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Report urges better faculty mentoring

A Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) working group chaired by Professor J. Mark Schuster has produced a four-page report that calls for a better system for undergraduate mentoring by faculty members.

The paper, entitled "Mentoring Undergraduates at MIT," was the subject of a recent conversation with departmental undergraduate academic officers. It is being circulated to faculty members and will be sent to the Undergraduate Association. Two undergraduates were members of the working group.

"We began to look at advising in response to CUP student members' suggestions," said CUP Chair Robert L. Jaffe, the Morningstar Professor of Science and director of the Center for Theoretical Physics. "We soon discovered that both mentoring and advising are tough issues for MIT and other top universities. This year's activities represent the beginning of a long-term commitment on the part of CUP."

The timing coincides with the release of the final report of the Advising at MIT Discovery Project, which has been looking at the use of augmented online facilities for providing advising information, as well as a faculty vote to change "Rules and Regulations of the Faculty" to give CUP formal oversight of undergraduate advising.

"Giving the CUP formal oversight over undergraduate advising is only the first step in putting advising and mentoring on the table for Institute-wide discussion," said Professor Schuster of urban studies and planning. "We expect that our report will become the basis for action in the coming year."

The report says: "Many faculty members already serve as excellent mentors to our undergraduates and at least some departments take their mentoring responsibilities quite seriously. But high-quality mentoring ought to be the responsibility of the Institute as a whole and not relegated solely to departments. To achieve a substantial change in what has become an ongoing problem, we will have to find ways to recruit faculty broadly to the mentoring task."

The paper divides mentoring into four complementary roles: teaching, guiding, facilitating and advising. Acknowledging that "teaching is an important form of mentoring," the report focuses on guiding, facilitating and advising. Attempts in the past to "fix the problems" with advising in the hope that mentoring would improve have not been completely effective.

"The feedback that we have already received from various corners of the Institute suggests that we do not do as good a job at mentoring our students as they would like or as we would like," the paper says. "In large part, that is because we have not adopted a common value that mentoring is an important, if not key, element in what we should be doing as a faculty and as a university."

The report lists the advantages that a quality mentoring system would provide for both students and faculty members. It suggests that junior faculty be encouraged to become mentors and advisers, beginning with their second year on the faculty. "Departments should be expected to make mentoring and advising part of their agreements with junior faculty," the report says.

The paper concludes: "We believe that mentoring is first and foremost the responsibility of the MIT faculty. This does not mean that effective mentoring cannot be found elsewhere. Various areas of the Institute have experimented in involving fellow students, staff and alumni in mentoring. While we applaud these efforts, we feel that they cannot be a complete replacement for high-quality mentorship from the faculty themselves."

"Mentoring Undergraduates at MIT" and the Advising at MIT Discovery Project report are available on line.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 23, 2001.

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