How perceived cultural support affects the mentorship of undergraduate researchers by minority faculty members

Davis, S. N., Garner, P. W., Jones, R. M., & Mahatmya, D. (2020). The role of perceived support and local culture in undergraduate research mentoring by underrepresented minority faculty members: Findings from a multi-institutional research collaboration. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 0(0), 1–13.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Researchers are becoming more interested in examining the factors that influence the likelihood of faculty members (especially ones that are minorities) becoming mentors 
  • This study examines how perceived cultural support affects the kind of faculty-student mentoring relationships undergraduate researchers have
    • It also explores the similarities and differences in which individual and systemic factors influence faculty-student mentorships
  • An online survey was distributed to 215 faculty members (25 were minorities) from three different institutions 
  • Findings show that support from departments and the institution affected the types of mentorships undergraduate researchers were receiving 
  • Results also indicate that departmental and institutional support has more of an impact in creating mentoring opportunities for minority faculty members than for White faculty members   
  • Emphasizes how much of an impact minority faculty members have in college students’ academic success
    •  This is especially imperative given the fact that having faculty mentors of the same race and/or gender correlates with increased students success in college
    • This is also crucial since the percentage of minority faculty doesn’t sufficiently match with the underrepresented college student population 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Undergraduate research is value-added experiential learning that cultivates creative and intentional learners in and out of the classroom. However, only recently have researchers begun investigating the mechanisms related to mentoring undergraduate researchers, with scant attention being paid to the experiences of underrepresented minority (URM) faculty members. Using unique data collected from an online survey of faculty members (overall N = 215, URM n = 25), we find departmental and institutional support to be the key factors correlated with mentoring undergraduate research students. Reported support is more influential for URM faculty than white faculty, providing evidence of the importance of institutional policy as a mechanism to facilitate URM faculty participation in the high impact practice of mentoring undergraduate researchers. The findings are discussed in the context of institutional initiatives designed to support student and faculty success in the 21st century.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Across the three institutions surveyed, faculty members responded positively to engaging undergraduates in scholarly and creative activity. Over 75% of the faculty who were surveyed already involve undergraduates in scholarly activity. However, faculty members do report variation in the extent to which there are institutional and structural supports and their behavior corresponds accordingly.

Departmental and institutional supports are important for all faculty members. All faculty were more likely to mentor undergraduates if they perceive that work as expected and supported by local academic unit and institution. We found that while there are higher reported levels of support for White faculty, reported support levels are more influential for URM faculty than White faculty on their mentoring behavior. Specifically, departmental support is 32% more important for URM faculty than for White faculty, while institutional support is four times as important for URM faculty relative to White faculty as a correlate of whether the faculty member will report having mentored an undergraduate researcher. In addition, there is less variability in types of institutional support reported among URM faculty than among White faculty, as the Cronbach’s alpha for URM faculty is .92 while the alpha for White faculty is .73. Among our participants, the experiences of institutional support among URM faculty seem to be more consistent than among White faculty.

This difference in the influence of perceived levels of support is the key contribution of this paper. Previous scholarship had not documented the extent to which institutional policy can lead to greater perceived support for URM faculty members to facilitate participation in the high impact practice of mentoring undergraduate researchers. This paper provides evidence that the experiences of being an URM faculty member shapes the interpretation of policy given the racialized nature of higher education and the racial history of institutions and departments within institutions. Within the organizational learning framework (Bensimon, 2005; Besharov & Brickson, 2016) of this study, our results imply that institutional actors interpret policies and practices, the core of organizational identities, in different ways that influence the activities in which they engage as part of the organization. More research is needed to unpack why faculty, especially along racial/ethnic identities, hold the cognitive frames they do. The locally constructed organizational identity is more important for White faculty members than is the institutionally constructed organizational identity, whereas both are similarly important for URM faculty. This suggests that the cognitive frames shaping how White faculty members interpret their own behaviors are more likely to be constructed at the local level. Perhaps URM faculty feel their behavior will be equally evaluated by those in the institution and the local academic unit whereas White faculty feel their evaluation will come largely from the local academic unit. Qualitative interviews would elucidate this correlation.


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