Professors Who Mentor Are Professors Who Matter

Jeanne Sinkford, DDS, PhD
Associate Executive Director of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) and Director of the ADEA Center for Equity and Diversity

Jean Sinkford, DDS, PhD
Associate Executive Director of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) and Director of the ADEA Center for Equity and Diversity

This article is based on a conversation with Dr. Jeanne Sinkford, Dean Emeritus, Howard University College of Dentistry, and currently Associate Executive Director of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) and Director of the ADEA Center for Equity and Diversity.

For more than 40 years, Dr. Sinkford has been an innovator and leader in dental education. In 1975, she became the first woman dean of a U.S. dental school, Howard University College of Dentistry. Coincidentally, her appointment as Dean came during International Women’s Year, a United Nations-sponsored event designed to foster discussion of both the formal and informal restrictions that confine women. More recently, Dr. Sinkford received the National Dental Association’s 2007 Trailblazer Award, given to exemplars who have created paths for others to follow in clinical dentistry, dental education, community service, and organized dentistry, as well as in the social, political, and economic progress of the profession. What follows are her thoughts on the importance of mentoring in dental education.

Why should dental education be concerned with mentoring? Simply put, mentoring develops the profession. It’s not enough to educate and train future dentists; we must also nurture them. And this is important not only because we want to make dental education a more humanistic experience and to create caring, compassionate dentists, but also because mentoring is useful and powerful in cultivating the next generation of dental educators. That has certainly been my experience.

At the time I entered dental school, there were only a few women in the field. I was fortunate to be at a minority institution, Howard University College of Dentistry, where talent was more important than gender. The Dean, Dr. Russell Dixon, was committed to building a quality faculty by mentoring talented students.

I also benefited from an endowment left to Howard by a woman trustee, Louise C. Ball, for the specific purpose of developing faculty. She had been on the faculty at Columbia, and she shared Dean Dixon’s vision of the need to provide professional development opportunities for future dental educators and researchers. Dean Dixon used that endowment to establish a fund to provide grants for advanced training for dental graduates who were in turn obligated to return to Howard to teach. So in addition to mentoring me during my predoctoral education,

Dean Dixon found the resources to enable me to advance my career after graduation. When I became Dean, I carried on that tradition by using the fund to recruit junior faculty and provide them with the resources to advance professionally.

Another great mentoring experience came via my relationship working as an Associate Dean with Dr. Joseph Henry, my immediate predecessor as Dean at Howard. My original and most formative mentor, however, was my mother, who taught me that being female was no barrier to anything I wanted to achieve. When I think of a mentor, I think of someone who doesn’t give up on you until you are a success. A mentor is a trusted, respected counselor, someone recognized by the protégé as expert and accomplished in her or his field, someone who can give advice in a positive and encouraging way, and someone capable of fostering empathy, dialogue, and intimacy.

When I was Dean at Howard, we had both formal and informal mentoring programs for students. The formal program focused on supporting at-risk students by putting them into structured programs with faculty mentors who would help them rise to their potential. These students might have academic or personal problems or difficulty making the transition from undergraduate life to a more intense academic environment, and the mentoring programs helped to bridge the gap. But there was also a lot of informal peer mentoring among students, which today often occurs in cyberspace.

We were also committed to mentoring junior faculty. Indeed, it was part of the Howard culture for the department chairs to take this on as a natural part of their duties and responsibilities. In support of this activity, we hired an educational psychologist who was very instrumental in helping the department chairs to become mentors. This person’s responsibilities ranged from teaching the chairs how to mentor so that their protégés could successfully adapt and thrive in their new environment, to how to conduct annual performance reviews.

What the program did not include-and I think this is the case at many schools-was a formal system for recognizing and rewarding effective faculty mentors.

We need to find ways to grant recognition and rewards to mentors who guide their protégés to success just as we do for other markers of academic excellence, such as publications and research awards. We need to recognize professors who mentor “as professors who matter.” If you think of the title “professor” as a brand with intrinsic, widely recognized value, then mentoring should be thought of as an additional credential, which adds value to the brand. Mentoring should also be recognized as providing a sense of fulfillment beyond that which one gets from being a great clinician or a great lecturer, because it expands one’s ability to mold and create future faculty who will generate new knowledge. In order to reward, we must be able to determine evaluative outcomes for protégés, mentors, and institutional goals and objectives. Research in this area is needed.

I am fortunate to be intimately involved with precisely this kind of research in my capacity as the Principal Investigator on the Minority Dental Faculty Development Program and Access to Dental Careers Program, both funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Both programs are committed to expanding the diversity of dental education and to the proposition that those who populate dental education should reflect the diversity of our society. Specifically, they are designed to recruit more minorities to study dentistry and to facilitate advanced training and career development for future faculty. The Kellogg Foundation programs, moreover, are the first to fund research on the specific benefits of mentoring programs for minority dental faculty.

Thanks to these programs, which are funded through 2009, we will have objective data that will allow us to build evaluation mechanisms into our mentoring programs, and subsequently to develop ways to reward outstanding mentors for their service not only to their protégés, but also to the institution, the profession, and the surrounding community.