The Johnson Ph.D. - An Interview with Alicia Crumpton

This fall marks ten years since Johnson University launched its Ph.D. in Leadership Studies. To celebrate this milestone, we’re taking a look back with the program founder, taking a look ahead with the new program director, and highlighting just a few alumni who represent the passion, dedication, and example of the 34 graduates so far. Read the entire Johnson Magazine here.

Alicia developed Johnson’s doctoral program from the very beginning and has stewarded its students and its success for the last ten years. As she prepared to transition out of this role, she sat down with President Smith to discuss the distinctives of the Johnson Ph.D. and how its students are changing the world.

Tommy Smith: Tell me about the process of starting this program from scratch. What has it been like?

Alicia Crumpton: Humbling. Having spent more than twenty years in consulting, I saw people who did not understand how to manage change being elevated from technical roles to leadership roles. I also observed a “Sunday-Monday split” in their ability to integrate spiritual beliefs with their work lives. I wanted to develop a program that could create more effective leaders.

I probably wouldn’t have agreed to design this program in a non-Christian environment. A differentiator of Christian education has to be the concern for human flourishing and spiritual formation. It has to integrate the understanding of God with adult learning theory. So developing this program encompassed how I’m designed as a person, and it tapped into my lived experience and my disciplinary training.

TS: How does that vision get translated into a specific academic program?

AC: I reviewed 97 doctoral programs focused on leadership development, organizational theory, or some aspect of leadership. I developed a rubric and analyzed those programs against that rubric, looking at target audiences, curriculum, process, and modality. Through that process, I came to understand there was a gap—programs did not emphasize the person, worldview, and culture. I saw an opportunity to translate what I learned into a program that would be uniquely Johnson and would be consistent with our history and our ethos.

I still remember the first day I stepped on Johnson’s campus. It was Homecoming 2009, and I realized this place cares about aesthetics – beauty and design are important here – and it’s intense about an ethic of care and hospitality. So with that knowledge of who Johnson is, combined with my knowledge of our mission and our historical focus, I realized we could combine those values with an accessible, achievable, affordable, accreditable program.

TS: The initial curriculum came out of that design. Did that change over time as you implemented the program? What kind of lessons did you learn?

AC: It didn’t change much, actually. I’ve thought about this and questioned if that is a fault of my leadership. Should I have been more aggressive about change? But when I looked at the program outcomes and interacted with students, we were achieving the objectives we set forth. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Certainly we changed classes and texts over time, but we were seeing results beyond what we imagined in terms of transformation and leadership development. So we didn’t change any of the actual curriculum. We did improve at pedagogy in a fully online environment.

We were focused on developing “PhD-ers” rather than focusing narrowly on content mastery or skills. I think that focus on the person is a distinctive of the program, and why our retention numbers are good. We assumed that if a person was accepted into our program, she was a strategic leader. The emphasis was transforming students, not changing the program.

TS: And you did it online. How did you create that community of care and develop people with an online modality?

AC: I think it begins with leadership, with commitment to relational care, and with the faculty seeing themselves as creating space within which the student, the faculty, and God can show up. That sounds corny, but I really believe the role of the faculty is first to create a space. Then you apply content and pedagogy and teaching methods. We were active on social media, we called, we sent birthday cards, we tried to have a personal touch. Where we have to be firm in terms of accreditation, we were firm. The program is rigorous. But we also managed the journey of each student in a way that he felt he could be part of it.

At one point a student called me and said, “I’m going through some really hard things, but I need to stay in the program because I need the care, the discipline, and the structure of the program to help me figure it out.” That was when I realized we’d created something that transcended the academics and created community, and that this was a place people felt they could bring their whole person. That was a good day.

TS: You demonstrated magnificent student recruitment skills. You are a recruiting machine. How did you do that?

AC: If mid-career working adults are going to do a Ph.D., right away I know something big is happening in their lives, because you have to be crazy to do that. Second, I believe they’re strategic leaders, and I believe God uses strategic leaders in their sphere of influence to draw people to him.

Whenever I talked to a prospective student, my first question was why they wanted to do the degree and what area of influence they were called to. I’ve turned away as many as I’ve encouraged, because some wanted it for ego gratification, or they didn’t have a “why.” I’m not doing a sales job. This program is not for everyone, and not everyone should do doctoral work, but it starts with a relationship. We’ve got to believe in each other, so that conversation is my starting point. To the extent I think we’re a good fit, I’m not afraid to say I think this is a good program for you and to close the deal.

TS: Tell us about your students – their skills, abilities, passions, persistence.

AC: There’s no cookie cutter. Every student is unique. Every student has a goal and a vision. It may not be clear when they start, so part of our task is creating that space.

If you had told me 80% of the conversations I’d have would be pastoral, I wouldn’t have believed you. People do sometimes need help with research, but more than that they need someone to listen. Active listening is paramount.

Their research interests are wildly different, which is the beauty of interdisciplinary studies. They’re curious and interesting. They’re world-changers. They’re growing in their faith, they’re understanding complexity, and they’re able to see every situation in new ways.

TS: And the graduates are doing remarkable things. What are some of the ways they’re leading?

AC: They are writing books, starting consulting firms, leading churches, planting churches, teaching. They direct spiritual formation projects, provide executive leadership, and work in health care, law enforcement, or the military. Many stay in their career, but take on new challenges.

TS: As we close, what question do you wish I had asked you?

AC: Maybe the question is what I would do differently. Instead of creating a school of business, I would have created a school of professional studies focused on leadership development. Johnson does it the best of anybody, but it would be even more interdisciplinary with a humanities backbone, and an arts-based pedagogy underpinning it, to draw people toward a different way of thinking and being. I think the problems we’re facing in the world are going to take a humanities kind of brain that can see holistically and understand archetypal patterns. I would create an incubator for generativity and imagination that would bring us together to solve world problems. No research would be done that didn’t solve a world problem or at least inform our understanding of one.

TS: What have been your biggest obstacles and your greatest joys? What is your hope for the future?

AC: Being 100% online was an obstacle. But one of the things I admire about Johnson is we overcame the “we’ve never done it before” obstacle. We dug in and figured it out as we went. It really is a testament to the resilience of Johnson and its commitment that we just made it happen. We received accreditation in June, and Dr. Weedman wanted it operational in January. That’s a short recruiting cycle! But there’s that Johnson work ethic, and we made it happen.

I think that work ethic and the commitment to excellence in all things were the biggest joys. The care for students and figuring out how to do that in a virtual environment, the strong support from the registrar and admissions and the faculty—those were joys, as well.

For the future, I feel a sense of urgency for more numbers. Not from an organizational or financial stance, but because our world needs more strategic Christian leaders.


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