Orienting and Retaining New Faculty Members

I’m at a small, teaching-oriented campus where we’ve been able to hire some impressive junior faculty over the past couple of years. In past years, our junior ranks have been something akin to the minor leagues—faculty struggle a bit to figure everything out, and when they do they often leave for other positions. That churn has waned with the tightened job market, but it’s also reinforced our need to be better about bringing new faculty into our department. Some of the biggest challenges come in acculturating our new hires, and getting them to understand our student needs, demographics, curricular quirks, and all the other informal knowledge that can make or break (sometimes literally!) a new hire. What are the best ways we can mentor these faculty in their first crucial year?To Have and To Hold

Dear Have and Hold,

This is not a new problem. My first job, way back in the mists of the last century, was at an institution much like yours. While older faculty had earned their PhDs at nearby (although excellent) public universities, more recent hires all had Ivy League pedigrees. Not surprisingly, the college had some trouble holding onto those faculty (myself included).

First of all: congratulations! You have the resources and foresight to be hiring in these parlous times. And you’re aware of the factors that might discourage newer faculty. My advice would be, as the song says, to accentuate the positive, even as you make space for new hires to express their concerns.

Before you do anything, organize a new faculty orientation that takes place a week or so before classes begin. Ask newer faculty what they wish they’d known when they first started, and use that as your template. Obviously, you need to include information about tenure and promotion, health and retirement benefits, and various on-campus resources. But a discussion of the college or department’s curriculum, an overview of the make-up of the student body and the culture of the town and region would help new faculty to acclimatize. I’m on the fence about assigned mentors for new faculty. Sometimes the mentor can be super helpful; other times its’s just a drag on everyone’s time. It might be more useful if you yourself have biweekly or monthly check-ins with new faculty yourself as chair. That way you’ll have a better sense of what each new hire needs in terms of mentoring.

What are the strengths of your institution? For faculty who love teaching, small classes and the opportunity to work one-on-one with students is a plus. Faculty can build mentoring relationships with students over the course of years that have an emotional and intellectual payoff (I’m still in touch with students from that first job decades ago). Individual faculty also have real ability to affect curriculum in smaller colleges that are far less bureaucratic than universities, and, if their personalities lean in that direction, even to take on leadership roles much earlier in their careers. It might be that your college has a vibrant theater scene or a local historical society that encourages collaboration with the college. All of these are assets.

How about the larger area? What opportunities are there for your more outdoorsy faculty? Is there a good bookshop or a nice cafe in town? Is there a great art-house cinema nearby? If you’re in a smaller town, new faculty might be very pleasantly surprised by the affordability of housing.

Now it’s time to face the possible deficits. Let’s start with the social ones. Is it difficult to be a single person at your college? Is socializing organized around couples and kids? If you’re located in a small town, and/or one that’s far from a larger town or city, that’s a real challenge for someone who’s unpartnered. This is exponentially more true for LGBT faculty and faculty of colour, especially on a campus or in a region that’s not particularly queer-friendly or racially diverse. Do you do spousal/partner hires? If your new hire is in a two-academic couple, having to adjust to a long-distance relationship along with the demands of a new job can be pretty taxing. There are some things you can do to mitigate these problems.

Your department or the college could have weekly or biweekly lunches for faculty. It’s often a good idea to organize these events around a theme or a small problem to solve or task to take on together, such as what to do with some unused space on campus, or faculty volunteering to share teaching ideas. This gets conversation going much more smoothly, and allows people to get to know each other with less awkwardness. I think these are much better than happy hours or even dinners at colleagues’ homes (although those are nice too), since they allow folks to form friendships in a low-stakes environment. During the warmer months at the beginning of the semester, the college could organize a potluck picnic for new and continuing faculty — there’s an emotional investment in making food for others that connects people. This won’t fix the loneliness inherent in long-distance relationships, of course, but it will make a new hire’s life more pleasant and less isolated.

How about the workplace challenges? Is the teaching load comparatively heavy? At some non-elite small liberal arts colleges faculty can teach seven or eight classes a year, which will be a huge increase for most newly minted PhDs. Is there a way that the institution could ease new hires into teaching by reducing the teaching load for the first year or two and then working up to the full load by year three? What’s the intellectual culture of the college for students? Is it a party school dominated by the Greek system? There’s not much you can do about that, but you could create opportunities for students to connect with faculty around shared interests such as a poetry club that needs a student advisor or foreign language conversation tables in the cafeteria.

It can also be a huge shock for new hires to discover that their research is supposed to take a backseat to teaching and service. They are used to defining themselves by their research and writing, and probably want to maintain some kind of research profile. How much money is there for conference travel? Do junior faculty get a paid semester (or more) for research leave? If you want to hold onto faculty for whom research is a priority (who, in my experience, are often also dynamic and committed teachers) you need institutional structures to make that possible. I’d encourage the college to support ongoing writing groups for research-active faculty, with a small budget for coffee and snacks. You’ll never be a research institution — that’s not who you are or should want to be. But it’s important that faculty with a research agenda feel supported, rather than worry that writing is something they have to squeeze in on their own time.

You’ll also have to face the fact that your new hire might just not want to stay, despite all your best efforts. They might realize that they need to be in a more cosmopolitan environment, or a more research-oriented institution. But they might also recognize that the benefits and pleasures of teaching in a small college are myriad and that they’re better suited for it than they thought.

The Chair

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