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Faculty Spotlight: Mark Henderson

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Mark Henderson, professor of public policy, poses for a portrait on December 2, 2021. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

As a Californian, Mark Henderson felt like one of the few students eager to leave the sunny west coast and venture east for college. He completed his undergraduate studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, double-majoring in history and Asian studies with a concentration in environmental studies. His environmental courses, combined with a childhood spent hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, fueled his passion. His interest in policy began with a college project developing a management plan for a local conservation area in Williamstown, MA. Influenced by a faculty advisor, he also immersed himself in Chinese history, culminating in a senior thesis on environmental policy in China. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Regional Studies–East Asia at Harvard and a PhD in an interdisciplinary environmental program at UC Berkeley.

Henderson’s research spans Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial analysis, and environmental policy, beginning with positions at MassGIS in Boston and the U.S. EPA in North Carolina. His notable academic works include a pivotal paper with G. William Skinner on China’s spatial structure using GIS (geographic information systems) to gather, manage, and analyze geographical data. This methodology in understanding the Earth and its patterns allows academics to better contextualize the geography in which they are operating, and propose more effective planning and design for its people and the environment. He utilized this technology to examine the environmental, social, and political effects of the one-child policy. This research was published in the journal Social Science History in 2000. Henderson has also maintained a prolific collaboration with colleague Binhui Liu and others in China, resulting in over 30 publications that blend spatial analysis with environmental data.

At Northeastern, Henderson’s research on China continues alongside new initiatives within the Community to Community (C2C) Impact Engine, led by Professor Alicia Sasser Modestino. As the Oakland Research Director, he connects students with community-based research projects and collaborates with faculty on various projects, including an equity analysis for California public schools and advising on local tobacco laws. In fact, he is advising students in summer 2024 in the analysis of a survey that the Oakland Mayor’s Office conducted about current policy challenges, working to bridge the gap between academic research and community needs. Henderson’s role also includes enhancing current projects with GIS and spatial analysis. He often acts as a convener or advisor on research methods, consistently ensuring a focus on equity and representation. He has also enjoyed getting to know Gavin Shatkin and Philip Thai over their shared interests in Asian Studies, and working with Linda Kowalcky, Jun Ma, and Maria Ivanova to launch the MPA program in Oakland. He is also working with Claire Lane and new faculty member Fang Fang on the Policy School’s GIS offerings. 

In addition to his academic pursuits, Henderson is actively involved in faculty governance. He previously served as chair of the Faculty Executive Committee at Mills College and became a member of the Faculty Senate Agenda Committee after Mills merged into Northeastern. Outside of work, he enjoys ringing in community handbell ensembles, a hobby he has pursued since childhood and has continued with groups like the Raleigh Ringers and Velocity in California.

“An important part of what I do in academics is making sure that faculty voices are represented and that good ideas have the chance to be surfaced, heard, and hopefully shape the direction of the institution.”

He enjoys teaching policy analysis and research methods classes as he gets to see students apply these tools to a wide range of policy issues they are passionate about. This enthusiasm drives him to teach Advanced GIS and a co-designed course on Global Climate Change. Collaborating with geologist Kristina Faul, who introduces her paleoceanographic research, he helps students consider the present-day policy implications of climate change.

Henderson is excited to bring Northeastern’s Master of Public Administration to the Oakland campus. He describes the Bay Area as a hotbed of progressive policy innovation across a wide range of issues, ranging from environmental to social, noting that there are many opportunities for MPA students to contribute to building stronger and more resilient communities. He and his Oakland colleagues have forged partnerships with more than 100 local nonprofits and government agencies, and Northeastern’s C2C Impact Engine is helping them share experiences and ideas across the global network. Whether students see themselves running for office (several of his former students are on the ballot in 2024, from city council to Congress), analyzing data and budgets, advocating for equity, or implementing change, he hopes they will grow as leaders within the Northeastern University Oakland’s supportive community.

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