven percent of faculty reflected that someone had been helpful in their academic career, only forty-five percent could recall a specific mentoring relationship. This was similar to the levels found by Sands in a previous study of university faculty. {49}
  • The majority of mentoring relationships were forged voluntarily, at the initiative of one or both faculty members.
  • The majority of faculty who reported a mentoring relationship spent less than five hours per month together.
  • Ideal mentor contributions were career guidance, friendship, discipleship guidance, and institutional information.
  • While over ninety percent of faculty affirmed that senior faculty have a mentoring responsibility to junior faculty, less than one-third had ever served as a mentor.
  • The most common hindrances to mentoring identified by faculty were heavy teaching loads, large classes, student contact load, committee work, high performance expectations by the institution, and family responsibilities. Beyond these six, the next most often identified factors were an absence of an intentional faculty orientation and development program at the college, and low value placed on mentoring by the college.

In general, Cunningham found the results not greatly different from those of Sands.

The fact that nearly eighty percent of faculty acknowledge someone’s care for them and their career, but most cannot identify a specific relationship, suggests that much mentoring occurs informally. However, encouragement can be taken from the fact that forty-five percent of faculty recall at least one relationship which they could identify as a mentoring relationship. One of the schools with a well-developed model and resources is the Community College of Aurora (see web site below).

Faculty to Student

The classic model used by numerous institutions is the faculty advisor system. Here, some ten to fifteen students from a department are assigned to a faculty member for both academic advising as well as some conversation around other life issues.

Many colleges and universities use a mentoring strategy to increase the success and retention of students. A search of “edu” domain sites with the search term mentoring will produce many examples of schools that are utilizing this concept. Typically, faculty will be asked to work with a small group of students for at least a year. Variations include faculty mentoring senior students who then mentor first year students. Peace River Bible Institute uses a version of this in their system. San Diego State University is an example of a school using the faculty-student-student model as well (


Other variations of the faculty-student mentoring connection occur as a result of course-based relationships such as internship. Voluntary discipleship groups or relationships also spring up among students as well as faculty. Typically, a faculty member may invite a student to meet with him or her for a year in order to encourage and support them in their studies. Or it may also be that a student or cluster of students approach a faculty member requesting the development of a mentoring relationship.

Student to Student

Peer mentoring is also used to foster students’ success. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee runs a Peer Mentoring Center staffed by students who have taken a one-year course preparing them to be mentors (


Mentoring appears to be one of those good, win-win ideas we affirm but have difficulty implementing. Mentoring is good for the mentor, the mentee, and the organization. How might this good idea be more widely adopted and practiced?

St. Clair identifies the following features of successful faculty-to-faculty mentoring programs.

  • Administrators support the program.
  • Mentoring is part of a more comprehensive faculty development program.
  • Participation is voluntary on the part of both mentor and mentee.
  • There is a screening process to check on the readiness and fit of both parties.
  • Orientation to the mentoring process is provided.
  • Participants are given freedom to shape their mentoring relationship.
  • A monitoring system is in place to determine progress and satisfaction.
  • The program is run by a specific person.
  • Mentees are given a voice in selecting their mentor.
  • Some recognition is provided to mentors, whether financial or load.


Cunningham reflects that most faculty do not perceive their schools to place much real value on the time spent in mentoring. Mentoring is generally not included in faculty role expectations, considered in load computations, or tracked in faculty or promotion reviews. Faculty are too busy with other priorities and, without the reinforcement offered {51} through means such as load computations and inclusion in reviews, they will gravitate toward those duties for which they are compensated and reviewed. If mentoring is to increase in our schools, administrations and boards will need to incorporate it in formal expectations.


One of the greatest hurdles faculty identify to the actualization of mentoring is lack of time. Workloads shaped by teaching loads, large classes with attendant grading, along with publication and service expectations literally vacuum out a faculty member’s discretionary time, particularly on campus. If mentoring is to occur, schools will need to allocate resources in such a way that faculty loads allow time for mentoring. In some schools, special funding is secured in order to fund the loading required for mentoring (


One of the elements of a successful mentoring relationship is a mentoring agreement. Weinstein offers a number of helpful tools including a sample agreement. The essential features include the following:

  • An initial six-month term with the option to extend it to one year
  • Specifics regarding the frequency and length of meetings
  • Commitment to confidentiality
  • Agreement to be involved in the larger organizational meetings regarding mentoring
  • Specifications as to what the mentor will offer (e.g., facilitating creation of a personal development plan, listening, sharing helpful experiences and information, and offering constructive feedback)
  • Responsibilities of the mentee
  • An item indicating either party’s freedom to end the relationship
  • Signatures from each party

The Community College of Aurora has developed a fine handbook for faculty-to-faculty mentors. It is available online and provides a time line for contacts and agenda through the semester, suggests topics for discussion, offers classroom observation guide sheets, and includes conferencing suggestions around the classroom observations.


The Christian community has incentive to be a mentoring {52} community based on its nature as a caring family, explicit directives for spiritual elders to equip youngers, and the mentoring examples of Barnabas and Paul. At heart, mentoring is about being concerned not only with one’s own success but also that of one’s colleagues and students. Much of such successful facilitating requires not only the transmission of information but also the care and encouragement of persons. To the extent we are able to do this well, we will achieve the end goal of education.


  • Biehl, Bobb. Mentoring: Confidence in Finding a Mentor and Becoming One. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1996.
  • Canton, Marcia E., and David P. James. Mentoring in Higher Education: Best Practices. Pacifica, CA: Canton Associates, 1999.
  • Cunningham, Shelley. “The Nature of Workplace Mentoring Relationships Among Faculty Members in Christian Higher Education.” The Journal of Higher Education 70 (July/August 1999): 441-63.
  • Daresh, John C., and Marsha Playco. “Mentoring in Educational Leadership Development: What are the Responsibilities of the Protégé?” A paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, California, April 18-22, 1995.
  • Levinson, Daniel. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Ballantine, 1978.
  • Quinlan, Kathleen M. “Enhancing Mentoring and Networking of Junior Academic Women: What, Why, and How?” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 21 (May 1999): 31-33.
  • Ross-Thomas, Elaine, and Charles Bryant. “Mentoring in Higher Education: A Descriptive Case Study.” Education 115 (Fall 1994): 70-77.
  • St. Clair, Karen. “Faculty to Faculty Mentoring in the Community College: An Instructional Component of Faculty Development.” Community College Review 22 (Winter 1994): 23-26.
  • Weinstein, Elizabeth. Mentoring for Success. Des Moines, IA: American Media, 1998.
Ron Penner holds an Ed.D. degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and serves as Academic Dean at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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