Throughout its modern history, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (known previously as the National Association of State and Land-grant Universities) has been led by former presidents of major flagship and land-grant universities, the last three from institutions in the Big Ten Conference.
The flagship orientation was no accident: APLU—unlike its sister organization, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, whose members include comprehensive and undergraduate-focused public universities concentrated as much on teaching as on research—has historically emphasized issues such as science policy, international education and funding for research.
That trend began to change in recent years, as M. Peter McPherson, who has led the association since 2006, read the political tea leaves and encouraged its members to pay more attention to student success through such initiatives as Powered by Publics.
But the shift is unmistakable with the new president the association announced Thursday: Mark P. Becker, president of Georgia State University from 2009 until his retirement a year ago. It’s not that Georgia State didn’t pay attention to research under Becker; its federal research funding rose by 150 percent from fiscal 2010 through 2022. He himself was a federally funded public health researcher, and Becker even has administrative stints at two Big Ten universities on his CV, so in that way he checks the APLU box.
But Georgia State is best known, by far, for its intense emphasis on (and comparative success in) driving its 50,000-plus students to complete their educations, increasing its graduation rate by 23 percentage points over a decade and eliminating the gaps between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds that are prevalent throughout higher education. Hardly a conference session happens or a major news article is published about strategies for improving student outcomes that doesn’t feature Georgia State.
“I’m very committed to making sure that we provide opportunities for education and help students of all backgrounds be successful,” Becker said in an interview Thursday. “Everybody should have a level playing field.”
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, worked with Becker when the Georgia State president headed his board in 2018–19. He said Becker was the ideal person to continue and intensify APLU’s recent work on student success, which he credited McPherson with instigating.
“Mark almost uniquely brings to the work the perspective of a campus leader who achieved campus-level change around issues of student success,” Mitchell said. “This is putting an exclamation point on Peter McPherson’s and APLU’s energy around those issues.”
Rebecca Blank, president of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and chair of the APLU board, described Becker as the candidate who had “the most of everything”: the focus on higher ed accessibility, yes, but also research chops and experience operating “in a contentious legislative environment.”
“APLU is more than anything else a D.C.-based advocacy organization,” Blank said. “Mark brings a lot of political savvy to the job.”
Becker said leading the primary association of public research universities was a logical next step in a career in which he’d worked at such institutions exclusively since 1985.
“I’m a big believer in the transformative power these institutions have and the value they bring to society,” he said. “I see so much more opportunity out there. We’re nowhere near being as good as we can be.”