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The Importance of Mentorship and Implications for Underrepresented Groups in Times of Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lauren Azevedo and Brie Haupt
June 5, 2020

Mentorship can be defined as a relationship between two or more individuals whereby an experienced individual (mentor) provides an individual (mentee) advice on career development, advancement or psychological support. Mentor relationships are paramount to successful scholars in public administration, policy and affairs for both career and psychological functions. These benefits are becoming increasingly critical as universities across the globe are adapting to the unique educational environment resulting from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and rising uncertainty amongst faculty.

Several benefits occur when there is a well-developed mentoring program in place with clear goals and program designs. Mentorship impacts faculty preparation, training, retention and promotion, and universities benefit from its outputs while also responding to policy changes and institutional transitions. We see where faculty mentorship has garnered specific attention in the emergence of university-specific programs and mentoring institutes. For instance, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) incorporates mentorship for new faculty members by pairing them with junior and tenured faculty members to specifically address different phases of the tenure process and set up new faculty for success. The University of New Mexico (UNM)’s Mentoring Institute offers mentor training services for various programs and departments. The National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) supports researchers in diverse fields with evidence-based practices and professional development highlighting benefits and challenges of diversity, inclusiveness and culture.

Although mentorship programs are still relatively informal or underused throughout many schools of public administration, policy and affairs, we see its importance increasing for institutional success and for individuals belonging to underrepresented groups who historically face equity challenges. Some universities acknowledge this gap, such as Penn State’s senior mentor program housed in the educational equity office for tenure-track faculty from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups to facilitate tenure and promotion success. Mentorship presents opportunities to not only attract historically underrepresented candidates to a program, but also can be critical in retaining these individuals and guiding towards successful tenure attainment while addressing equity issues. We must continue the fight for equity and acknowledge how times of crises not only reveal issues of equity, but also present windows of opportunity to make positive changes if those in leadership positions are aware and willing.

It is also important to note that personal characteristics of the mentor and mentee, such as an individual’s need for power, self-esteem, self-efficacy, drive and locus of control, may impact the success of mentorship. These individual considerations are just as vital for success as institutional support. Thus, the matching process of mentoring relationships is pivotal, along with acknowledging the mentoring program as a service and investment to the university. Moreover, mentorship requires some level of risk, as an investment of time can be taken from other faculty activities like research and sharing concerns can impact perceived vulnerability.

In terms of historical structural inequities, we know that individuals identifying as women and other underrepresented groups face unique issues such as career placement, progression and underrepresentation in the academy. Shannon Portillo echoes this sentiment and well highlights some of these issues in, “Mentoring minority and female students: Recommendations for improving mentoring in public administration and public affairs programs,” published in the Journal of Public Affairs Education. Portillo suggests there are noteworthy structural differences found between white males and minority females. More specifically, mentors identifying as men and/or white tend to have relationships focused on career advancement while historically underrepresented mentors tend to focus on psychological functions (interpersonal relationships, acceptance, counseling, friendship, etc.).

Universities can utilize formal or informal networks for mentoring relationships and programs to achieve goals and respond to changes in innovative ways, particularly in this time of COVID-19 response. However, this requires self and organizational reflection as each mentorship type has specific needs, such as capability of potential mentors, attainable goals and objectives and time commitments. The literature on mentoring, although vast, often lacks theoretical discussions and concepts for achieving optimal results. Thus, we call for empirical work on mentoring, particularly for historically underrepresented faculty and the impact of mentorship in times of crisis.

With this in mind, we make several recommendations for the current environment:

  1. Regardless if your institution has a mentorship program, survey faculty members and determine the mentorship needs as it relates to faculty success in times of crisis;
  2. Solicit mentors from those identifying as a historically underrepresented group, including peer mentors;
  3. Determine whether mentor relationships need to be one-on-one or a group structure;
  4. Integrate mentorship into evaluation processes as programmatic investments and service opportunities;
  5. Recognize focus and outcomes of mentorships could vary between career advancement or psychological functions; and
  6. Promote research on theoretical discussions and concepts for achieving optimal results in crisis and non-crisis periods.

If done with careful consideration, mentors can positively impact the development of assigned or requested mentees of all faculty through the COVID-19 pandemic. Mentorship can lead to significant social exchange and continued faculty support.


Lauren Azevedo, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg. Email: [email protected]

Brie Haupt, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Wilder School of Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Email: [email protected]

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