By: W. David Bradford
No all mentors are formally assigned. The most important mentor in my career wasn’t on a dissertation committee or told to keep an eye on me by a department chair. My most important mentor, Randy Ellis, may be surprised to know that this is how I see him. That’s because Randy was (and is) the best sort of mentor. There were no strained, obligatory, meetings where he was expected to be wise. Rather, he was just present, had a wry smile for me when I vented about the frustrations of being a young academic, and always made sure to include me in the professional life of health economists in the Boston area when I was a naïve assistant professor in the early 1990s.
Most of the major events in my life have involved blindly stumbling into something for want of knowing better. After I completed my Ph.D. in Baton Rouge Louisiana (having grown up in rural Mississippi), I found myself in the Department of Economics at the University of New Hampshire – a long way from home and, at that point, only having ever met a few people who called themselves health economists. So, I picked up the phone and called someone whose work I admired. When Randy answered the cold call, I told him I was a new health economist in the area and wondered if there were any workshops or seminars that I could attend. He immediately invited me down to a seminar the next day, and then (to my shock) invited me to dinner with the speaker afterward. The experience was a revelation, and I almost never missed a seminar after. Every time there was an out of town visitor, without exception, Randy made sure I was included as one of the “locals” who went out to dinner. I learned more from those seminars, after-talk drinks, and dinners than I ever did in graduate school.
But, in his usual quiet and non-showy manner, Randy also kept a watch on me in myriad other ways. He introduced me to dozens of colleagues. He asked about my work and then focused on what I said, offering suggestions when I’d made a wrong turn and pointing out avenues I hadn’t thought of. He gave great career advice. (He once told me not to let my university talk me into being a center director because it only sounded good from the outside and was actually too much work; I didn’t take that advice, and while I’m glad for the experience, Randy was right.) From time to time, he would remember some project we talked about years earlier that I hadn’t make progress on, then give me encouragement to finish it. In fact, he still does all those things for me.
These are the lessons I’ve learned from Randy Ellis’ mentorship: always be generous – most importantly with your time – and always be kind. His mentorship to me is like his mentorship to countless others. He’s always mindful to include students and young (and not-so-young!) colleagues in his work and professional life. It’s hard to overstate the value of breaking down the real or perceived fences separating those on the “inside” from those who might not have been trained in a rarified academic atmosphere. It’s possible to provide critique of someone’s work, serious critique if necessary, and to be kind about it. Excellent mentors are like excellent athletic coaches: they help inspire their charges with a vision of success, and then give just enough guidance for them to be able to find their own way to it. Randy Ellis is an outstanding mentor in this tradition.
This brings me to where I started. Not all mentors are formally assigned. Randy may be a little surprised reading this essay; I’ve never actually told him any of this. Similarly, you may be in a position to emulate Randy with a younger colleague in your circle. Indeed, you may already be doing that whether you know it or not. So, a bit of advice from me, if you’ll permit it: pay attention; be generous; be kind; and always ask if the colleague standing on the periphery of the conversation would like to join the rest of you for coffee. It makes a big difference.
David Bradford is Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia.