Interview with Steven McCullar, Ph.D. - Chair of the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at St. Cloud State University

About Steven McCullar, Ph.D.: Steven McCullar is Chair of the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at St. Cloud State University, where he also teaches courses in the higher education program as an Associate Professor. As Chair, Dr. McCullar oversees the development of graduate programs within the department, including the online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration. He has been at St. Cloud State University since 2011, and served as the Program Director of the Ed.D. program before stepping into the role of Chair.

Under Dr. McCullar’s stewardship, the Ed.D. program transitioned successfully online, and also grew both in terms of faculty and student enrollment. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Dr. McCullar is an editor for the Journal of Campus Activities Practice and Scholarship. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his teaching, research, and program leadership, including the Miller Scholar Grant and the NASPA Region IV-E Robert H. Shaffer Award for Academic Excellence as a Graduate Faculty Member Award.

Prior to his position at St. Cloud State University, Dr. McCullar served as the Assistant Dean of Students at The University of Alabama, and also worked as Associate Director of Louisiana State University’s Student Union and Director of Programs. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Marketing from the University of Memphis, his Master of Education from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Research from Louisiana State University.

Interview Questions

[] May we have an overview of St. Cloud State University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students to assume leadership positions in higher education settings?

[Dr. McCullar] Our program started out as a weekend-based program that catered towards regional folks in Minnesota. But as we grew, we began having conversations about ways we could expand our outreach. I became Program Director for the online Ed.D. about five years ago, and as Director I worked with my colleagues to figure out how to further develop the program. It has always been a very practical-based program, but over time our student cohort has expanded and become more diverse — we have had students who are community college faculty members who want to go into administration, university deans who want to advance further, and athletic coaches who want to gain additional training in order to develop athletic programming.

We have students who are in alumni development, and even students who are in a field that is sometimes referred to as “higher ed adjacent,” meaning they work for a company that partners with universities to help them with educational assessment, online education programming, etc. This latter group of students is not technically at a university, but they work very much in a higher education context and have similar questions about how to optimize education outcomes and grow their own knowledge base about program development, refinement, and evaluation.

The fact that our students hail from all over the nation and even the world has been really good, because it means that our program resists the kind of regional insularity that can occur in more traditional, campus-based settings where all students are from the same area and are encountering similar issues or challenges in education. When I was earning my doctoral degree at LSU, we’d talk about what happened on the LSU campus that day, and how that related to recent regional developments in education and education leadership. For the program at St. Cloud State University, what we really aimed for is a national discussion. That has been a very rewarding transition.

Another motivator for us to transition our program online was that our students were really looking for a program that they could complete and apply to their daily work, without it interfering with their professional obligations. That is a tall order, but with online education, it is certainly doable. For example, the nature of some of our students’ work necessitates that they be on the road, such as people in higher education recruitment. If they are traveling, what do they need to stay on top of the lectures and coursework without missing crucial time and events for their job?

In terms of the curriculum, we have a lot of traditional courses that cover areas such as the history of higher education, qualitative research and quantitative research, higher education administration, the college student. Then we also have courses on curriculum development and assessment, finance, law, governance, and community relations. And since we are a small program, we are also able to devote time to cover timely topics in higher education, such as gender equality, diversity and social justice, etc. In addition, we have a study abroad experience in Italy, which we offer in partnership with the University of Macerata. Students stay in Italy for two weeks, which gives them a unique opportunity to observe and discuss higher education from an international perspective.

When designing the curriculum, we asked key questions such as, “What are the goals of the students who are coming in?” Our students come in with a wide array of goals and backgrounds. We have people who want to be a vice-president or president of a two or four-year institution, and others who want to transition from being a faculty member to being a dean. What skill sets do people need to get them there? How can we familiarize our students with strategic planning across different contexts? We also utilized our advisory board and alumni connections to research what people are really looking for in the education leadership job market. We got very specific in our research in order to find what would help our graduates be as marketable and successful as possible.

[] Students of St. Cloud State University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration can participate in an Education Abroad experience in Italy. May we have more information on this opportunity and how it enhances students’ learning outcomes and career opportunities?

[Dr. McCullar] In its simplest form, the study abroad experience is designed to help students combine critical thinking with a broader perspective on what is possible in higher education leadership and education program development. Just by virtue of being exposed to an entirely different educational system or approach, our students’ view of what is possible in their own professional contexts expands and gains depth. Having the opportunity to see how other institutions are conducting their education programming, and seeing and hearing what their issues are, how they succeed, the barriers that students face, the similarities and differences between approaches to solving education challenges at the institutional, programmatic, and systemic levels… all of these are eye-opening. Gaining those cultural competencies is also instrumental in helping students determine what is important in their academic contexts.

There are things that we feel that are very important in higher education here in the United States that don’t really seem to be issues in other countries, and vice versa. A good example of this is student affairs: while the concept of student affairs is global, it’s not as ingrained or formalized at institutions in other countries. As someone who worked extensively in student affairs and who studies it as a scholar, I often travel to other countries to give presentations on student affairs because many places do not have it built into their academic structure. So a lot of it is seeing what other cultures and school systems prioritize and why, what works and what doesn’t, etc.

The study abroad experience also gives students the chance to explore research opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them. For example, during one study abroad experience, several students in the cohort worked with me on a research project where we conducted a qualitative study surveying the international students at the University of Macerata’s campus.

The opportunity for our students to see how educational programs are designed and delivered, and the cultural contexts and values that underpin how another country structures its collegiate systems or academic standards or assessments broadens our students’ conception of what is possible and how they might be able to approach a problem from a slightly different (and culturally informed) angle. Having the opportunity to be an international student, even for a short time, will help them understand our international students’ experience a little better.

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

[Dr. McCullar] Our program is asynchronous, and when we were designing the program, we conducted surveys in order to find out what their idea of an ideal online Ed.D. program was. We surveyed our students, and the overwhelming response was, “We want the flexibility of asynchronous instruction, but we also want as much interaction with our fellow students as possible.” Those two parameters may seem like they are two opposite extremes, but if you are intentional in how you design an online program, course expectations, and structures for peer and faculty engagement, then asynchronous can actually enable more interaction and discussion between students of a cohort.

Our students interact through discussion boards and have the option of meeting faculty for office hours by video or phone. In addition, we host regular (yet optional) synchronous sessions to supplement students’ classes and coursework. We have guest speakers who host live lectures, as well as synchronous virtual meet-ups in order to help students connect with each other, discuss in real-time any questions or thoughts they have about the course content.

For our students who cannot make these synchronous sessions, we record them; with that said, we take a highly individualized approach with each of our cohorts, in that when it comes time to host a synchronous lecture or discussion session, and we have a student in China and one in Ireland, we will literally take out our global time chart and discuss amongst our faculty, “Is there a time that could work for all of our students? Perhaps we can schedule this session for when it’s morning for one student, and dinner-time for another, so that they don’t have to stay up into the early morning if they do want to attend the session live?”

It’s this detail-oriented and personalized approach that I think makes our program unique. We view our program as a constant dialogue between students and faculty to figure out what works best for our students. For example, our current student in Ireland told us, “I actually go to sleep very late, so if you were to schedule an 11 pm synchronous session (Ireland time) that works for the rest of the cohort, I’d be up for that.” These kinds of conversations help us support each student while also keeping the cohort well-connected.

[] St. Cloud State University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration requires the completion of a Dissertation. What does the Dissertation involve, what processes do students follow to complete it, and what kinds of faculty/peer support do they receive during their work?

[Dr. McCullar] Students complete their dissertation on a research question that concerns the field of higher education, and which aligns with their professional interests and goals. Within these parameters, our students have created a wide range of research projects. We are fortunate to have a faculty team with a diverse set of research interests and many areas of scholarly expertise in the realm of higher education leadership.

We’ve had students who researched HR practices and decision-making in higher education settings, as well as students who explore questions around how to optimize leadership at the dean and presidential levels. We had one student who conducted her research project on the scarcity of women’s hockey coaches at the Division I level (at the time, there were only seven), which also examined how these women got there. We had another student who did a historical dissertation on the formation of faculty unions in the state of Minnesota. We’ve had studies about marijuana usage amongst college students, and many studies relating to student persistence. We’ve had dissertations on online learning, as well as the LGBTQI experience on college campuses, from a student and a faculty standpoint.

Students have also explored the experience of other minority groups in higher education settings, such as BIPOC, Latinx, gender, and international students and faculty. We also have a crisis management-focused dissertation coming in, which is something I love to see as it brings me back home to what I used to do in student affairs.

[] Those are some great examples of the range that is possible for the doctoral dissertation. Is the dissertation process embedded into the curriculum for this program, or do students follow a more traditional approach of completing their coursework prior to embarking on their dissertation?

[Dr. McCullar] In some ways the dissertation is separate from the coursework, but it is also embedded into the structure of our program. While we are always looking at ways to integrate dissertation preparation further into the coursework without sacrificing course content, we also really believe that the Doctor of Education, as a degree, is so much more than its culminating experience.

The goal of the Ed.D. is to empower its students to improve education programs and systems–make them more effective, more just, more equitable. Especially in light of what has been going on in society right now, it begs the question, “Do we cut time out of a social justice and diversity course to talk about writing a dissertation?” No, we really need to hit all of those issues that are in that course, as well as other courses too, because students deserve the time, space, and opportunity to read about and discuss the pressing challenges in higher education and how to address them.

There are some programs out there where they structure their courses such that 50 to 75 percent of each course is content on theory or practice or research, and then 25 percent of it is working on the dissertation. We don’t take that approach. In students’ first year, they take a lot of those foundational, informative courses that cover the essentials of school administration, such as administrative leadership methodology, school finance, school law, and partnership building. Students also have their qualitative and quantitative research courses.

Students are given the chance to do smaller research projects, which can be seen as pilot projects in preparation for their dissertation; however, students are not limited by the parameter that the projects they complete in their courses must be relevant to their future thesis. They gain the preparation for their future dissertation, in terms of gaining the methodological knowledge and skills to take on such an advanced research project, but they are also allowed to fully explore any topics that pique their interest while learning the course content. This gives space for students’ research interests to evolve as a result of what they are learning in the program, which in my opinion is one of the key points of enrolling in an Ed.D. program.

By the end of students’ second year, they are typically working on their dissertation, which continues full-time into their third year. During this time, they receive intensive mentorship from their dissertation chair and committee, comprised of faculty members who have scholarly expertise that can inform students’ own dissertation research. At that point, we feel students have the knowledge and material to really do their dissertation justice.

Our Ed.D. program was designed around the idea that the dissertation is an important part of the experience, but it’s not the whole doctoral experience. It may be the end goal, but there are so many elements that get you to that end goal, and you cannot sidestep those things. If it’s all about just writing this one paper, then why don’t we just have you write the one paper? This idea dates back to John Lombardi, who was president of the LSU system and one of the faculty members in my program. He would assert that argument frequently, so it’s his idea, really. But it is also one that has guided my own stewardship of St. Cloud State University’s program. Why do we even have classes at a doctoral program if it’s about the dissertation? Why not have people come in and focus solely on writing a paper for four years, if that is what the Ed.D. is all about. But it’s more than that.

The Ed.D. is about creating leaders who are going to better our systems across campuses, and across all levels. Whether it is learning how to become a better faculty member in the classroom or learning the steps to becoming a dean, president, or vice president in a higher education environment, our courses are designed to help students gain the skills and knowledge to realize their ambitions, while also helping them set the stage for investigating a key professional inquiry that they have regarding education leadership practice. Whether it is making academic engagement easier and more natural for students, increasing undergraduate retainment, or finding ways to innovate and change curriculum structure or delivery, we want our courses to encourage our students to approach their day-to-day practice differently. The dissertation is an important part of that larger process, but not the only objective.

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

[Dr. McCullar] When we decided to transition our program online, the faculty mentorship piece was actually one of the big reasons for our decision–we wanted to find a way to be as accessible as possible for our students. The online medium really provides that opportunity, especially given the fact that the vast majority of our students are employed full-time and need to be efficient and flexible in terms of scheduling their academic coursework.

From the very beginning of students’ enrollment in the program, they are assigned a faculty advisor, who is matched with them based on their stated research interests in their application. That said, we are also very clear with our students that as they move through the program and meet other faculty, that they are free and encouraged to find a faculty advisor with whom they work well, even if that means switching advisors. As I tell them from the beginning, they need to carefully evaluate what their needs are and what they feel will help them succeed and be vocal about it.

I want our students to think critically about what will help them get the most out of the coursework, and who will help them through the final stages of their dissertation. That includes not only research expertise, but also teaching and mentorship styles. One student may need somebody they can get along with, who understands them and is a cheerleader; other students might need someone who is blunt in their feedback and who pushes them to overcome the weaknesses in their research approach.

Over and above faculty mentorship for the dissertation, our professors are highly accessible to our students. As the early adopters of Zoom at our university, the faculty team for our Ed.D. program is well versed in the technology required to connect with students and have meaningful dialogues with them in an online medium. Typically, if a student reaches out to us, we respond within 24 hours and have a meeting set up within the next two to three days at most. And that is the same for the student in China or Ireland as it is for the student who lives just down the street.

As a dissertation chair and faculty mentor, I have had office hours meetings at odd hours to meet the needs of our students, and among our faculty that is the rule rather than the exception. As faculty, our primary purpose is to teach, mentor, and empower. We are committed to and passionate about improving education and by extension our society as a whole. We have had students who have told us they chose our program because they saw faculty whose commitment to advance certain issues resonated with them, and they wanted to learn and grow under those faculty members’ mentorship. It has been a true privilege being a program of choice for students whose primary professional goal is to address social injustice and to foster a more equitable society.

[] For students interested in St. Cloud State University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. McCullar] In terms of a competitive application, one of the major things that we look for is current higher education involvement–in other words, do you know this space? Having knowledge of and experience in the higher education realm is crucial to learning how to be a leader in such a context.

We also want to understand what students’ goals are–in other words, why they want to attend our program in the first place. We’re curious about what our students want to achieve, and how they see our program as helping them achieve their goals. What are their leadership abilities? What is their leadership potential? How specifically can our program help them reach their potential? If an applicant articulates all of the above eloquently, then they make a strong case for themselves. And by eloquently, I do not mean that applicants need to be great writers off the bat. Rather, what I am saying is that they need to know what it is that they want out of their doctoral education, and to demonstrate the competence and drive to convince us that they can handle doctoral-level readings, analysis, and scholarly inquiry.

[] St. Cloud State University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration offers both online and on-campus students the opportunity to apply for graduate assistantships. Could you provide more details on these graduate assistantships, and how the online assistantships differ from the on-campus assistantships?

[Dr. McCullar] COVID-19 quarantine has shaped and reshaped the way we do things in higher education and remote learning. It is funny because in a pre-COVID world, I suggested graduate assistantships for online students and it was deemed “crazy”, yet post-COVID the idea that graduate assistants need not be on campus to do their jobs is a revelation.

Certainly, there are GA positions that require coming to campus, such as those that require on-campus events or lab work. But for the students whose research can be conducted remotely, it makes absolute sense to allow them to apply for GAships even if they aren’t local. For example, we have a student out-of-state who has a background in assessment. Our School of Education needed a GA for assessment, and I thought, “We can choose this person who can jump in and help from day one, or we can choose someone on campus who has never worked in assessment before.”

In another scenario, we have a student who resides in Florida and is a natural fit for our President’s Office because of her knowledge of policies. You don’t need to physically be in a room to develop or discuss policy. So, really looking at what the project needs and finding the best fit creates opportunities–especially with the help of technologies that allow for real-time discussions and engagement online. The mindset that so much of academic learning, research, and work can be accomplished remotely has helped us expand our GA program.

[] What makes St. Cloud State University’s Online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students particularly well for advanced careers in higher education leadership, program development, and administration?

[Dr. McCullar] There are many reasons why educational programs go online. I think one of the key ways we distinguish ourselves is the fact that we truly went online for the students. From day one, we focused on giving students exactly what they needed to succeed in our program while maintaining their jobs and personal obligations. We designed our program to optimize student-instructor and student-student interaction, while also maximizing program convenience. We were one of the first programs to have an immersive study abroad experience, and we’ve seen several other programs look to our program when designing their own study abroad experiences.

I think another way in which we distinguish ourselves is the fact that we have a lot of university support and investment in our faculty team. Our faculty members are true experts in their field, and I have also been able to hire adjuncts from out of state to help teach more niche or timely topics that students have expressed interest in. So we have a true diversity of perspectives and expertise among our instructors.

We are also highly invested in connecting our students with educational leaders to help give them firsthand insight into the roles they may hope to step into–for example, I’ve brought in vice presidents of student affairs, departmental deans, and university presidents for panel discussions. Another great thing about our online technologies is that we can bring educational leaders from all over the nation–I’ve pulled vice presidents from all corners of the country, from California to Florida and New York.

We are constantly looking to innovate and make our program better. There will be some programs that are constrained by old systems or ways of thinking, and that is something we have resisted at every step of the development and continued improvement of our program.

Thank you, Dr. McCullar, for your excellent insight into St. Cloud State University’s online Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration!