NYUCD Moves to Create a Culture of Faculty Mentoring

Louis Terracio, PhD
Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology;
Associate Dean for Research

By Louis Terracio, PhD
Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology; Associate Dean for Research

In a message sent to the NYUCD community as he was preparing to assume the position of Executive Vice President of NYU, former Dean Mike Alfano wrote, “It is the esprit de corps among our students, faculty, and staff that has made possible our achievements, and I am convinced that as long as every member of our community remains dedicated to safeguarding this most precious asset, NYUCD’s future will be nothing short of extraordinary.”

With the arrival of Dean Charles N. Bertolami, NYUCD is positioned to take the concept of “esprit de corps” to the next level. If you’ve read Dean Bertolami’s message on page 4, you know that mentoring is among his highest priorities. I fully share both Charles’s belief in the intrinsic value of mentoring and his goal of creating a true culture of mentoring at NYUCD. Indeed, since joining NYUCD in 2000, I have made mentoring a vital component of an overall plan to revitalize NYUCD’s research environment. Now, with the support of our new Dean, plus the active involvement of the department chairs and senior faculty, we have created a program that recognizes how overwhelming it can be for a new faculty member to come into an institution as large and complex as NYUCD, and how important it is for every new faculty member to have access to a group of people who are committed to serving as chief navigators on that person’s journey toward promotion and tenure.

The nucleus of the faculty mentoring program: An experiment that paid off
Today, NYUCD ranks fifth among U.S. dental schools in receiving funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is a remarkable achievement, considering that NYUCD ranked 41st on the national research list just nine years ago. A number of factors are responsible for this impressive rise, all of which derive from a philosophy that makes research a priority. I want to mention one factor in particular, because it provides an example of the power of mentoring.

In 2001, I instituted a weekly research mentoring “workshop,” which allows grant seekers to discuss their applications with one another as they are being developed and to benefit from ongoing feedback in a safe, nurturing environment, where interaction and cross-pollination of ideas can flourish. Instead of working in isolation, grant seekers are encouraged to work collaboratively to solve one another’s problems and to facilitate the grant development process. A wonderful result of this initiative was that NYUCD faculty wrote more and better grants and began securing more significant funding. It is worth noting that not everyone who attends the workshop is a grant seeker. Some people come simply to observe, to learn how people can give and respond to constructive criticism-which in itself is a mentoring experience.

At the same time, mentoring relationships were encouraged between newly recruited A-plus level research faculty and junior faculty members. This type of mentoring relationship also drove NIH-funded, faculty-mentored student research, which has also grown exponentially in recent years. Witnessing the special relationships that develop between mentor and protégé, and experiencing the joy of watching a protégé thrive, have been among my happiest and most gratifying experiences at NYUCD.

Going forward
This workshop approach is the prototype for the broader program we have created to help new faculty adapt to NYUCD and to facilitate their ability to thrive professionally. Every new faculty member is provided with access to a mentoring committee consisting of the department chair, who has overall responsibility for making the process work, plus two additional senior faculty members (tenured associate or full professors), whose interests and expertise match those of the new faculty member. For example, in research, this would mean a history of grants and publications in a research area similar to that of the newcomer.

Mentors are selected by the department chair in consultation with other senior faculty in the department and the Associate Dean for Research, and all mentoring committees are approved by the Executive Vice Dean. Importantly, since mentoring is time consuming, all mentors must be volunteers.

No mentor is better than a bad mentor
When we talk about mentoring, what we are really saying is that someone’s professional future is at stake. This is serious business and not all people are cut out for it. David Clutterbuck of the European Mentoring Center describes the characteristics of people who should not be mentors in The 12 Habits of the Toxic Mentor, his lighthearted look at mentoring gone wrong.

Here are a few of the habits, according to Clutterbuck, that make for a toxic mentor: (1) Start from the point of view that you-from your vast experience and broader perspective-know better than the protégé what’s in his or her interest; (2) remind the protégé how fortunate he or she is to have your undivided attention; (3) never ask them what they should expect of you-how would they know anyway? (4) never, never admit that this could be a learning experience for you, too.

What does a good mentor look like?
If the above describes a “toxic mentor,” what does a good mentor look like? Above all, a good mentor is a role model. Dean Bertolami likes to define a role model as “a condition occurring in the mind of a student or protégé that combines a given action with the identity of another person, a mentor whom the student respects, admires, and ideally feels affection toward.” Expressed more simply, the protégé says, “This is how Dr. X would do things, and I want to be just like Dr. X.”

A good mentor wants his or her protégé to avoid making the same mistakes the mentor made; to successfully balance teaching, research, and service obligations; and, ultimately, to achieve promotion and tenure within a reasonable time frame.

Since teaching is NYUCD’s primary mission and since all faculty must teach, the faculty-mentoring program operates on the premise that while excellence in teaching comes naturally to some new faculty, but not to all, every new faculty recruit-not just those on the tenure track-needs a mentor. A teaching mentor might help the novice faculty member surmount challenges such as teaching large classes, which may include up to 350 students, and differentiating between pedagogical strategies suitable to professional education with its lock-step curriculum and those that work in an undergraduate environment with a more open-ended curriculum. The teaching mentor will also observe lectures and work with her/his protégé to develop a plan to build a significant teaching portfolio.

Because New York University is a research-one university, NYUCD, like all NYU component schools, must conduct top-quality research in order to remain part of NYU. To that end, a research mentor will meet with the faculty protégé to develop a research plan that includes a timeline and milestones for submission of grants, papers, and the like. This should also include identifying any additional career strategies, such as courses, seminars, and meetings, that the protégé should attend.

The third component of the trio of targets that a new faculty member must aim for is the achievement of distinction through service. A good mentor is able to communicate to new faculty that pure data is a poor substitute for wisdom, experience, common courtesy, and the quality of good citizenship that goes beyond teaching and research. Such a mentor is so committed to serving the institution that the new faculty member cannot help but act the same way.

A good mentor creates a kind of behavioral apprenticeship for the protégé. An example would be a clinic mentor who helps the new recruit not only to adjust quickly to clinical guidelines and core institutional values, including compliance issues, but also to become the best clinician she or he can be, not only by knowing and acting on the best and latest scientific evidence, but also by treating students, colleagues, and staff with tact and consideration. To that end, all new clinical faculty will have the opportunity to spend time “shadowing” a master mentor in the clinic.

Mentors and protégés in nonclinical settings will develop their own strategies to develop a “service” ethic. The point is that all new faculty members, whether in the clinic, classroom, or lab, have the opportunity and the obligation to model themselves on mentors who are recognized for distinguished service to the institution, patients, and the campus community as a whole.

In short, at NYUCD, the days of leaving the success of new faculty members to chance are over. Thanks to the faculty-mentoring program, we now have a mechanism in place to empower new faculty to become more successful than they could if they were going it alone.