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Weekly Wisdom Episode 11: Transcript of Conversation With Mark P. Becker, Georgia State University President

Weekly Wisdom Episode 11: Transcript of Conversation With Mark P. Becker, Georgia State University President

Note: This interview, Episode 11 of the Weekly Wisdom Series, originally aired on June 29, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Mark Becker:
What you cannot afford to do, if you’re in a leadership role, is to get so focused on just the moment that you forget about the direction you’re going.  You have to have that North Star out there guiding you.  You have to know where you want to go.  

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to “Innovating Together,” podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance.  This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success.  I’m your host, Bridget Burns.

You’re about to watch another episode of “Start the Week with Wisdom.”  For those of you who are at home, if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes, where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor.  We want to talk to them about how they’re navigating the challenge of this moment.  We’re in a really unique time, and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they’re navigating.  Hopefully, it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope.  

Paul Fain:
Hi, I’m Paul Fain, editor with “Insight Higher Ed.”  So this week, we’re excited to bring you a conversation with Georgia State University president, Mark Becker.  President Becker has been at G.S.U. for 11 years, and while most of you know that Georgia State is a national model for student success, having eliminated race and income as a predictor of student outcomes, many of you might not know that President Becker has a background in both public health and statistics, which have undoubtedly proven helpful during the pandemic.  So let’s turn to President Becker.  

Bridget Burns:
Hi Mark, thanks for coming.

Mark Becker:
Thank you.  It’s my pleasure to be with you.  

Paul Fain:
So how are you holding up these days?  

Mark Becker:
Holding up pretty well.  There’s no end to the amount of work and the uncertainty around COVID, but at the same time, when you’ve been doing this 11 years, like I have, you do find a sense of what I’ll call workplace balance.  For me, it’s been important to make sure that I put in some time to take care of myself.  In my case, that’s usually physical activity like bike riding and getting out and being outside and moving around.  That’s helped me hold up and get through when it turned into long days in front of screens like this one.

Paul Fain:
So what is some of the advice you’d have for your peers who lead other institutions right now during a pandemic and unrest nationwide about systemic racism?  It’s a lot going on.

Mark Becker:
Yes, well, there is a lot going on.  This is a historic time.  There’s no other way to put it.  It’s a historic time in terms of, as a country, confronting the issues of systemic racism, issues around race, and institutional change is needed across all sorts of institutions, including higher ed, at the same time that we confront a pandemic that is literally a hundred-year pandemic, something that none of us has ever lived through before.  There is only a very small number of people in the world that were around in 1918 when the last one happened, and they were probably too young to remember it, since they’d be 102 right now.

The way, I think, to look at this is that you have to be able to be flexible.  You have to be nimble.  You have to accept that there is just a tremendous amount of uncertainty.  We’ve got a lot of important work to do institutionally to make sure that our institutions come through this pandemic and get stronger, at the same time that we address the issues that are right in front of us around systemic racism.

Bridget Burns:
That’s helpful.  I’m mindful that you are really in a unique space, being a few steps from Ebenezer Baptist Church, and being in Atlanta in general.  I want to hear a bit more about how everything’s showing up for you, but I also want to draw upon, earlier in your presidency.  I saw that you had a role that had to do with emergency preparedness and health.  I was like, wow, that’s exactly perfect.  Do you have any lessons from back earlier that you’re drawing upon today in terms of how you’re leading and the perspective that you bring to today?

Mark Becker:
Okay, so when I was at University of Minnesota, where I was dean of the School of Public Health, when we went through SARS, COVID-1, I ended up with the title of, I think, Assistant Vice President for Emergency Preparedness and Public Health Response, or something like that.  That was specifically in response to the institutional response that we had, handling the then SARS epidemic of 2003, I believe it was.  So when we went through that, we did a lot of contingency planning, the sorts of things that we’re all, I think every university, is thinking about right now.

Suppose you have a student at a residence hall, or a student who’s your responsibility, who is now infected, and that individual needs to be isolated, and some other individuals need to be quarantined.  How are we going to handle that?  How are we going to make sure they get fed?  How are we going to make sure they get proper healthcare, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?  I’d say that’s a toe-in-the-water version of what we’re dealing with now with this pandemic, with a much more infectious agent of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that creates COVID-19.

Paul Fain:
So obviously one of the big questions right now:  How much change will we see in higher education in the next year or two, and what do you think’s most likely to happen in terms of change?

Mark Becker:
Oh.  Well, this has been an interesting transition since the middle of March because, as people have laid out what could be happening, where we could be going, it keeps changing.  So let me paint out what I think will be some of the positives that are going to be positive changes that, I believe, are going to stick.  That is, the work that’s underway right now at every university, really, in the country, certainly at our university, but many, many others.  In fact, I was on a call earlier today with universities in Europe and Canada, and, same sorts of issues.

That is the much greater capability in terms of hybrid and online education.  I think, as many of us look to the fall, and we look to a student population that does want to be on campus and have some in-person instruction, at the same time that we’re concerned about social distancing and limiting the spread, containing the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot of work around hybrid models of instruction.  If I look out one, two, three, five years, I do see that curriculum that we’ll we offering in the future is going to offer a much more robust set of modalities.  

I think five years from now, while we’ll still have in-person instruction, and it certainly has an important place in the educational experience for students, particularly for students coming straight out of high school, I also see us having a much more robust set of offerings that are either entirely online or more of a hybrid structure.  The one prediction that I hope will come true is that a normal college experience, what I’ll call a traditional experience, the four- to five-year experience that has typified the mainstream of higher ed that we talk about, will be much more flexible.

I hope that we’ll have a model where students, when they come on our campuses, will be able to engage in their passions and in their futures much more deeply and robustly, earlier on.  If I look backwards at the historical model, the traditional way is that you wanted to encourage students to get an internship between their junior and senior years.  Hopefully, that would lead to, maybe, a first job, or helping them think about what they want to pursue in their careers.  

I can see, with this more flexible model, that students will be able to take on internships, say, as early as the sophomore year, maybe the middle of the sophomore year, and do it while they’re in school, not just in the summers in between, but a way of having flexibility in scheduling and getting their curriculum where they can be doing more internships while they’re in school, getting more practical experience, perhaps taking a look at different career opportunities within their educational pathway.  That’s the one I’m most excited about and optimistic about, because I think, as we develop this infrastructure, we can bring it to bear so that all of our students will have greater flexibility, greater opportunity, for deeper and richer experiences in the future.

Bridget Burns:
That’s helpful.  And you think that there’s plenty to be optimistic about in terms of what we’re learning from this.  I want to talk about what it’s like to lead in this moment.  People who work for you all over Georgia State’s campus are showing up on Zoom, talking with their teams, and trying to figure out how to be helpful, how to be optimistic, how to set a vision and get folks inspired to do, frankly, work that’s harder than it has been before, in the midst of daily news that is terrifying and heartbreaking.

I want to know, how do you as a president, lead in the midst of that?  What kind of framework or perspective do you bring that allows you to see something hopeful to inspire your team when you know they’re getting inundated in their homes with terrible news every day?

Mark Becker:
First off, Bridget, I’d say the main message that I share, certainly with my leadership team, and try to share more broadly, including with audiences like this, is the work that we do has never been more important than it is today, right now.  If you look at – and Paul, in the intro, mentioned – the student-success work we’ve done at Georgia State, the very fact that 60 percent of our students are Pell eligible, we’re a majority minority institution, populations that historically have had much lower success rates, much lower participation rates, much lower completion rates, et cetera; and that we’ve been able to move that needle so that their success rates are much higher, and we’ve created more access opportunities; we’ve become a larger institution to be able to accommodate a large, very diverse student body; the work that we do is even more important right now.

These same students are the most fragile right now.  They’re the most fragile in terms of being economically challenged.  They generally work in the service industries.  They work part time while going to school.  What we do has actually become more important, not less important.  It’s not like we’ve put anything on the side, but we have to continue to keep that in front of us and go forward to make sure that we’re providing the best educational experience and outcomes for students who, historically, have been disadvantaged, because these are the students that are going to create the future for this country.  These are the diverse students that the corporate world, as well as civil society, needs to lead in the future.  So it’s with that higher goal and aspiration that we have to continue to keep our eye on that ball and stay committed to the work that we started, and really continue to up our game so that we do even better for them and do better for society.

Paul Fain:
You mentioned, obviously this is an unprecedented time, unprecedented challenges.  It’s interesting to me that you went back to Georgia State’s focus on equity gaps.  It’s not like those challenges weren’t there before for American higher ed writ large.  It’s just accelerated and exposed them in starker relief.  In that sense, is that a reference point of mission, your North Star, that you can really work through, even in a time like this?

Mark Becker:
Well, first off, I’ll say two things to that and then try to connect them.  First off, when you’re in a crisis, the North Star is the important part.  For better or worse, I’ve been through other major economic crises since I started in senior leadership roles.  I was the dean when 9/11 happened, and we went through the 9/11 crisis as a nation in terms of terrorism coming to our doorsteps, but also the economic challenges and the budgetary challenges it visited upon me as a dean.  Then I became president of Georgia State in 2009 not too many weeks before the stock market went to its lowest point, and unemployment went to its highest points.  It’s not like I haven’t been here before.

In both of those cases, and certainly now, what you cannot afford to do if you’re in a leadership role is to get so focused on just the moment that you forget about the direction you’re going.  You have to have that North Star out there guiding you.  You have to know where you want to go, and the metaphor I’ve used to talk about this, twice through those two previous crises, and through this one, is, we’re on a sailing ship, captain of a sailing ship.  We’re being tossed about in a storm.  It’s literally black as night.  The sky is right above the ship.  It’s swirling.  There’s winds buffeting us, the waves.

What we have to do is, we’ve got to make sure that we get this ship pointed in the right direction so that when the storm does clear – because the storms always clear; it’s just a question of when, not if – that we’re pointed in the right direction, and we have wind in our sails.  So absolutely, we have to stay committed to our core mission of being able to educate students, recruit diverse students, educate them, help them be prepared for success throughout life; at the same time that we attend to our research priorities and other institutional priorities.  So that’s one.

The second point that’s been reaffirming for me, as we’ve had national Zoom meetings of the various higher-ed associations I’m part of, and conversations with university presidents about what they’re going to do in this moment of looking at issues of systemic racism and race in America, one of the things that has been first and foremost that they’ve all emphasized is their need to eliminate equity gaps.  Sadly, there are still way too many institutions where underrepresented minorities are even more underrepresented, in higher-education institutions.  

Their representation’s not close to what it is in their states as a percentage of the population.  This is particularly among our largest publics. And then secondarily, those students do not have outcomes that put them on a level playing field with the majority Caucasian populations in those states.  For me, it’s a doubling down.  That the rest of my colleagues are now seeing this the way that we’ve seen it and wanting to commit to it, for me, is only reaffirming that the work we’ve done has been the right work to do.  It’s what’s best for the country.  

It’s certainly what’s best for our students, my city, my state, but it’s never been more important than it is today, and it’s never been more important to get that word out and to get out what works to the whole country.  

Bridget Burns:
So I want to ask a question I’m not sure if you can answer.  I’ll be honest.  Oftentimes, when I’m working with college presidents, I’m always looking to see how they have designed their life so that they are not just interacting with sycophants in the echo chamber or just the same voices over and over.  There are ways that people have engineered their lives to adapt, to make sure they’re getting the right kind of information from the various sources, whether they’re in the cabinet level or not.

Now, it’s a Zoom screen, and I know that you’re booked in 15-minute increments from about 7:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night.  I recently discovered that many presidents don’t know about blue-light blocking glasses, so for those folks at home, just so you know, you might want to order a pair.  I don’t think Michael Crow has a pair yet, by the way, innovators not knowing about very basic innovation.  I want to know:  How are you trying to set yourself up, that you’re still getting those side conversations that help you understand how folks are really experiencing the work?  How are students really hearing and seeing things?  Any tips for folks who are at home and locked with their Zoom screen?  

Mark Becker:
Well, Bridget, when you’re in a leadership position, and certainly it’s been my experience, people tell you what they think you want to hear.  There’s not a lot of side conversations and honesty that takes place.  So the first thing is, you do eventually, if you’re going to be successful, start identifying people that will speak truthfully with you.  Now, there are lots of other people who claim to want to speak truthfully with you, but they have their own agendas, and sometimes those agendas are pure, and sometimes they’re not.  That’s the complexity of these jobs.

I think the big challenge of the environment we’re operating in now, as you’ve alluded to, is, when we’re operating virtually, we’re no longer at those events with people where you have all those side conversations, where somebody comes up.  They’re people you know.  They’re people you work with.  They’re your faculty or your staff.  They’re students, student leaders.  You get a lot of side conversations, and you get a lot of little pieces of information that you can then collect, coalesce, and build on.

You’ve hit on the hardest problem right now, that we’re not getting those kinds of conversations.  There certainly are people that are outside of what I’ll call my immediate sphere that I call and check in with, but there are only so many hours in the day when you’re programmed so heavily, and you don’t want to spend all your time completely plugged in, because people are going to burn out.

My single biggest concern about all of us in these roles, and I’m talking about everybody that’s working on COVID responses, working on strategically making sure that our institutions move forward to address all the issues of the day – including, very importantly, systemic racism – that people are going to get completely burned out.  We may be in this mode for another 12 months.  You’ve identified a great problem.  I don’t have a miracle answer at this point, but it certainly is present, and it’s one that I’m working on, struggling with.

Paul Fain:
In the vein of, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, which is sobering reminder for us all, and burnout, frankly, are you and your peers able to log off from higher ed and draw anything from books, movies, et cetera, of late?  I know it’s a challenge for all of us, but anything you’ve got there lately that’s helped you?

Mark Becker:
Yes.  First off, Bridget talked about the blue glasses.  I don’t need those, because I actually do know how to shut things off and shut down at night.  Bridget knows me well enough that she probably anticipated that.  So I am not addicted to my email and my text messages.  There’s a certain point in the evening where I just turn the phone over and, unless it goes crazy, meaning that something big, important, is happening, I just ignore it.  The other thing is, when I wake up in the morning, my first priority is to get in my workout for the day.  I’ve got a series of structured workouts and plan over time.

Importantly, I’ve got this block of time that is mine, so to speak, because once you do start to engage with the day, it holds onto you until you come to that shutdown point.  It takes a certain amount of self-discipline.  It’s learned over many years.  It certainly, for me, wasn’t natural.  I had to pretty much force myself to be able to shut down in the evenings.  The other thing is that we all have passions, hobbies, interests.  I subscribe to a lot of YouTube channels in terms of things that interest me.  So I will just turn on YouTube, and I’ve got over 20 subscriptions and just check in on what’s interesting today.

Bridget Burns:
Wait.  What is one of your favorite YouTube channels?  

Mark Becker:
One of my favorite YouTube channels, probably I’ll give you Global Cycling Network, GCN, out of England, which has a tremendous amount of programming and content.  Trevor Noah’s another one.  Stephen Colbert is another one.  Particularly when the mainstream media is enough to drive you crazy, sometimes it’s good to get up in the morning and turn on YouTube and see what Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah have been talking about.  Those are a couple examples.  

Bridget Burns:
Understood.  All right.  Well, we’ll end with this last question, then.  For folks who are at home, you have a sense of what we’re trying to do, set the week up right.  How do you go about this work with a sense of optimism right now?  Could you leave us with anything that’s giving you hope in the midst of all of this?

Mark Becker:
Well, I’ll start with, I always have hope.  I’m a glass is half full person.  Again, I have worked through 9/11 as a dean.  I’ve worked through the financial crisis, both as a provost and then as a president; as a dean, also through SARS the first time around, different SARS virus, but definitely similar in certain ways.  When I graduated college, I graduated into the worst unemployment since the Great Depression – up until now.  Basically, I’ve been around long enough, lived and worked through enough, to know that, as hard as it looks, and as hard as it’s going to get, it will get better.  

There will be improvements.  We will adapt.  We will improve ourselves.  I’ve seen tremendous improvements in higher education.  In spite of the fact that it’s not linear, always getting better.  I’ve seen improvements in all aspects of society.  So I’m optimistic about the future.  I see lots of challenge and controversy out there, but I can’t let that get me down, because it’s the human spirit that lifts us up.  It’s that people care enough to do the work that matters, whether it’s to take care of their fellow man, whether it’s to make sure that others have opportunities that we didn’t have, whatever it may be that drives you.  

The human spirit is always uplifting, and I don’t think we’re going to see any end of that.  I think that’s what gives me reason to believe that, not only will we get through this virus and this pandemic, but I think, as a country, we’ll get better, and we will make tremendous progress in eliminating the issues of structural racism that have been so pernicious and devastating to society and particularly to people of color – to Black people most recently in terms of these issues, but also other marginalized populations.

We’re going to get better.  We’re going to do better.  We will overcome.

Bridget Burns:
That’s great.  I agree, and honestly, going through these series of interviews every Monday, I feel like I have a front-row seat to seeing – presidents and chancellors, I think, are more connected to their purpose than I’ve seen in a long time.  They’re the best they’ve ever been.  They have a clear mission, and every day they are fighting.  I feel like, also, our students, their resilience is on full display, and the kindness and selflessness of our faculty, staff, and administrators as they help each other navigate this, is just really – we are in the midst of what appears to be one of the lowest moments.  I’m seeing just incredible evidence of the goodness of humanity.  So thanks so much for joining us today.  

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Mark P. Becker, President, Georgia State University
Since beginning his tenure as Georgia State University’s seventh president in January 2009, Dr. Mark P. Becker's ambitious vision has led the institution into an unparalleled period of growth and advancement to become one of the nation’s premier urban research universities. He was named one of America’s ten most innovative university presidents in 2015 by Washington Monthly. The university has become a widely recognized national leader for its programs and initiatives fostering student success and, as one of America's largest and most diverse universities, was ranked third most innovative university in the country by U.S. News & World Report in 2020. G.S.U.'s need- and merit-based scholarship funds have tripled under Dr. Becker's leadership, while the university has set fundraising records. He was instrumental in launching initiatives to hire exemplary senior faculty, creating new research centers, and increasing G.S.U.'s global role through partnerships with universities in rapidly growing economies. Prior to his appointment as G.S.U. president, Dr. Becker served as Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at the University of South Carolina, and Dean of the School of Public Health and Assistant Vice President of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response at the University of Minnesota. From 1989 to 2000, he was a professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, where he also held appointments in the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Statistics, and served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. He has held academic appointments at the University of Washington, the University of Florida, and Cornell University. He is a Fellow of the American Statistical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has been principal investigator on research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Dr. Becker attended Harford (Maryland) Community College, earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Towson State University in 1980 and his doctoral degree in statistics from the Pennsylvania State University in 1985. He grew up in Havre de Grace, Maryland, near Baltimore.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Paul Fain, Contributing Editor, Inside Higher Ed
Paul Fain joined Inside Higher Ed in September 2011 after six years covering leadership and finance for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has also worked in higher ed P.R., with Widmeyer Communications, but couldn't stay away from reporting. A former staff writer for C-VILLE Weekly in Charlottesville, Virginia, he has written for The New York Times, Washington City Paper, and Mother Jones. His journalism awards include one for beat reporting from the Education Writers Association and the Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. Paul got hooked on journalism while working at The Review, the student newspaper at the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in political science in 1996. A native of Dayton, Ohio, and a long-suffering fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, he plays guitar in a band with more possible names than polished songs.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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