Interview with Ben T. Phillips, Ed.D. - Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Director of the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership Program at Union University

About Ben T. Phillips, Ed.D.: Ben Phillips is the Associate Dean for Education in the College of Education at Union University, where he also serves as the Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and as the Director of the Ed.D. and Ed.S. programs. As Associate Dean, he oversees curriculum development and admissions for the Ed.D. and Ed.S. programs, manages student advising and mentorship, and hires and supports faculty. As a Professor of Educational Leadership, Dr. Phillips also teaches numerous courses in the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program and has published prolifically on topics ranging from public school funding, educational efficiency, and avenues for success in education in both the public and private school arenas.

Dr. Phillips earned his Bachelor of Science from Freed-Hardeman University, and both his Master of Science and his Doctor of Education from the University of Memphis.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students optimally for a wide variety of roles in educational and organizational leadership?

[Dr. Phillips] There is one specialization for this program in particular that I would like to focus on, as it is the one specialization that is fully online, and it is called Leadership in School Reform. When we began the Leadership in School Reform program, our intent was to envision what school leaders who already had a background in the basics of Education Leadership would need to get to that next step in their careers. Many folks get into administration and the K-12 school world through the route of a master’s degree program. We wanted to offer a doctoral program that would extend that course of study to the next step.

Most people who have earned their master’s in this space have already had a law course, a school finance course, and some leadership theory courses. Our goal was to design courses that would build off of that foundation, and which would cover advanced leadership concepts and skills. For example, instead of a course in principalship, which is fairly typical for K-12 leadership training, we have a course called The Changing Superintendency, which explores what would it look like to be a leader at the district level. And we also included a course called Entrepreneurial School Leadership, which discusses and builds off of the idea that there is increasing diversity of types of schools, from charter and magnate schools to independent schools, private schools, and of course traditional public schools. This course takes a look at all the different types of schools that are out there, and examines how a school leader has to be, in many ways, an entrepreneur who is thinking about enrollment management, marketing, and budgeting, in a way that traditional public school leaders do not.

We also wanted our program to be very research-based, and therefore we incorporated multiple research courses that are geared towards preparing our students to conduct research to establish best practices or investigate and solve education issues. We cannot really reform schools if we don’t know how to establish evidence-based best practices. We want our graduates to not only be able to evaluate the ideas that others are putting out there, but to also conduct research and analysis themselves, disseminate findings, and also apply their research insights to new ideas for education solutions.

[] Who is the ideal student for this program, and how diverse is each student cohort?

[Dr. Phillips] Let me first say what they have in common. What they have in common is they all have a leadership degree already, or they have leadership experience, or leadership licensure. So we’re talking about working with folks who already have some type of leadership background. This is not the program for someone who is a classroom teacher and who wants to break into leadership; we have a different degree program for that candidate. This is for someone who already has experience and a background in leadership, and who now wants the advanced degree to further enhance their leadership capabilities and credentials.

Because this program is fully online, it has international reach, and therefore we have an incredibly diverse group of students. For example, in one cohort we had a student from Japan and Brazil in the same cohort with our American students. Our program is not tied to state standards the way that some programs are that lead to licensure, and that was by design, as we did not want to feel constrained by local standards–we wanted to be more global than that. We wanted to build a program that was not unique to just public schools, or local or even national education challenges. By broadening our program’s scope, we have enabled our program to serve the needs of diverse students and education environments. We have students from traditional public schools in the same cohort with someone who is leading a private school in inner city Memphis for underprivileged kids, as well as a superintendent for a district of rural public schools in Tennessee. Having this diversity in our cohort enriches the discussion about what it means to be an education leader.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Phillips] Our learning management system is Canvas. Students interact with one another and the professor through Canvas’ many features. We are known as a smaller Christian university in West Tennessee, and we highly value relationships with our students. When we developed our fully online program, we did not want to lose that touch. And so we use a lot of Zoom technology to power our webinars, class discussions, and office hours. There are several key synchronous moments throughout the program, where the cohort gets together with the professor, and they have class discussions live in real-time. And they get to know one another. We want our students to know each other. We want them to know who their professors are, and for professors to really connect with their students.

The synchronous sessions in our program are required, and that is very important to us. When we developed the program, one of our main priorities was ensuring that all of our students have the opportunity to build quality relationships with their professors and fellow students. We did not want students to complete an entire course never having met the professor, and with no idea what the professor’s voice sounds like or what he or she looks like. And we did not want professors to teach an entire course without once knowing what a student’s voice sounds like, or what her or his interests are. That is just not Union–that is not who we are as an institution. So we do expect the student have a webcam and microphone, and that they joined the synchronous sessions because that’s a critical element to the program. These sessions are always scheduled in advance, and students know when to block it out on our calendar.

We have found Zoom’s webinar technology to be a really good way to pull everybody together at the same time. That’s not the preponderance of the program, and most of the program is asynchronous to give our students scheduling flexibility, but certainly within every course, we have some synchronous element so that the professors and students can interact with each other in real-time. Zoom has many robust capabilities. For example, within a class setting, one of the features that Zoom has is called Breakout Rooms, which enables an instructor to divide a class up into small groups of three, where each group gets their own webinar room. This simulates pretty closely what you can do in an actual classroom. And these synchronous interactions are in addition to whatever interaction they may be having through Canvas in terms of asynchronous discussions, collaborations, and mentorship.

[] Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership requires the completion of a Dissertation, as well as a Comprehensive Examination. What does each of these requirements involve, what processes do students take to complete them, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Phillips] Students in our program are evaluated in tiers, which are essentially phases of the program. For the first two phases, students complete all of their coursework, after which they will then pass through to go into the third and final phase of the program, which is the independent phase wherein they complete their dissertation. In order to do that, they have to pass the overall comprehensive exam requirement.

The comprehensive examination has questions that students answer that have them think more broadly about the coursework with which they are engaging. Then they start the independent phase of the program, which is them completing their dissertation and finishing writing that up. In terms of mentorship, early in the program, students are assigned a dissertation chair. That person is their go-to person all the way through until they complete and present their dissertation, so they develop a strong relationship with their faculty advisor. They also have access to me as a program director, and so I help out as well in terms of talking through potential dissertation topics with them, or helping them work through challenges they encounter with their research.

For dissertation guidance and discussions, we use Zoom heavily and we really encourage our dissertation chairs to work with students using that technology. We don’t want faculty mentorship sessions to be just a phone call or an email chain back and forth, so we encourage our students to jump onto a webinar, where they can see their faculty mentor and vice versa, and truly simulate an in-person dissertation conference. Zoom technology is pretty ubiquitous in our program, not just in the classroom but also in students’ interactions with faculty mentors outside of class.

We want students to find a topic that truly interests them and which empowers them to impact the learning outcomes at their place of work or move the school world forward by helping people understand how to reform and improve education. Within these broad parameters, there is a lot of flexibility. We have had students whose topics are focused on new types of learning initiatives, or how to evaluate the effectiveness of innovative instructional strategies.

Oftentimes, students pick a topic that is very near and dear to their hearts, or to their district. For example, we have a student whose district is working on a pilot program in their district, and they want to evaluate the data around that program and its results and use it for their dissertation. We also had a student recently who worked at a Christian school, and who wanted to document the impact that chapel services were having on the spiritual formation of students, not only at his school but also broadly at K-12 Christian schools at large. His study was about the effectiveness of chapel programs, which was a unique topic and one that was quite intriguing.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while they are enrolled?

[Dr. Phillips] We are incredibly proud of our faculty, all of whom have real world experience in addition to their research expertise. For example, in our course The Changing Superintendency, we have an active superintendent who is currently teaching that class. The Entrepreneurial School Leadership course is taught by someone who has taught at both public schools and private, independent schools, and who therefore has insight into the diversity in school environments. Our faculty members not only serve as academic mentors for students, but also as professional resources, many of whom advise and support students even after they finish the program. And while each student gets an official committee of mentors for their dissertation, mentorship really happens throughout all of our classes. Each of our instructors approaches their classes as an opportunity to connect with students and help them to realize their professional goals.

Additionally, Union University is becoming more aware of ways to support fully online students. For example, our library has staff members who are research coaches. And they are developing ways of reaching out to students who are online to ensure they have the proper support during their research assignments and independent dissertation work. Case in point, our student from Japan, for whom coming to campus is of course quite inconvenient, actually made an appointment to meet with the research coach in the library. So we are very fortunate that at Union University, leadership is constantly asking, “How can we support our online students?”

We also have a writing center on campus, which is still just a few years old, but they saw quickly that they needed to build resources for online students that were just as comprehensive as those for our campus-based students. So we have robust technologies at the writing center to enable students to have consultations with tutors. So there are resources outside of the School of Education that also directly work to support our Ed.D. students throughout their time in the program.

[] For students interested in Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Phillips] Our admissions process requires applicants to compile a portfolio of information, which we review holistically. The components of this portfolio include official transcripts of all undergraduate and graduate work, proof of current teacher licensure, four letters of recommendation (one from the applicant’s current supervisor, two from colleagues of the applicant, and one personal reference), a professional resume, a Career Aspiration Essay, and an interview. And so these individual pieces that all come together in our overall portfolio, and then what we do is we submit that portfolio information to our graduate admissions committee, and they review it and make determinations about admissions based on that.

We require so many components to our application so that we can get a comprehensive understanding of a student’s capabilities and potential to succeed in the program. It also allows us to balance out our evaluation of a candidate if one component of his or her application is not as strong. Of course, we expect applicants to have a strong interview, really good recommendations from those who work with them, and a strong academic background from their undergraduate and graduate degrees. But we also understand that students who cannot put forth the “perfect” application may nevertheless have great success in our program, and also contribute greatly to their cohort. And oftentimes, an element of the application that is not as strong can be balanced out by another area that is strong.

[] What makes Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in organizational leadership, secondary and higher education systems improvement, curriculum development, and social justice and accountability in the academic realm?

[Dr. Phillips] First and foremost, Union University is a Christian school, and we deliver our programs from a Christ-centered perspective. So that is going to play out in different ways that make us unique and also particularly strong in the area of student mentorship and socially conscious curricula.

The Union University mission and culture play out in students’ experiences with faculty and staff. It is evident in the way we treat people, the way that we value our students. And we value what their commitment is in their K-12 school setting. The students with whom I am working, and the impact I have on them, is by extension my contribution to the education field and moving it forward, and that is how all our faculty view their role. Even though I’m not in a K-12 setting anymore, I still have a chance to be influential in that way. We recognize and value what our students are doing, and we recognize them. And part of that is because of our faith view of students and the work of education. That is always front and center, the integration of faith and learning in our program.

Another unique feature is what this whole degree program is about. We touched on that earlier. It really aims to propel people into advanced leadership roles, and is geared towards people who already have a background in leadership. We give them the tools to think more broadly and innovatively about solving education challenges. A lot of that is accomplished through our program’s intensive research element, where we have a heavy focus on preparing our students to evaluate existing research while also pushing forth original research of their own. And we accomplish all of this through a program that is fully online. There is no residency requirement, and there are no required campus visits. We have found a way to create a sense of connection and community online, and to provide all of the support systems and touchpoints our online students would want. The only time students have to come to campus is when they graduate.

Thank you, Dr. Phillips, for your excellent insight into Union University’s Online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership with a focus on Leadership in School Reform!