CSU To Make History With First Doctoral Degree

COLUMBUS, Ga. —
When the doctoral hood slides onto Justin Finney’s neck during Columbus State University’s Dec. 16 commencement, the moment marks the end of a long journey for the Harris County educator — and a monumental beginning for CSU.

After six and a half years of rigorous study while working full-time, the Mulberry Creek Elementary principal will become the first person to earn a standalone CSU Doctorate of Education. As university milestones go, this one is immense.

“It’s transformational,” said Tom Hackett, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The community, when the (Columbus) Civic Center is full of people, will see this institution in an entirely different light. It’s one thing to say you have a program. It’s another one, to put that doctoral hood over that student.”

When Finney decided to pursue a doctorate, making history was not on his mind. He began the journey at Georgia State University, finishing much of his coursework there. Then CSU’s Ed.D. program was approved in 2009 and Finney seized the opportunity to transfer the following January, when classes began, to Columbus State, where he had already earned a B.S.Ed. (2001) and an M.Ed. (2003), both in secondary social studies education, as well as an Ed.S. in educational leadership (2004).

“I was excited that CSU now had a doctoral program,” said Finney, who arrived in Columbus after a 1980s stint with special operations in the Army.

It helped that Hackett, former chair of educational leadership at CSU, had been a mentor to Finney, and he had also enjoyed classes with other education faculty who were to play a key role in CSU’s first doctorate since a shared program that gave participants an Ed.D. bearing the name of Valdosta State University.

“They’re like family to me,” Finney said of his earlier CSU professors. “Though I was happy at GSU, I just wanted to be part of this event at CSU. They are people that I trust — that I just really care about. I liked working with them.”

They helped shape his doctoral thesis on distributive leadership — the concept that a school administrator who empowers staff is far more effective than one who makes all the decisions.

“I don’t think (being autocratic) is my makeup at all,” Finney said. “Using distributive leadership is really more practical than top-down type leadership. You get a better result.”

Back when he was a full-time professor and department chair, Hackett helped fashion CSU’s Doctor of Education degree so that it emphasized research.

“I felt like if we were going to say that we were taking our school leaders to the next level, that they needed to be able to go in and ascertain problems, develop hypotheses and do research and be experts at dealing with data and also be real strategic thinkers,” said Hackett, who rose from teacher to superintendent in Phenix City before joining CSU in 2004. “We decided as a college to make it have a curriculum track, meaning that you could get an Ed.D. with an emphasis in curriculum in different study areas like early childhood, or you could get it with a leadership track, with the idea you are going to be in senior leadership as a principal, as a central office person, or even as a superintendent.”

While working on his thesis, Finney often found new ways to put distributive leadership into practice.

“I’d like to take credit for it,” said Finney, an educator in both Muscogee and Harris counties and instructor at CSU over the past 14 years. “But really, that’s just the way I was taught to do it. Dr. Hackett has been instrumental in mentoring me in that type of mindset.”

It helped that his Harris County supervisors were also proponents of the concept. Superintendent Craig Dowling even joined Hackett, other faculty advisers, friends and another interested observer, CSU President Tim Mescon, when Finney defended his thesis Nov. 28.

“There were some very interesting things that he implied in just his initial survey of literature,” Hackett said. “But additionally, he took the idea of distributive leadership, and he found a correlation between that practice and good student performance.”

He doesn’t officially become Dr. Finney until that Friday night graduation ceremony, and that’s OK by him. The journey is complete, and he’s already a footnote in CSU history.

“I appreciate that,” Finney said. “But I kind of struggle with that, too — notoriety and attention. It’s been an honor to receive this. But I have to give credit to everybody that was on my committee. I just want to represent the university well.”