The road ahead for Emory

By David Greenberg | Nov. 8, 2016

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The path to president: A native of the Netherlands, Claire E. Sterk grew up surrounded by varied cultures, languages and dialects, with parents whose education was cut short by World War II. She was the first in her immediate family to attend college and pursue an academic career. Now an internationally acclaimed public health researcher and academic leader, she became Emory's 20th president on Sept. 1. Emory Photo/Video

She earned degrees in medical anthropology and sociology, respectively, from the universities of Utrecht and Erasmus. Her U.S. higher education career began as a researcher and faculty member at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Georgia State University. That journey continued when she joined Emory's Rollins School of Public Health in 1995 and eventually led to her becoming the university’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Now, after two decades of extraordinary achievement and dedicated service to one of the world’s premier private research universities, Claire E. Sterk takes the helm as our 20th president. In a recent interview with Emory Magazine, she discusses the university’s strengths, its ambitions, its people, and her plans to lead it to even greater heights.

As president, what motivates you?

I am motivated by the charge of helping Emory rise to an even higher level of excellence. At the most basic level, I want to help Emory fulfill its ambitions. Because of the great efforts of so many over the years, the position of president of Emory has growing influence. The challenge is to use it wisely and boldly.

Emory has come a long way. But I think every student, faculty, staff member, alum, and supporter expects more. This is the most exciting and challenging dynamic of my job. Can I help this great institution expand its impact and prominence?

The essence of Emory is to advance knowledge and opportunity and to make our community and our world a better place. That we share such grand goals is inspiring, and it motivates me to lead. I feel supported and am ready to deliver.

As the first female president at Emory, can you talk about what that means to you and what you think that means to the university?

I’m honored to be Emory’s first female president. So many students, faculty, and staff have said how proud they are to have a female president. My new role conveys a sense of hope to people. I want to honor the opportunity I get in this role and give this part of my job the respect and attention it deserves.

How will you make this presidency your own?

I plan to build on what Emory already is. I’m a social scientist, so I’m always interested in understanding people, how social contexts impact what we do, and how we see ourselves. That interest certainly extends to this culture. What does it mean to be part of the Emory community?

There are so many parts of Emory and different activities we do. In some places, we’re ahead of other people or organizations. Other areas have potential that, with a little creativity, could really grow. For example, we have a fantastic business school. And we have a renowned health care system. I’d like to look at intersections of areas and make new, distinct programs. Emory’s extensive research agenda will make this an easy assignment.

You mentioned getting a sense of next steps for the university. What are some of those?

To stay competitive, we need to invest to achieve our goals. We don’t yet have all the resources to be able to do what we need to do. We need to establish more endowed, named professorships; build a cadre of Emory storytellers; and focus on development, mainly through fundraising. We need to shape a vision, determine our strategic priorities, and match them to a campaign.

The Presidential Selection Committee indicated early on that they were seeking a president who would be externally focused, nationally and internationally, but especially in Atlanta. How can Emory be more connected to Atlanta and the region?

Emory must tell its story so that others will learn about where we lead. Emory’s much more engaged with Atlanta than we acknowledge. If we’re not able to verbalize or capture that engagement internally, then why would we expect the rest of the world to know about it?

What is it that you wish people knew about Emory that they don’t?

I want people to have a better sense of how well connected Emory is with the world outside the university and the impact of what we do. I want them to know about our transformational work.

I want them to know about our global work in health and well-being; the translational research that takes place, especially between the School of Medicine and Emory Healthcare; the fact that we have a law school with clinics that serve youthful offenders or focus on the environment, international humanitarian law and more; and a business school that works with veterans and does a lot of work in social entrepreneurship. Or, that Oxford College trains students to be ethical leaders, and Emory College of Arts and Sciences focuses on the “nature of evidence.” Candler School of Theology is actively involved in ministry that connects with local churches and has tremendous social impact.

What started you along the academic path?

In high school, I had a boyfriend whose whole family was academic. That’s where I first learned about the world of academia and what it could offer. They showed me a vision I never would have gotten from my family, as none of us had this kind of experience.

You grew up in the Netherlands. What was it like?

It was great. When I was growing up, I got to meet people from all over. It’s a small country. If you travel two hours by car or train, you are in a different country and you have to speak a different language. So, I was exposed to different cultures and languages as a child.

Looking back, I can see how it really shaped me in many ways. For example, all my life, even in the Netherlands, I have had to deal with accents. My parents came from two different parts of the country. You might wonder how that is relevant in such a small place. But there’s quite a divide between the urban area, where my mother came from, and the rest of the country. My parents ended up living in the south, where my father was raised. That was a major change for my mother. She never learned, nor did she want to speak, the local dialect, the local accent.

So, as a child, every conversation I had with my parents I had in two languages. I would speak to my mom in prim-and-proper Dutch and then turn around and tell my dad the same thing in his dialect. In elementary and high school, I had an accent. Now, when I go back with Kirk, my husband, and my stepdaughters, we add English — a third language — to the mix.

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Settling in: Emory President Claire Sterk and her husband, Kirk Elifson, take a break from carrying boxes to chat with students on Move-in Day.


What were your parents like? What did they do for a living?

We lived in the community where my father grew up, a coal miners’ town, which for my mother was a major change. I remember how we would all grieve when the coal trains stopped because it meant that there had been an accident in the mines. The whole community would share the sorrow, the sense of loss. That community shaped me. The closing of the mines was good for the health of the people but also resulted in a crumbling of the local infrastructure.

My father was an adolescent during World War II, so he never got to finish high school. The war interrupted his education. He apprenticed to become a house painter and did that for a long time. He always looked for opportunities to enhance our income. Then, when I was about 10 years old, one of his friends told him about a janitor’s position opening up at what later became my high school. He got that job and held it for the rest of his life. He was so proud of it.

My mother stopped working once I was born. Her education was also impacted by World War II. She found jobs taking care of young children for wealthy families in Amsterdam and eventually ended up working for an orphanage, which she loved. It was really hard for her to stop working when I was born, but she did stay involved with the orphanage. My mother often brought home eight to 10 young women from the orphanage to stay with us over the weekends and holidays.

She also became very active in volunteer work and as a community activist. She would always take us with her and make us work. She focused on any cause you could think of — something global, local, a health issue like asthma, which was really big in the coal mining community. So, that’s where I learned a lot about giving back to the community.

Tell us about your schooling.

When I was 18 years old, I started college and moved with a good friend to an apartment in Amsterdam. It was a challenging experience—a new city, independence, and freedom. After four years, I moved to the University of Utrecht. I studied urban and medical sociology there. I got my doctorandus degree at the University of Utrecht and from there moved to Erasmus University in Rotterdam, where I got my PhD.

It was at Erasmus University where I met an American professor, Charles Kaplan. He worked on an emerging addiction institute at Erasmus, and our shared interest in research on drug use and addiction resulted in great collaboration. He motivated me to explore academia in the United States.

What happened after you first visited the United States?

This was in the mid-1980s, and while I was in the US, the media was full of coverage about the AIDS epidemic. The crack cocaine epidemic also happened around that time. After an intense summer, I went back to Amsterdam and my position at Erasmus.

I had done some work in the Netherlands looking at hepatitis C and injection drug use, which is not that different from injection drug use and HIV/AIDS. I had also done a lot of work with sex workers and sexuality. So, I came back to New York City to work on a project that the CDC had funded on sex workers and HIV.

My claim to fame back then was in seeing the connection between crack cocaine use and sexual behaviors that put people at risk for HIV. I had a letter in The Lancet, one of the British medical journals, laying out the connection. Six months later, there were hundreds of articles about the connection between crack cocaine and HIV infection.

My first job in Atlanta was a two-year appointment as a visiting scientist at the CDC. Following that, I moved to Georgia State University to help build the graduate program in medical anthropology and, later on, to direct the Center for Applied Research in Anthropology. I received federal funding to investigate how sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues impacted homeless men in Atlanta.

Four years later, in 1995, when Emory got its first building for the Rollins School of Public Health, I took a position there as acting director in the Women and Children’s Center and associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and Health Education.

Turning to Emory constituencies, what makes the students here so special?

One is that they decided to come to Emory. Whether they verbalize it or not, they see the value of the liberal arts. Emory requires students to get grounding in the liberal arts regardless of the degree they pursue. This training teaches them to be critical thinkers and to analyze—skills that will benefit them wherever they go in life.

The level of students who apply is remarkable. Their commitments to meaningful extracurricular activities are phenomenal. Even though they are still very young, they’ve already made contributions that resulted in powerful differences. I am so proud of them.

Among issues of interest to our alumni is the value of their Emory degree, both as they find first jobs and as their careers advance. How will an Emory degree continue to gain value?

Are there Emory alumni who believe that their degree does not provide the value that they hoped it would? Are alumni disappointed when people have not heard of Emory? Highlighting Emory’s impact will increase the value of the degree.

I also will look at new opportunities for Emory to engage alumni in different ways. We can reach our graduates not only through the school from which they got their degree but also through some cross-Emory activities.

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Out and about: Pictured here at homecoming in September, Sterk and Elifson are enjoying the full gamut of opportunities to interact with community members.


Research universities are judged in large part by the quality of their faculty members. Emory has a truly vibrant faculty. How can Emory continue to increase its stature and remain competitive?

It means that we must recruit and retain stellar faculty, but we also need to focus on graduate and professional students and the shifting roles of professions.

An Emory undergraduate experience focuses on their career trajectory, their ongoing personal growth, and what their lives as a whole look like.
It is about Emory shaping the next generation of leaders. It's the long-range results that will keep us competitive and support our stature.

Emory's priority is to invest in the academic mission of the institution. It means that we need to make some tough choices about where we are going to invest now and in the future.

How will you measure your success?

I will measure success by looking at internal as well as external characteristics. Internally, we should know what we do, why we do it, and how it helps the world.

Externally, the larger world should recognize the value of a research university that has the liberal arts throughout it; the value of our translational research, especially in areas such as drug discovery; clinical trials; new ways of delivering health care; and interprofessional education.

In short, will Emory be recognized in areas in which we lead? It's time to tell the full story about what we do regionally and globally.