Mentors for Associate Professors

Edwin J. Perkins, February 2001

To the Editor:

I spent a quarter century in the history department at the University of Southern California before retiring in 1997. During my last decade of teaching, I became increasingly aware of the difficulties that many associate professors encounter in publishing a second book and thereby qualifying for promotion to full professor. All of us can appreciate the difficulties faced by assistant professors in transforming their dissertations into publishable manuscripts and earning promotion to associate professor with tenure, but I suspect many of us are not as fully aware of the magnitude of the next challenge in a successful career path.

The completion of a second research project can be particularly daunting. In the first instance, assistant professors typically receive continuous counseling from former graduate school mentors and from interested and sympathetic colleagues within their departments. Many associate professors, in contrast, function in isolation from these traditional sources of academic support. Having published their first book and survived a tenure review, associate professors march into the wilderness alone. Experience has proven that it is easy for associates to get sidetracked—and for a myriad reasons, professional and personal. (Any full professor who has been a member of a promotion committee to review the progress of colleagues in the intermediate ranks knows exactly what I am talking about here.) After a decade or more in rank, many associate professors have concluded that they are rapidly approaching a dead end. Their second major research project is no longer going forward. Morale suffers. Burnout looms.

What can be done? I believe the problem could be alleviated if more associate professors had access to nonjudgmental and disinterested mentors outside their own universities. I propose that officials of the AHA consider the establishment of a discreet and confidential mentoring program for faculty who are highly motivated to take the steps necessary to qualify for promotion to full professor, but lack direction. The volunteer mentors would be drawn from the pool of retired professors, like myself, who would agree to assist one or two associates on an annual basis. I anticipate that volunteers could prove helpful in several ways. First, they would read book manuscripts, or selected chapters, and offer editorial advice. Second, volunteers would act, if necessary, as intermediaries in negotiations with the editors of university presses. Helping to identify the most promising publication outlets and then taking the initiative with editors can be extremely beneficial service in jump-starting stalled careers.

I am soliciting feedback from the two groups most likely to be affected by this proposal: first, from retired professors who might want to volunteer their services, and, second, from associate professors who might want to avail themselves of these proposed services. I am not seeking commitments from anyone at this point, just a preliminary expression of interest. If enough members respond favorably, I will pursue the matter with AHA officials. You can contact me by e-mail (perkinsej@aol.com), by phone (301) 260-1383, or by snail mail addressed to 16612 Cavalry Drive, Rockville, MD 20853.

—Edwin J. Perkins
Rockville, Md.