[Paleopsych] CHE: Should a Mentor Be a Friend?

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Should a Mentor Be a Friend?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.21


    A tenured professor fears that he is too emotionally invested in his
    relationship with a young colleague


    I am trying very hard not to screw up a relationship that feels like
    the most substantial and professionally important of my career to this
    point. That relationship also feels like one of the most satisfying
    personal connections I have made in the past several years, and I find
    myself not knowing how to be a mentor and a friend at the same time.
    The literature on serving as a mentor to junior colleagues is
    extensive, and departments and universities use a number of official
    means to encourage professional guidance for new faculty members.
    Official programs can help, but even when done well, they aren't
    And so new assistant professors, searching for the key to professional
    success, often make informal appeals to slightly older colleagues. Or
    newcomers turn to the distance-education form of mentoring, consulting
    columns like this one and Web sources on academic careers. And of
    course, the new faculty member can always turn to his or her
    dissertation director for advice, but those of us who have experienced
    the natural, if disappointing, postgraduate lapse of intimacy with our
    advisers know that it's not a good idea to go to that well too often.
    Having recently received tenure -- and having participated on a search
    committee in my department last year -- I am in a good position to be
    a mentor for at least one of my new junior colleagues. I am
    professionally secure, still ambitious, and still myself interested in
    negotiating our various institutional structures.
    And since my own experience as a new assistant professor benefited
    more than I can say from the guidance of two recently tenured
    colleagues, I have felt all along that helping new faculty members
    adjust to the campus and to the larger pressures of academic life was
    a duty that came along with tenure.
    My career as teacher, scholar, and administrator is a direct result of
    the care that my two mentors took to introduce me to faculty life.
    Their efforts ranged from the formal (introducing me to important
    colleagues and administrators, putting me in touch with relevant
    librarians, reading my scholarly work, observing my teaching,
    providing advice on publication venues, writing letters of
    recommendation for fellowships) to the informal (mostly involving long
    conversations facilitated by substances like coffee, beer, and
    I have moved on to another job, but my two mentors are now cherished
    friends and professional collaborators. I miss their daily presence in
    my life. I wouldn't be successful -- I wouldn't even be tenured
    -- without the time, care, and love they offered me, and I'm proud to
    think of myself as their protégé even if they would (probably)
    pooh-pooh the extent of their contribution.
    Wishing to emulate my own mentors, I have become a mentor, but I find
    myself stumbling badly and I fear that I won't be able to help my new
    I have no sinister motives, but unfortunately our relationship has
    been complicated by the friendly affection I feel for her. Wanting her
    to like me as a friend, I find myself violating the structure of a
    good mentoring relationship. Instead of presenting a consistent,
    strong, and confident manner, I find myself lapsing into confession
    and gossip -- two of the fatal Cleopatras of any professional
    My new colleague is fresh out of graduate school. We had chosen Karen
    over a number of highly experienced and well-published assistant
    professors at other institutions. We weren't the only ones interested
    in her, and I attribute some of her decision to accept our offer to a
    flurry of e-mail messages I sent to her last spring explaining some of
    the great things for junior faculty members at our university and
    extolling the high quality of life in Midwestern college towns.
    At the same time, I committed myself to spending the time and energy
    to help her gain full access to the resources of our university. Even
    though our fields are not identical, they're close enough for us to
    talk about scholarship. I resolved to do for my new colleague what my
    own mentors had done for me. Although I knew my time this year would
    be threatened by administrative duties, I would be on the campus daily
    and therefore would be available to provide advice and listen to
    A kink emerged in my grand scheme when I took an immediate liking to
    Karen and her husband, Bill. They had been here a mere two weeks when
    my wife and I decided they would be our best friends in town. Even
    when our conversation focused on professional issues, it felt fully
    personal. And when our families got together, I forgot that there was
    anything institutional about our relationship.
    I desperately wanted Karen and Bill to like us as much as we liked
    them, and at the same time I felt a pit growing in my stomach as I
    contemplated a time -- three or four years down the line, maybe
    -- when the two East Coasters would ride early scholarly success to
    another university, probably in a "blue" state.
    Trying not to think too deeply about it, I went on a charm offensive.
    Unfortunately, my self-perceived "charm" became immediately
    "offensive." I told Karen all about myself. And the more I felt myself
    overreaching, the more I pulled out everything in my arsenal: Within a
    month, my new colleague knew more about me than any colleague should
    be obliged to know.
    Even worse, I told her what I think -- what I really think -- about
    many of our colleagues in the department.
    I answered her e-mail messages immediately, ignoring more important
    communications from students and editors, and I practically brimmed
    over with enthusiasm when she ducked her head into my office.
    I'm sure that some of my efforts have been useful: Karen hasn't
    hesitated to ask me about how our institution works, and I have been
    able to steer her toward reliable administrators as well as inform her
    of the written and unwritten rules of teaching here.
    But I turned our relationship upside down, too. Karen and Bill have a
    son a year older than ours, and I began to go to her for child-rearing
    advice, putting myself in the role of protégé to her parental mentor.
    My wife looked on with sympathy, registering the disappointment on my
    face when I would learn that Karen and Bill were spending Friday night
    with some of her fellow first-year assistant professors and their
    partners rather than with us. I think you get the picture: I was
    I knew all along that my behavior was wrong. The protégé owes the
    mentor nothing in a personal sense. Furthermore, it is crucial for the
    life of a department that all new faculty members develop independent
    lives in town and across campus. I didn't really mean to interfere,
    but my own insecurities -- and perhaps my envy of her youth, her fresh
    intelligence, and the long, unpredictably open future she will have as
    scholar and teacher -- drove me to butt in when I should have made
    myself back off.
    A few weeks ago, I took them a small housewarming gift. Karen and Bill
    met us in the doorway. "We wanted to talk to both of you," Bill said,
    going on to deliver a bombshell.
    When I got home, I said to my wife, "Karen and Bill wanted to talk to
    us. They have some news. Guess."
    "They're leaving!" she said, in a horrified tone. I had been hoping
    that would be my wife's response, since it revealed I was not the only
    one besotted with our new friends.
    "Nope," I said, "Karen's pregnant."
    The joy I feel for my new colleague is a bit too much. I really do
    believe this is a good time in her career for her to have a second
    child, as she'll be able to spend a solid stretch of years doing the
    work required to get tenure without further interruption and with a
    steady (if action-packed) home situation. I also feel good that I can
    help her negotiate our university's byzantine procedures for dealing
    with parental leave. But it's neither morally right nor
    psychologically healthy for me to be as emotionally invested in our
    relationship as I am.
    I can't help myself! Despite repeated promises to reform my behavior,
    I continue to provide way too much information, compounding the
    problem by delivering extensive apologies after dropping especially
    juicy bits of inappropriate opinion. "It's OK," Karen said to me
    wearily over lunch last week. "I figure that's just Frank."
    Becoming a truly good mentor will require me to divest myself of
    emotion -- or at least to separate friendship from the dispassionate
    role of a mentor. A good mentor should talk little and listen lots,
    providing an example of professionalism while dispensing useful
    information. I'm not sure I could be accused of malpractice, but
    neither have I done the job properly.

    Frank Midler is the pseudonym of a newly tenured associate professor
    at a large Midwestern research university. He writes an occasional
    column on life as a newly tenured faculty member. For an archive of
    his previous columns, see


    3. http://chronicle.com/jobs/archive/firstperson/midler.htm

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