Tasked with ensuring Georgia State keeps spurring economic growth and scholastic opportunity in Atlanta and beyond, University President Mark Becker calls the shots that move the Panther family.
Over the last seven years, Becker has orchestrated academic and civic operations that make Georgia State tick. Some of that direction led to Georgia State’s consolidation with Georgia Perimeter college, a deal from which Georgia State assumed control over five new campuses, making it the largest school in the state.
Since he left the president’s throne at the University of South Carolina in 2009 to claim the presidential position at Georgia State, Becker has pumped up Georgia State’s graduation rate, raked in serious school research funding and claimed Turner Field for the Panthers, among other things University System of Georgia (USG) chancellors can vouch for.
In a March 28 interview, Becker told The Signal he’s now at the helm of a university that’s long been inspiring development in Atlanta. Georgia State, he said, has been a catalyst for recovery from the housing market crisis of the late ‘00s.
“Georgia State has done more for Downtown than anybody,” Becker said. “This university literally saved this Downtown area well before I got here. And as we’ve come out of the Recession, we’re literally driving development in this area.”
But saving the city from its economic trenches hasn’t kept Becker in everyone’s good graces. The president, a doctor of statistics revered as one of Atlanta’s top CEOs, has surprised the student radio station with drastic changes, ousted a campus police chief and avoided the cries of some outspoken protesters.
Check out these snippets of the interview below, and hear the whole thing online.
The Signal chose Becker as its Faculty of the Year not because he’s a friend or a foe, but because, whether you love him or hate him, he just might be the world’s most power Panther. Although The Signal doesn’t have much access to actual Panthers.
“I am Georgia State”
Becker said he’s long boasted Panther school spirit, but he credits the university’s young football team with getting the students to start sporting Panther blue.
“Before there was football, you didn’t see as many people wearing Georgia State gear,” he said. “You saw more UGA and Emory and Georgia Tech or Auburn.”
Being a Panther means more than it used to, Becker said. “Five years ago, Georgia State stuff wasn’t being sold at NCAA basketball tournaments,” he said. “Every day of the week I am Georgia State.”
Police chief ousted
It can’t be called a “firing” or a “demotion,” but Becker told The Signal that he made the call to relieve Georgia State’s ex-Police Chief Connie Sampson of her badge after a drug-dealing student allegedly started a gunbattle on campus.
“There are things that we need to do that we haven’t been doing and we need to have leadership that wants to take the department in the direction that makes the campus a safer and more responsive campus,” he said.
Becker said GSUPD needs to practice better preventative policing, lest another drug deal turns dangerous.
“We need to have a system in place where if [students are dealing dope], we can put an end to it before it turns into a situation where people are shooting each other,” he said.
GSUPD’s Interim Chief Carlton Mullis said the the department’s crime prevention unit is being reevaluated to more effectively allocate police forces, which could better address drug enforcement on campus.
Mullis slid into the chief seat immediately upon Sampson’s March 22 dismissal, and Becker said Georgia State is now shopping around for a new chief with an impressive resume.
When asked if Mullis could stick around long enough to lose the “Interim” part of his title, Becker said, “That’s not necessarily going to happen. Everything’s on the table, but there’s not a plan to go in that direction at this point.”
Guns on campus
To some people, Becker said, seeing a gun on a classmate’s hip could be a shocking experience.
“It’d be a pretty chilling effect to be giving an exam with people sitting there with guns,” he said.
Becker said he’s urged Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the “campus carry” bill, republican-fueled legislation which would allow licensed gun-owners to arm with handguns on school grounds.
“Campus carry would actually make the campus more dangerous,” he said. “You certainly would expect that it would increase the number of guns on campus. But I haven’t spoken with the governor or his people. I don’t know [if I’ve made an influence].”
But if the bill, which is on the governor’s desk awaiting Deal’s decision, is signed into law, Becker said, university officials and the USG will have to take a close look at the legislation to see if they can install safety measures accommodating to the expected firearm influx.
“If you get into a situation where you’ve got a large number of people carrying guns, even if for a defensive measure, if you have a situation where guns do come out and start being fired, when police respond, there’s no clarity to them for who are the good guys and the bad guys,” he said.
And when guns are pulled, and things go south, Becker said, innocent people die.
“In a case of a shootout taking place, when you have individuals who are armed but not clearly identifiable, people are going to be killed accidentally,” he said. “No one wants to see innocent people killed.”
Panthers’ Turner Field
Georgia State is almost in control of the home of the Atlanta Braves.
Becker said the sale contract will “hopefully” be finalized soon, but in the interim, the school and its development partners Carter and Oakwood are scoping out ways to spruce up the neighborhood property wrapped around The Ted before Georgia State students start flooding in.
Current blueprints call for a second, smaller stadium to be erected next door to the to-be-retrofitted Turner Field. The big stadium will be updated to host Panther football activities, while its sister stadium will contain a new baseball field.
“We’re talking about 1,000 seats, which is a much smaller footprint than what Turner Field is today,” he said of the coming baseball stadium. “Not only does it bring Georgia State baseball out of Panthersville into Downtown, but it does it at a historic site that’s [next to] the original home of the Atlanta braves.
Becker said school delegates and their real estate partners have been meeting with the community to assess the needs of Turner Field’s current neighbors, while they decide how to divvy up their plot for development. But the sale agreement, he said, is not contingent upon designing all of the site in advance.
“Carter will build housing, maybe some private market student housing, some single family housing, and retail,” he said. “The overall plan for the project is not to have any asphalt or surface parking. We want it very dense – building up as opposed to spreading out.”
The investment opportunity, Becker claims, could welcome a few new business incubators to Atlanta to boost the job market. All of this, he claimed, is in the best interests of a vast majority of the city.
“Over 90 percent of Atlanta wants Georgia State doing this project,” he said. “The [neighborhood leaders] vision meshes with our vision. It’s not as if we and the neighborhoods have been fighting about going in different directions.”
The Bell Building
In August 2015, when the Woodruff Foundation granted the university $22.8 million to renovate some Georgia State facilities near Woodruff Park, the school’s plans called for an old, run-down Auburn Avenue structure to be razed.
But plans to wreck the Southern Bell Telephone exchange building, which some regard as “historic,” were met with some uproar from historic preservationists. One activist amassed more than 2,000 signatures on a petition begging to keep the Bell Building standing.
Becker took a look at claims that the building might have the potential for retrofitting – architects claim it was built so that four more stories could be added at a later date.
Still, Becker said he’d never heard of it called “The Bell Building” until a few months ago when controversy about its demolition arose.
“It doesn’t have any historical value other than being old,” he said. “I forget how many pounds of pigeon poop and toxic [waste] are in there. The roof is collapsing. There are actually trees growing inside the building.
But, because of the public outcry, the school is looking into cost-effective options besides leaving the parcel as a surface parking lot.
“We’ve heard [the outcry]. We’ve backed up,” Becker said. “We said we’re gonna find out what it would cost to retrofit.”
In 2014, Georgia State entered into an agreement with Georgia Public Broadcasting, giving GPB half of all 88.5 FM analog airtime.
Although the student-run radio station WRAS, which once ruled all the waves of 88.5, is still aired digitally online 24/7, a clamor of protests broke out after the GPB partnership was announced.
“Did the world change? Yeah” Becker said. “But the world changed to give students more opportunities. I understand that some people were annoyed, but as president of the university you can’t make everybody happy, you have to do what’s best for the university overall.”
The GPB deal offered Georgia State students a new opportunity to work in broadcast television with the creation of GSUTV. Forty students each sememster get to work with GPB TV production resources.
“In addition to having students programming and producing their own radio, we have students producing GSUTV, which is actually producing and programing their own television,” he said. “That’s digitally available on the Comcast packages, reaching 2 million viewers every day.”
Becker said, would WRAS have been involved in the airtime agreement process, things might not have transpired the same way.
“It was announced without them being consulted, but the switch didn’t happen immediately,” he said. “We didn’t have any other way financially to produce the kind of television production facilities that we were able to get with the GPB agreement.”
As for the #SaveWRAS community, Becker said GPB won’t be giving up its airtime in the foreseeable future.
“[WRAS’ airtime], that’s not coming back. Not any time soon,” he said.
On Feb. 1 a band of protesters refused to leave Centennial Hall in hopes of earning Becker’s response to their qualms with “racial profiling” during the college enrollment process.
“I’m not their vehicle,” Becker told The Signal. “They need to work directly with the [USG] Board of Regents.”