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Mentoring the Millennial Faculty Member

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 
1512

Millennials reentering our campuses as faculty members may bring to light some interesting challenges while also providing some promising opportunities. Here, I highlight some of both and provide recommendations for senior faculty and academic administrators charged with working with, mentoring, and providing support for this new cadre of faculty.

Folks:

The posting below looks at the challenges and opportunities that come with new professors who are part of the Millennial generation. It is by Susan K. Gardner, interim dean in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine. (Email: susan.k.gardner@ maine.edu), and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Summer, 2016, Vol. 27, No. 1. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone:  (203) 643-8066} squadepe@wiley.com http://www.departmentchairs.org/journal.aspx

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: The Silent Professor

 

Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

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Mentoring the Millennial Faculty Member

 

Ambitious. Diverse. Technologically savvy. Connected 24/7. Special. Sheltered. Confident. These are just a few terms used by authors such as Neil Howe and William Strauss (2000) to describe what is commonly referred to as the Millennial generation, or those individuals born between 1982 and 2002 in the United States. As these individuals entered their college years, a nearly endless litany of recommendations and exhortations accompanied them in the higher education literature. It was not uncommon to see admonitions such as “The demands that the Millennial generation will place upon higher education require reconsideration not only of the services they are provided but also of the means by which these services are delivered. These students have grown up in a world of instant gratification” (Lowery 2004, 95).

Now, these former students are entering the professoriate as our assistant professors. Given the characteristics of this generation and how they are quintessentially different from the generations preceding them, providing an understanding of and support for these new faculty members is warranted. In this article, I offer an overview of the literature and my own experiences as an administrator in working with Millennial faculty as a way to provide department chairs and others with a framework for best supporting this growing demographic.

Considering Generational Differences

The differences experienced among and between generations—or, as Strauss and Howe (1991) defined, “a cohort-group whose length approximates the span of a phase of life and whose boundaries are fixed by peer personality” (60)—are those bounded by a common age, common beliefs and behaviors, and common societal experiences. Despite the widespread critique of generational literature and research, the concept persists in our collective conscience. If nothing else, the concept of generations and the differences experienced among and between them is one that allows us to understand how societal forces and experiences collectively form a group and provide similar characteristics among its members. And, while we must allow for individual differences and be wary of stereotyping, utilizing the concept
of generations when understanding students and faculty can prove fruitful in preparing for and supporting new groups of individuals entering our campuses.

Characteristics of Millennials and Faculty Roles

Millennials reentering our campuses as faculty members may bring to light some interesting challenges while also providing some promising opportunities. Here, I highlight some of both and provide recommendations for senior faculty and academic administrators charged with working with, mentoring, and providing support for this new cadre of faculty.

24/7 expectations. From the generation that has never been without twenty-four-hour news, the Internet, or cell phones, it is perhaps not surprising that these faculty members may also come to expect relatively instantaneous feedback and quick turnaround time on decisions and assume that if they are sending you emails and texts on the weekend that
you should also be responding to them. This generation was raised on social media, so it is also likely that these faculty may tend toward sharing what some may deem as extremely personal details and information as they learned to constantly update others on their status and feelings and developed a tendency to depersonalize what older generations may see as very personal information. In this sense, “feeling heard” is important to this generation.

It may behoove those who will work with this generation of faculty to provide them with clear expectations and boundaries. This can be accomplished by offering clear guidelines for promotion and tenure, engaging these new faculty with mentors who are provided clear guidelines themselves on topics to discuss and a structured meeting schedule, compiling a desired list of dispositions for professional behaviors that are expected of these new faculty, and clear expectations for communication, including how to best communicate with you, your turnaround time for response, and a clear set of norms around meeting requests and protocol for scheduling times to meet. Keep in mind, however, that the typical once-per-year evaluation may not be enough for a generation that expects almost instantaneous feedback and response. In this way, more informal, regular feedback from a mentor or mentoring committee may provide some space for the unsuspecting department chair or dean.

Achievement oriented. Many have pointed out that the Millennial generation is also very interested in receiving validation and praise. Ronald Berk (2013) explained, “[Millennials] want instant feedback on their performance and feel pressure to succeed at everything they tackle with high expectations for success” (15). Indeed, Millennials represent the generation of children who were given a trophy just for participating and constant lauding from their parents and schools about how special they were. What this means for academic institutions, then, is that praise is not only optional, it is almost a requirement for these individuals to feel they are valued and progressing successfully. Wendy Murphy (2012) went so far as to say that this generation—beyond any of their predecessors—may be more willing to stay at an institution because of the praise and rewards they receive. 

As discussed earlier, clear guidelines and expectations for achieving promotion and tenure are a must for this generation. Without such clarity, academic administrators run the risk of having to constantly affirm and reaffirm success to many of these individuals. If not already done, annual formal reviews of progress toward tenure will go a long way with these individuals as well. Others may experience this generation as more apt to challenge long-standing rules, such as required time lines for probationary periods. This generation may say, “If I’ve met the expectations for tenure in my fourth year, why do I have to wait until my sixth year?” Administrators should provide clear, written guidelines and time lines and be able to offer a strong rationale for the existing rules; this generation may be less likely to accept the simple response of “because we’ve always done it that way.”

Sheltered. The Millennials are the Baby-on-Board generation. From their birth, they have been protected and nurtured at a level no previous generation has experienced. This sheltered nature often translates into a strong sense of commitment to authority figures (this is also the generation of intrusive helicopter parents) but can also lead to an overreliance on the rules and structure for expectations of behavior. In some ways, Millennials may operate under the assumption of “If it doesn’t say I can’t, then I can.” As such, clear guidelines are a must for this generation but can also be an administrator’s undoing. Due to the overreliance on rules and guidelines for this generation, there often seems to be a lack of pragmatism or realism to their expectations. Moreover, this generation is quick to look to authority figures for direction and validation, which can often mean going directly to the top for issues and concerns. Why would one wait to hear from her department chair when she can go directly to the university president with her concern? In other words, this overreliance on authority can also be their downfall if this generation eschews hierarchy and bureaucracy for more immediate feedback and response.

Again, providing clear guidelines and parameters around the reporting structure and bureaucracy of one’s institution may go a long way in helping to socialize this generation of faculty to institutional norms. It is best not to assume that this generation has been taught the ins and outs of academic hierarchy and the often unspoken rules of politics when, in fact, they may have been taught for so many years that “going right to the top” was the most effective and efficient method.

Team oriented. This generation grew up in a world where teamwork was not only encouraged but also rewarded. Much
of their previous academic experience has focused on group projects, collaboration, and win-win scenarios. Howe and Strauss (2000) noted that this generation has had so much structure imposed on them that they find it difficult to work without a net and expect authority figures to protect them when faced with uncomfortable situations. From this perspective, the Millennial faculty member may have an expectation that dealing with difficult students or coworkers is the responsibility of his department chair, dean, or even those in higher administrative positions. Moreover, with the overemphasis on rules and structure in their previous academic experiences, this generation may expect that there should be guidelines to rid themselves of students who are rude, for example.

This team orientation will also come through in their scholarship. This generation will want to collaborate and will expect that collaborative scholarship is not only desired but also required. In this regard, interdisciplinary scholarship could become the modus operandi for this generation of faculty. Therefore, having clear guidelines in promotion and tenure documents about the value and counting of collaborative work will be beneficial for those working with these individuals. How does interdisciplinary scholarship count? What about team-teaching and co-teaching? In what have been more traditionally solitary disciplines, how does collaborative scholarship count and how is it valued? These types of questions should become an integral part of promotion and tenure guidelines and conversations for this generation.

Conclusion

Make no mistake: despite the warnings and frantic calls to action offered by the popular media in response to the Millennials, this generation offers academia an unprecedented set of opportunities to become more engaged, more technologically conversant, and more forward looking than ever before. What may be especially galling to those of us from previous generations may also offer new opportunities to reimagine and reenvision how we do things to provide more clarity and efficiency. Unlike previous generations, Millennials may be less willing to acquiesce to existing hierarchies and prevailing norms. Nevertheless, such discussions may lead us all to ponder why we do things the way we do them— especially if “the way things are always done” isn’t particularly efficient or effective.

Things change—even if slowly in academia. Indeed, we know that previous generations of academics saw preceding generations as “whipper-snappers,” “upstarts,” or “disregarding authority” (Strauss and Howe 1991). In this way, each generation struggles to understand those who came before and those who come after them. Utilizing these conflicts and tensions in a way that assists us in understanding another perspective or provides us with empathy may be one place to start. Asking others to explain their perspectives may go a long way. The Millennials represent only one generation in our academic world. How we treat these faculty members, who will be our department chairs and deans of tomorrow, will also inform how they will mentor others some day. ▲

Resources

Berk, Ronald A. 2013. “Multigenerational Diversity in the Academic Workplace: Implications for Practice.” Journal of Higher Education Management 28 (1): 10–23.

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

Lowery, John Wesley. 2004. “Student Affairs for a New Generation.” In Serving the Millennial Generation, edited by Michael D. Coomes and Robert DeBard, 87–99. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Murphy, Wendy Marcinkus. 2012. “Reverse Mentoring at Work: Fostering Cross-Generational Learning and Developing Millennial Leaders.” Human Resource Management 51 (4): 549–74.

Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. 1991. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Morrow.