Interview with Melissa Morriss-Olson, Ph.D. - Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Leadership at Bay Path University

About Melissa Morriss-Olson, Ph.D.: Melissa Morriss-Olson is Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Leadership at Bay Path University, where she has been instrumental in bringing an innovation-focused approach to program development and leadership. During her ten-year tenure as Provost at Bay Path University, Dr. Morriss-Olson led the development of the Women Empowered as Learners Program, designed Bay Path’s Thumbprint or core educational aspirations, and also initiated and oversaw the development of more than 40 new academic programs at the University. She is Founding Director of the Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies Doctoral program (HELOS) at Bay Path, as well as the Center for Higher Education Leadership and Innovative Practice (CHELIP) and holds the designation of Provost Emerita. Moreover, she led the launch of Bay Path’s diversity and inclusion efforts, in order to enact social justice-minded transformation.

Dr. Morriss-Olson’s research focuses on the application of entrepreneurial principles and an innovation-focused mindset to higher education settings, and she is the author of two books relating to this subject: Academic Entrepreneurship: The Art and Science of Creating the Right Academic Programs and Survival Strategies for Christian Colleges and Universities: A Leader’s Guide to Managing in Turbulent Times. Prior to her influential role at Bay Path University, Dr. Morriss-Olson led enrollment management and institutional advancement at North Park University, and also founded and oversaw the nationally renowned Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Loyola University of Chicago, a Master of Arts in Counselor Education from Northeastern Illinois University, and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology and Social Work from Minnesota State University at Bemidji.

Interview Questions

[] What are your responsibilities as Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Leadership, and what classes do you teach? During your time as Provost of Bay Path University, how did you help Bay Path expand its program offerings and hone its vision as an institution? May we have more information on your role as Founding Director of both CHELIP and HELOS? In addition, may we have more information about your research and recent book publications?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] I earned my Ph.D. at Loyola University of Chicago in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with concentrations in Sociology and Organizational Development. The reason that I mention that is the integration of the study of leadership with organizational development and change within the educational context is something that I have been interested in across my entire professional life. I’m grateful to have been able to integrate this focus in the doctoral program at Bay Path, and particularly in my dissertation, which focused on the financial well-being and strategic management of small, resource-constrained colleges.

As a Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Leadership, I teach in our doctoral program in Higher Ed Leadership, and I advise and I mentor our students. I teach the first course that all students take in the program, which is entitled The Reflective and Visionary Leader in Practice. I also teach the first-year Community of Practice and I mentor one of the Communities of Practice small mentoring groups. Additionally, I teach/facilitate two of the dissertation seminars that students take at the end of the program.

Over the course of my nearly 40 years in higher education, I have gained a reputation as an academic entrepreneur. This is essentially the role that I played during my ten years as provost at Bay Path, where I led the re-engineering of the learning community, including the development of our Thumbprint. The Thumbprint is the name for Bay Path’s Distinguishing Educational Aspirations, as well as our signature Women Empowered as Learners and Leaders Program affectionately known as WELL. It also included the development and launch of more than 40 new academic programs, which taken together increased the graduate program gross tuition revenue contribution by approximately 30 million dollars. Additionally, I led planning efforts culminating in the awarding of significant external grant funding totaling over ten million, including two multimillion Title III grants, three separate NSF grants, and a handful of other grants.

As Founding Director of CHELIP, which stands for the Center for Higher Ed Leadership and Innovative Practice, and our Doctoral Program in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies, which we call HELOS, I led the creation of the vision and the strategy, which has informed both initiatives and their integration of leadership principles and organizational contexts. CHELIP was created to serve essentially as a living laboratory and learning hub for higher education innovation. As such, it provides a wonderful value added resource for our students in the HELOS program.

For example, our students have access to a rich range of speakers and guest presenters, whom we’ve been bringing to classes virtually this past year due to the pandemic. Dr. David Staley, who is the author of the book Alternative Universities, is both a historian and a futurist, and is serving this year with us as an honorary faculty fellow in innovation through CHELIP. He is a guest speaker in our classes, and also contributes to our blog and podcasts. CHELIP was designed to add a layer of opportunity and resource for students who are in the midst of studying about higher education.

I have also authored two books on academic entrepreneurship. My most recent book, The Art and Science of Creating the Right Academic Programs, is, very briefly, a guide for academic leaders and how to strategically manage their academic program portfolios. There’s no other book or guide like this out there that I’m aware of, and it really walks you through, from A to Z, all of the things that you need to consider when launching new academic programs of any kind. My earlier book, Survival Strategies for Christian Colleges and Universities: A Leader’s Guide to Managing in Turbulent Times, captures the most important takeaways from my dissertation research, which followed the financial conditions and management strategies pursued of a group of 100 small colleges over a ten-year period. My findings were statistically significant and are still very relevant today.

Most critically, I found that those institutions that operated with what I had then called an ‘innovative mindset’ were much more likely to be thriving financially at the end of that ten-year period. And so you can see how my earliest research, beginning with my dissertation, really has informed my professional orientation and interests over the course of the past several years, and including up to the establishment of our new, doctoral program in Higher Ed Leadership, which has the innovation thread that runs through it from beginning to end.

[] Could you please provide an overview of Bay Path University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies, including the history of its development and the student populations it aims to serve? May we have more information about the five components of the program and how they complement each other? What key learning outcomes can students expect from this program?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] Let me start by talking a little bit about the development of the program. Very early on, when I was still Provost, we were just beginning to talk about whether it might make sense for Bay Path to create a doctoral program of some kind in higher education. One of the things I had carried within me for a very long time is this sense that my own preparation, as good as it was, didn’t fully prepare me for what I found in the leadership roles that I held, particularly in a resource-constrained kind of context. My program really didn’t have much to do with leadership development, and it certainly didn’t have much to do with how do you manage organizational dynamics in a rapidly changing and a very dynamic kind of environment. A really important idea I wanted to explore was, what do those two things have to do with each other?

While the idea was still on the drawing board, we reached out to about 400 college and university presidents around the country, and we asked for their input on what emerging leaders and leaders of the future most need, in order to be effective in their roles both now and going forward into the future. This input was incredibly valuable for informing the eventual program design, and the curriculum that was put together. Each person talked about all the things that they had not been prepared for and the feedback was very similar to my own experience.

From their input, we could see their desire to have cultivated an innovation mindset–they didn’t use that word, but when they described what they wanted in their leadership style and training, that is really what it was. They were describing the kind of mindset that I discovered and identified back in my doctoral dissertation work many, many years ago. It was this notion of having a very agile way of thinking about the organization, being very adaptive, being very entrepreneurial, and so on. We convened a small brainstorming group that was made up of creative, innovative higher ed thinkers, and we used this group as a sounding board for vetting program design as it was coming together. Additionally, we did extensive research on what the higher ed doctoral program landscape looked like, including what the curriculum is for the other programs that are being offered, and where the gaps were.

We pulled all this together, and these are the inputs that largely informed the HELOS program design, including the five distinctive elements that together result in a learning experience that I don’t think you will find anywhere else, and which is ideally shaped to develop the kind of leader most needed now and as described to us by these college and university presidents.

I have also been reading a lot of literature lately as well that speaks to this new kind of leader that is needed, in the higher ed space in particular. And so let me just mention the five threads and how each one plays out. The first one has to do with developing scholarly practitioners as self-aware and reflective leaders. That is embodied in the fact that the program is highly practitioner-oriented. It is an Ed.D., and by that, we take seriously the notion that we are preparing folks, not necessarily to generate new theories, but instead to know how to lead effectively and to have a high level of self-awareness. Everything in the program is immediately applicable. Every course that they take has highly practitioner-oriented kinds of assignments and exercises. Students will tell you one of the things that they really value is being able to take something and apply it immediately in their work setting.

Our leadership approach is adaptive leadership, which requires a high level of self-awareness and reflective capabilities. This is because you have to develop the self-understanding to really make sense of what is going on around you and know how to respond in a way that will move the institution forward as opposed to hindering it or taking it backwards. Therefore, in every course, students practice reflective thinking, and build upon it.

For example, in the first year in every course, they have what are called reflective practitioner journal entries, where they have to reflect and think hard about an issue in the field or an experience they have had, and then respond to it and make sense of it as related to the content for that course. The first course which I teach is really a deep dive into learning about yourself as a leader, where the focus is on understanding who you are right now as well as your potential and who you want to be.

We use the Strengths Finder approach as a starting point for helping students identify how their strengths play out and how their strengths are being utilized or perhaps not being utilized in some cases. Students develop a highly intentional leadership development plan. All of the information that they gather about themselves goes into the plan, then it’s refined over the course of their time in the program.

To support students further in this self-development plan, we use Community of Practice, or COP, groups. Every student is in a COP group every year that they’re in the program. Each group is five to seven students at most with one faculty mentor. They meet monthly, online synchronously, but then the students meet individually, at least twice each semester, with their faculty mentors. So the faculty mentors get to know the students really, really well. But the students also get to know each other in the community of practice, and there’s a lot of peer-to-peer mentoring happening as well.

The reason we emphasize our COP groups so heavily is because of our strong belief that learning within a community is one of the most effective ways for you to develop your full potential and the self-awareness that is required for it. If you are just learning all by yourself in isolation, you’re not as likely to develop the kind of robust, 360-degree view of yourself that’s absolutely critical when you wind up in the senior-level leadership roles. With the Community of Practice, our students have again told us that it’s another aspect of the program that they really, really appreciate.

The main bulk of the work in students’ first year centers on their COP group and their development of that personalized and executable leadership plan and roadmap. Our focus here reflects our belief that, again, the best leaders have an accurate and well-informed sense about their own capabilities. This was something we heard from the presidents that we interviewed–the need to help students develop a strong sense of their inner compass. Because when you get into these challenging roles and everything is fluid and dynamic and changing around you, sometimes the only thing you have to refer back to is your own sense of inner direction.

The second thread that we have woven into the program has to do with the signature pedagogy, which focuses on change management and innovative practice. Every student, including our ABD completers, takes a five-course signature core. In their first year in the program, they take the reflective leader course that I mentioned. They take Organizational Development Change and Transformation. They take Leading Transformation and Change, Entrepreneurial Thinking and Innovative Practice, and Capacity Building for High Performing, Academic Organizations.

Across their five core courses, the students fill up their toolbox with all kinds of strategies and approaches for leading change in a dynamic and a rapidly changing environment. They also carry out real-life change interventions in all of these courses. Each course has what’s called an applied assignment at the end, which in essence requires that they pull together what they’ve learned in the course and apply it to some kind of a change process of their choice. Through this, they strengthen their own leadership style and approach as it relates to change leadership. They learn about how to manage the wide-ranging organizational dynamics and cultural influences that can facilitate or hinder change, particularly in a higher ed setting. They’re prompted to begin thinking about their dissertation in practice beginning in their first year, and then they use these courses to test drive potential action research ideas, topics, and potential change interventions.

The third thread is all about embedding the skills of inquiry as practice throughout the curriculum. This is a hallmark of the program. In each and every course, students have the opportunity to apply the theory they’re learning to real-life problems, and this then culminates in their dissertation in practice, which is an action research-focused dissertation. The goal is that students will begin making changes, small changes, in their local settings, wherever they might be working. Changes that are informed by research and best practices, and this process will then become a focus of their professional practice going forward. We like to think that the HELOS program is really serving as a catalyst for innovation and change across the entire higher education landscape, beginning with wherever our students are located, and progressing as students implement those small kinds of changes in their own educational and organizational settings.

The fourth thread concerns delivering communities of practice-based learning. I mentioned these COP groups earlier, and how they reflect our belief that effective change, particularly change that involves complex tasks, requires the ability to foster collaboration. The COP groups quickly become learning communities that provide our students with opportunities to build collegial relationships, gain new perspectives and peer knowledge, engage in collaborative inquiry-based decision making, and reflect on their own professional belief strategies and the consequences of their actions in a safe and supportive environment.

From leading one of these groups, I have heard students say such things as, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been doing such and such for, you know, for my entire career, and now all of a sudden, I realize that this doesn’t serve me very well.” Having the safety and support of the COP groups has really allowed our students to make some breakthroughs in how they view themselves and their own potential as leaders, as well as those things that may be holding them back and hindering them.

As mentioned previously, students are part of a COP group every year of their enrollment. The focus of the group changes year-to-year. In first year, the focus is all on that intensive leadership development. The second year’s COP groups engage in a deeper dive into developing the attributes of an innovative mindset. In the third year, students’ Community of Practice group is their dissertation committee. They’re with a group of five to seven students, and the faculty who is their COP mentor is also their dissertation chair. In addition, each student will choose another faculty member or expert to be on their committee as a reader, and that’s unique to each student and the topic. So students’ dissertation feedback and support comes from a combination of faculty and peer mentors.

The fifth thread is the culminating and integrative dissertation in practice. Our student dissertations are grounded in the action research approach. What that means very simply is that students apply behavioral science, knowledge, and data collection and analysis skills to real organizational problems through an iterative process, which is really nothing more than identifying a problem, planning a change process, taking action, evaluating the impact, making sense of it, and then repeating the cycle. That is a practice that we then want students to take with them into their roles as leaders. Action research is a wonderful model for implementing change, and making sense of the change no matter what the problem might be, no matter how small or how large it might be. So these are the five key threads and how they play out in the curriculum.

[] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies Bay Path University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] The immersive weekend that kicks off each year is an on-ground, in-person experience. The eight-week classes themselves, other than the community of practice, are all asynchronous. However in just about every course, faculty members schedule synchronous chat sessions or discussion opportunities, on a weekly basis oftentimes, between him or her and the students. I’ve been amazed because even though these discussion sessions are optional, I would say an overwhelming majority of students show up for them. There’s a real hunger on the part of the students to be able to interact with their fellow students and with their professors. And I am told that that is the experience of other faculty in the program.

In addition to the COP group meetings, which are always synchronous, the faculty mentors meet individually and synchronously with each student in our COP group. As a mentor, I meet each of my student mentees individually at least twice per semester. So there is a lot of opportunity for interaction.

We use Canvas as our learning management system. The HELOS program has a dedicated instructional designer who works with all of our faculty to ensure that the courses are designed and delivered in a consistent manner. So that while the content may be different, the experience is going to be very similar from course to course. The syllabus structure is going look the same, as will the course delivery formats. This aligns with one of the best practices of online learning, which is that you should build in consistency so that students know what to expect from course-to-course, and they can focus on learning new content rather than figuring out from scratch how each course will be delivered and how to access different information.

Another thing I would like to note about our online capabilities is that Bay Path has been a leader in the delivery of online education for nearly 15 years. We’ve been offering state-of-art, fully online programs at the graduate level since 2006, and so we developed a series of best practices in that regard. As a result, we were recently ranked as a top online education provider in Massachusetts.

[] Students of Bay Path University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies are required to attend three, three-day Immersive Weekend events on campus. May we have more information about these immersive experiences and how they enhance students’ learning outcomes?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] Our Immersive Weekend experiences are two to three days in duration, and are typically held in early to mid-October of each year, and this is because our fall semester actually starts at the end of October. Our classes go year-round, but we always want to host the immersive weekend right before the first fall session of the year kicks off. Each Immersive Weekend is a highly interactive experience that aligns with the learning goals for the students in a particular year.

For example, in the first year’s Immersive Weekend, we spend a lot of time giving the students an opportunity to get to know each other and their faculty, so there are a lot of getting to know you kinds of activities. We also do an initial deep dive into the leadership strengths assessment during that weekend. The students take the assessment and then we bring in somebody who is an expert in how to assess what your results mean. We devote a good five-hour chunk of time to the Strengths Finder assessment and to students’ discussion of their results because it’s such an important part of getting their personal leadership plan going in that first year.

Students also practice in-person the process of reflective thinking and learning, and we introduce them to action research at the foundational level so that they at least have the context in their mind. Additionally, students are oriented to expectations for academic writing and scholarship, including citations and APA format. Students have their kickoff community of practice meeting in that first weekend, where they’re processing with each other what they’re learning during the weekend. We also bring in speakers to share expertise on particular topics.

Now contrast that to the third year, where their Community of Practice groups form the foundation of their dissertation committee and the Immersive Weekend event is focused almost entirely on their dissertation in practice. Students progress from this Immersive Weekend to their 760 Seminar, which is really the first of the four dissertation seminars where they work on their dissertation.

[] May we have more information on the Action-Focused Dissertation and what it entails, as well as the four dissertation courses students complete?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] In general, the Action-Focused Dissertation is a research project in which the student identifies a problem that is of deep interest to them personally, and one in which students may be able to initiate a realistic change intervention to improve the problem. The dissertation is action-oriented, but it’s action that is informed by scholarly research. As I mentioned earlier, from students’ very first immersive weekend, they get an orientation to what action research is. As simple as action research sounds, it’s actually somewhat complex in terms of how you approach it, and designing the cycles of intervention, review, and evaluation and subsequent revision of your change strategy.

After their first Immersive Weekend, students take the course called Foundations of Action Research, where they get a framework for understanding what action research is and develop a tentative plan for a dissertation topic and how they might approach it. Then they use their subsequent signature core courses to test run this idea. We designed the course sequence this way so that students can use the applied project assignments in their courses as a way to vet their topic and see if it holds water and will work for the dissertation. So that first year is really one of lot of exploration in terms of whether their dissertation topic is going to work, but it’s all done within their classes.

Going into their second year, students take a two-course research sequence on research design and methodology, wherein they learn all of the different methodologies that they could choose from to carry out their action research, particularly the data collection and analysis. By the end of that second research design course, they will have completed a draft of the literature review for their topic and written a preliminary third chapter where they outline the design of their research study.

This way, students have something that they start with when they embark on their four dissertation seminars in their third year. I teach two of those seminars, and the program coordinator, Dr. Mela Dutka, teaches the other two. In addition to their dissertation chair, their fellow COP group peers, and their outside reader/faculty member, students also receive guidance from the program coordinator and myself, through these dissertation seminars that provide structure, instruction, and deliverable timelines.

For example, in the first seminar students have to complete and get approval through the IRB board at Bay Path, while the other seminars take students through key milestones such as the processes of data collection, of designing and implementing a plan, of assessing a plan, and of analyzing one’s results and presenting them to one’s committee. All of the steps to get them from the beginning to the end are built into four-course seminars.

[] Bay Path University also offers a 30-credit ABD option for its Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies, specifically for students who have completed most or all of their Ed.D. coursework at another program but who have not finished their dissertation. May we have more information about this option and how ABD students receive guidance and mentorship as they work to complete their dissertation?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] Our ABD track is very popular. I have been surprised at how much interest there is in it, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. I think there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there who never completed their EdD–who got so far and then stopped just short of completing their dissertation. The students who we are getting in this track are incredibly strong students. That has led me to think there really is something wrong with the way we approach doctoral education, that there are so many folks that have such frustrating and negative experiences to the point that they just dropped out. At Bay Path we are trying to be the antithesis of that, in being supportive and pulling these students through.

Our program coordinator Dr. Mela Dutka serves as the dissertation chair and mentor for all of the ABD students, and through that the ABD cohort forms their own Community of Practice group where they are all on the same page, going through and overcoming the same challenges together. All ABD students take the signature core courses and they take the four dissertation seminars.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Bay Path University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? In addition, what are some support systems outside of faculty mentorship that students can access online?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] As we have covered mentorship a lot in the previous questions, as to how faculty guidance and mentorship is interwoven throughout every aspect of the program, I’ll summarize here. As students are in a different COP group every year they are enrolled, by the end of the program, they will have developed really close mentoring relationships with at least five mentors–their years one, two, and three COP group leaders, and then Mela and myself.

On top of that, what I’ve been delighted to see is that because of the way the courses are designed, students are really getting close to all of the faculty in the program. We keep our class sizes small, so there’s a lot of interaction and relationship building that happens in those courses as well.

[] For students interested in Bay Path University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] It is important to say that we accept students from wide ranging backgrounds, not just higher ed. We get students who come out of business who have MBAs, as well as folks from backgrounds ranging from health care to nutrition studies and the military. You don’t have to have had a higher ed background to come into the program. However, you do need to have an interest in higher education as a professional career. So career changers, if you have a master’s degree but it is not in education, that does not necessarily preclude you from gaining admission into our program.

The students who do have a background in higher ed are also incredibly diverse, with jobs in areas ranging from admissions to student life, academic services, and assistants to the president. Assistants to the president are experiencing an interesting career evolution–in fact it could be called an emerging career field. The job itself is quite complicated and wide-ranging, and is only getting more expansive as the needs in the higher education space increase in depth and breadth.

If this is a program you’re looking at, you really need to have an interest in being a catalyst for change wherever you might currently be working. You also need to be willing to be vulnerable and come into the program knowing that you’re going to have to share yourself during the process. If you’re not comfortable being vulnerable with a small group, that Community of Practice, you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable at first! This is something that we believe in very strongly–that being vulnerable is part of what being an effective leader is. It’s our program’s mission to create a great safe space in which to learn that, as you’re developing your leadership skills.

We have a required essay, and in this essay you should reflect that you’ve done your homework, that you’d investigated the program, and that you can speak specifically to how your background applies to the focus of the program. Beyond that, there really is no ideal student. Because when I think about who’s enrolled in the program right now, their backgrounds are so different, but they’re all interested in change. They’re all interested in being change agents. They’re interested in leadership development, becoming the best leaders they can be, and cultivating innovative leadership intuition as opposed to being the traditional kind of leader that used to be more of the norm.

In terms of letters of recommendation, we want at least one to be academic because we would like somebody who’s in a position to speak to the student’s ability to write, to think critically, and to complete doctoral-level work. That will of course look different depending upon the discipline that you’re coming out of, but typically a faculty member with whom you’ve worked closely can speak to that, and they will also know what to highlight for us in their reference. The other letter of recommendation can be a professional one, from somebody who can speak to the person’s capabilities and potential for leadership. We would prefer not to have personal references.

[] What makes Bay Path University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for advanced careers in organizational change leadership and higher education administration?

[Dr. Morriss-Olson] Bay Path’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies is an ideal program for somebody who wants to be prepared to lead at any level. In the program, we really define leadership as having relevance for every single one of us. No matter what role we might be playing in an organization, we all have the capacity to lead in our own space. This program is an excellent option for anybody who wants to develop themselves deeply and intentionally as a leader while also gaining a fuller understanding of how to align their unique leadership capabilities and potential with a particular organizational context.

I want to come back to something I mentioned at the very beginning, that it is all about the alignment of who you are as a leader, what you bring to the table, your potential, your capabilities, and then the organizational context in which you’re located. Understanding how to adapt your own leadership, the way you practice leadership, the way you enact leadership in accordance with the unique context in which you’re working. It is never just one or the other. It’s about the alignment of those two elements. That is what this program is really designed to help you do.

Thank you, Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson, for your wonderful insight into what it means to be an innovative and entrepreneurial leader in education, and for your discussion of Bay Path University’s excellent Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies!