Interview with Marlon I. Cummings, Ph.D. - Program Director for the Online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership at Governors State University

About Marlon I. Cummings, Ph.D.: Marlon Cummings is an Assistant Professor and the Program Director for Governors State University’s (GSU) Online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership. As Director, Dr. Cummings oversees the curriculum for the program’s three concentrations, which span both the College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences. He also manages student recruitment, admissions, advising, and career coaching for this program. As an Assistant Professor, he teaches courses in leadership theory and ethics, school culture, school improvement, diversity and social justice in education, and public safety research. His research foci include culturally responsive leadership, collaborative school improvement and reform strategies, education policy issues and challenges, and the relationship between curriculum and activism and social service. Dr. Cummings is also active on numerous boards and councils at GSU, including the Faculty Senate, where he serves as the GSU representative to the Illinois Board of Higher Education Faculty Advisory Council, the Institutional Policy Committee, and the Campus Inclusion Team. He is one of the founding faculty advisors for GSU’s Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi Education Honor Society.

After earning his Bachelor of Science in Biological Engineering, Dr. Cummings taught middle school math and science while earning his Masters in Public Administration from American University. Following this, he served as the Director of Programs for a national non-profit that sought to prevent and address bullying and harassment among secondary school students, a role that he found to be extremely rewarding and a formative milestone in his career. Part of this role included training teachers, social workers, school administrators, and school counselors in bullying prevention and fostering a positive and supportive school culture. Dr. Cummings subsequently worked as a Principal Consultant with the Illinois State Board of Education while earning his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He began his work as an instructor in educational leadership at Concordia University, Chicago. Prior to accepting a professorship at GSU, Dr. Cummings worked for Advance Illinois, a non-profit advocacy organization committed to promoting equality and social justice in public education systems and policies.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of Governors State University’s Online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students to solve complex problems through advanced skills in research, data analysis, program planning, effective communication, and organizational and educational leadership?

[Dr. Cummings] The program is offered almost 100 percent online, and students can choose from three different concentrations: Superintendent (P-12), Higher Education Administration, and Not-for-Profit/Social Entrepreneurship. I will start with the most complicated concentration, which is the Superintendent concentration. We recently restructured this concentration, and it is now a hybrid program and students come to campus every other week. We enacted this change because we found that, in terms of Illinois policies for obtaining superintendent licensure, it was very difficult to train superintendents in an online space and ensure they could earn their superintendent license. This program is really dictated by the Illinois State Board’s regulations and rules around licensure, so we had to follow very specific guidelines around that to best support our student base. Making the program hybrid helped us offer the students in this concentration what they needed.

The other two concentrations, Higher Education Administration and Not-for-Profit/Social Entrepreneurship, are 100 percent online with only optional visits to campus. Students from all three concentrations take courses together at the beginning. They all take a leadership core foundation, which covers research and leadership theory, organizational change, leadership and diversity, finance, data analysis and decision-making, and strategic planning and collaboration. All students, regardless of concentration, take the same courses in the same sequence during that first year.

In years two and three, students split into their concentration courses. In Higher Education Administration, students take courses in areas such as college and university leadership, organizational governance, political and legal issues in higher education, fiscal management in higher education, and theories of teaching and learning in adult education. For the Not-for-Profit/Social Entrepreneurship concentration, students take classes in non-profit public policy and finance, advanced social entrepreneurship, organizational management and behavior, public relations for non-profits, working with government agencies and grants, and strategic planning and project evaluation. The Superintendent concentration covers concepts, skills, and best practices in areas such as school personnel administration, diversity in education, school facilities and sustainability, school finance, advanced school law, and district improvement planning.

The coursework across the different concentrations mirror each other, in a way, as all three concentrations revolve around organizational management, education principles and ethics, budgeting and finance for both organizations and education/non-profit systems, and resolving issues within organizations and systems. All students at the end of their courses must take a qualifying examination before embarking on the bulk of their capstone project work. In year four, students focus on their final capstone project, which we as a faculty team have been working on with them throughout their enrollment in the program.

While there is not an on-campus requirement for our program for most students, we do bring students together twice a year for what we call all-cohort meetings, which are optional but highly beneficial. When we bring students together for professional development, networking, and talking directly with faculty, it really helps students in terms of making them feel part of a community, and that they are not alone on an island. Through these meetings, combined with the interactions students and faculty have remotely, we aim to create more of a family and a feeling of belonging.

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

[Dr. Cummings] Blackboard is our learning management system. In addition to Blackboard, faculty in the program use a lot of other types of technologies to engage with students within and outside of the classroom, such as Zoom and VoiceThread. Faculty hold office hours, and can communicate with students over email, chat, phone, or video. And while faculty are not required to host synchronous discussion sections, some of us do offer that to our students.

For example, I will often offer a synchronous session with students, particularly in research classes when it is a lot easier to have a conversation versus trying to go back and forth via e-mail or a discussion post. During these sessions, students can ask any questions they may have and discuss course concepts. For students who cannot or do not want to attend, I tape these synchronous sessions and make them available, or depending on the content covered in the synchronous session, I’ll reach out to students who did not attend and say, “Hey, I know you weren’t there at the discussion, and I wanted to touch base about whether you’d like to sit down and have a quick chat about this or that course concept or assignment.” Sometimes students take me up on the offer and sometimes they won’t, but the key is that these discussions are available and optional. We don’t require students to attend synchronous sessions in our program, as we know that for many students it can be challenging to have to schedule these sessions into their busy work and family lives.

In addition to faculty support, we have a Blackboard space which we call a Communicate Center, which is a non-academic, community-oriented site that is always there and always available. On Communicate Center, we will post more informal check-ins to see how students are doing, job postings, or notifications about upcoming conferences or career fairs. Faculty will post resources that might not have to do with their particular class, but which are nevertheless relevant to our student cohort as a whole. This is another way in which we stay engaged with students in the online environment.

[] Governors State University’s Online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership requires the completion of a Capstone Project. What does the Capstone Project involve, what processes do students take to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. Cummings] Our capstone is structured like a dissertation, with five chapters that outline a research objective, background, methodologies, results, and discussion of those results. While the structure is similar to a dissertation, the difference is really in what students are researching. The topic that students decide to research depends on their chosen concentration in the program.

Students in the Superintendent concentration are often looking at school systems and structures and the challenges they face. So for example, one student in the program was looking at the change in student demographics across several counties in Illinois, and how that change in demographics hasn’t happened among teachers in these counties. Many of these teachers studied found that that they had apprehensions about being able to optimally support students of different races, cultures, and languages. They wanted more guidance around how to provide this support to their students as the diversity within their classrooms grew. The student’s research project centered on finding ways that his school district could best support teachers to help them feel better equipped to support the needs of all their students. This then led to his leading that initiative for the district, which was a great leadership experience for him.

In the Higher Education concentration, students might look at issues around student retention, or experiences that deans of student services have. We had a student explore what happens when a dean transitions to a presidency position, and what matriculation for that type of transition looks like. We had another student who was looking at the challenges of women who are in higher education leadership and more specifically, at women seeking vice president, provost, or president roles and their challenges in ascending to those roles.

In the Not-for-Profit/Social Entrepreneurship arena, we have students looking at issues around a diverse number of topics, but a lot of them tend to focus on equity issues in education–for example, issues around lack of resources for students in need. We have a student who wants to look at developing a school for severely learning disabled students in the 18-22 year-old range. This student has a background in education, and sees that there is this need in her community–she lives in and around a low-income area. She wants to provide that resource for her community and demonstrate the need to provide learning supports for students who are severely learning disabled and who need resources, guidance, and other support beyond the age of 18. As you can see, our students tend to select projects according to what they have observed and experienced in their practice, and the problems they are personally and professionally invested in solving.

Within their first year in the program, students learn about the structure of the research and writing of the capstone, and begin thinking about the problems of practice they have seen and would like to address. By students’ second year, we are really pushing them to refine what their research topic is going to be, and they start developing a preliminary proposal. The proposal that they write may not be exactly what they end up researching, but it gives them a sense of the necessary components and structure of the first three chapters of their capstone project. Sometimes it works out where the topic students choose for their preliminary proposal is exactly what they end up researching for their capstone, though students oftentimes need to rework or retool their initial research question. At this stage there will always be some revisions needed on the proposal, and it’s never a final product because students are still halfway through the program at that point. We have them start this process very early on in their enrollment so that they have a good idea of what to expect as they progress to the final stages of their capstone.

By year three, students will have selected a chair to supervise their research and writing. We help them to identify a chair, and by the time they are taking their second research course, we encourage students to start considering potential chairs. We allow students to pick their chairs, and they do not have to be in our department, as long as they are tenure-track faculty members at Governors State University. Students also select two additional faculty members to serve on their three-person committee, which reviews drafts of their capstone and provides feedback to help students further refine their paper. During year three students are also taking their comprehensive exams, which are comprised of four questions: two on the literature foundation, and two on their concentration. When they pass that, they move into the capstone phase, where they are working more closely with their chair and committee. Upon the completion of their entire capstone project, students present their findings and conclusion to their faculty committee.

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

[Dr. Cummings] We have layers of mentorship embedded in our program. I as the Program Director am really involved in recruiting, admissions, and students’ initial advising experience when in the program. I am usually one of the first faces that students know and recognize in the program, and am the point person for their questions. In addition to that we have a dedicated academic advisor who is another resource for them.

Our program is actually housed in two colleges: the College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences. While the College of Education houses the Higher Education and Superintendent concentrations, the College of Arts and Sciences houses the Not-for-Profit/Social Entrepreneurship concentration. The benefit of this is that students have access to faculty across both Colleges. Each concentration also has a concentration coordinator or director to whom students can go for advice, job or career struggles, questions about assignments, and more. In addition, the chair of our department is highly involved in our program. He regularly attends all our cohort meetings in order to interact with the students and to let them know that he is there as a resource for them as well. So in addition to their own capstone chair and faculty committee, students have the concentration coordinator, me as Program Director, and the chair of our division as people to whom they can go for support throughout their enrollment.

I think the cohort model that we follow is also really helpful in cultivating a sense of community among our students. In our regular cohort meetings, we as faculty often spend a lot of time emphasizing the importance of collaboration within the cohort. That sense of camaraderie and culture within each cohort has become really strong, which is fantastic because it adds another layer of student-led support, where students are calling, texting, emailing and helping each other, and staying connected via Facebook groups and other social media.

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

[Dr. Cummings] We use a multi-tier admissions process. Students have to submit a personal statement, three academic and/or professional recommendations, transcripts of past undergraduate and graduate work, and a professional resume. We currently still have GRE and MAT as part of our admissions process, though we might be revising that in the coming years. We also interview every student that comes into the program.

In my opinion, a competitive or a strong application is one that shows focus in terms of your career and your desired trajectory. An application that clearly articulates how getting this degree now at this point makes sense for you will make a strong case. We glean that clarity and determination from the personal statement and the resume, as well as the letters of recommendation.

I think the interview is one of the most important aspects of the application. Once we have gathered all the written information from an applicant, when we sit down and actually talk to them, we can learn so much more. Sometimes people have really great application packets, but then when you talk to them you realize that they are not focused and they really don’t have a plan. They just want to get the degree because they want to get it, or think they should get it. So it is important to put your best foot forward in the interview as well. In order to prepare for the interview, anticipate questions such as, “Why is now the right time for you to be earning your Ed.D.? Where do you see yourself in five to ten years? What are your challenges in your place of work, and what challenges do you expect to encounter when moving into that next phase of your career? How will an Ed.D. help you to address those challenges?” The aim of these questions is to get an understanding of who the candidate is and what they want to do with their life and their career.

We really see ourselves as a leadership development program. As such, we want to be sending leaders out into the field who are going to enact positive change in various places. When talking to prospective students, I am frank with them and tell them, “You need to know exactly why you want to attend this program, and it cannot be just to earn your doctorate generally, because by the time you get your degree you won’t even want it anymore, because it’s such a grueling process. Your motivations have to run deeper, and need to be rooted in the desire to lead positive change in your community and/or place of work.”

Also, for the Superintendent concentration, all applicants need to already have an education administration license, at least for the state of Illinois. For example, you need to have a principal license or a director of special education license. You cannot be endorsed as a superintendent without having those other licenses and endorsements first.

[] What makes Governors State University’s Online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students for advanced careers in higher education, P-12 leadership, and non-profit leadership or social entrepreneurship?

[Dr. Cummings] Several things come to mind that I feel make our program particularly strong. Firstly, even though it’s an online program, students have excellent and reliable access to faculty. Faculty make themselves available and are interested in helping students realize their goals, and I believe that is incredibly important because in a doctoral program it can be easy to feel isolated. We designed our program with that common doctoral experience in mind–and dedicated ourselves to ensuring that our students feel the opposite and were highly connected to faculty and their classmates.

As a result, we have a cohort culture wherein student engagement is there, and it is vibrant, and faculty make themselves more than available to students. Everyone is equally invested, and it creates a really positive and productive energy in the online learning environment. When you talk to our students, they will tell you that, in addition to and just as important as everything else in the program, they feel they are a top priority to us and that we as a faculty team care about them.

We have a rigorous program, and we have high expectations for our students. We want to put our students in a position and set them up where they feel that they are going to be able to go to any conference or meeting, or tackle any complex systemic or organizational challenges in education, and feel like they are worthy of the degree that they have and can talk confidently and productively with folks who have earned their Ed.D.s and Ph.D.s at other institutions across the nation. Our students will feel that they have gotten a degree that has lots of value, and which they can use to do whatever it is that they want to do with their careers.

Finally, one of the things we have started to do in the last year and a half is we’ve begun to do career coaching for students who want it. Faculty dedicate time to talk one-on-one with students and conduct formalized career coaching. We decided to add this to our program because we don’t want our students to stay in the same place in their careers. That is, after all, one of the principal reasons why they enrolled in our program in the first place. So we feel it’s part of our job description to help them get to a different place than they were when they began our program. While we have formalized the career coaching aspect somewhat, each faculty member has a different way of mentoring his or her students.

As a personal example, I have a student who had been an academic advisor for 12 or 13 years. As she was finishing her capstone project, I told her, “Look, you really need to start applying for jobs.” I then sent her 15 job leads that matched what she described as her future career goals. Ultimately, with that push, she got that new job. We really push students to move up and to use their degree to propel them to whatever they’re long-term goals are–while they are in the program, not just after it. Our students sign up for our program for a reason, and it’s our job to make sure that they don’t stay in the same place that they were when they started the program. That is very important to us.

Thank you, Dr. Cummings, for your excellent insight into Governors State University’s Online Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Leadership program!