After 21 years as an Emory professor and administrator, Claire E. Sterk began her role as the University’s 20th and first female president Sept. 1, 2016. In an interview with the Wheel, the Netherlands native discussed her vision for the University and how her values have shaped her path to presidency. This is an edited transcript.
The Emory Wheel: Tell me about your transition to president and what you’ve been doing for the past couple weeks.
Claire E. Sterk: I was extremely excited, humbled [when I first heard the Presidential Selection Committee’s decision] … I didn’t think this is what the outcome would be. I spent a lot of time in the summer going over [University reports of] what people were thinking, what people were wanting … what people were frustrated about.
What was fascinating for me to see [was] you put the pride and the frustrations together, and it translated into hope. Hope and ambition. What a great way to come in as a president — when you have that as a foundation upon which to build and to help facilitate the process of moving forward.
EW: What challenges does Emory face?
CS: Getting to the point of moving from diverse to inclusive, and becoming one Emory.
EW: What does your day-to-day routine entail?
CS: Every day is different … What I’ve been doing a lot the past few weeks … is meeting a lot of people who I either did not know or people who I knew, but in a different context … We had [an administrator] retreat, which was great for me to get to know all the members of the president’s leadership team … [The retreat] gets people to realize that we’re not just here in our roles but we’re also there as human beings.
We focused a lot on some key areas [including], “What does it mean to have an Emory student experience, with a specific focus on an Emory undergraduate experience?” … While I was the provost, [this focus was] really a priority for me, and I will carry it forward. I’ve heard enough from students who say, “I come to Emory as an undergraduate, and if I am in the College and I want to take a strategy class in the Business School, it’s really difficult to do.” … A real initiative is to make [the Emory experience] an integrated undergraduate experience that is less siloed. … I believe it’s our job to really make it an optimal Emory undergraduate experience … When you come to Emory as an undergraduate, you come to Emory as a liberal arts research university … When you get here as a student, you don’t really get to take advantage of that whole package.
EW: You’re Emory’s first female president. Have you encountered challenges in your presidency or work with administration [because of your gender] so far?
CS: Actually, none — and that might just be because I refuse to see them. But I could not give you an example. The opposite might have happened, a lot of women … made [positive] comments about me being a woman. So it’s actually been more along those lines than me not being a man [and] people having concerns about [my gender].
EW: Do you have a role model?
CS: [One is] my mother, which is an interesting one to say because we are not necessarily … close … We get along, we have contact with each other. My mother is a very curious person, she is always focused on doing things right … I think a lot of the way I approach the world comes from lessons that she has taught me, [including] truly having confidence in myself.
EW: Where did you see those lessons in your life?
CS: When I was 16, all into ideology, I was going to change the world. We were not going to have the divide between the rich and the poor countries, we were all going to share all the wealth and we were not going to have religious debates anymore.
In the end, it became more about [my friends and me] than … the cause. I’ll never forget [what my mother said about the effectiveness of our activism]. She didn’t lecture … [ultimately] there was no other conclusion I could draw but that [my friends and I] were really [pursuing activism] because we thought it was cool. That had many profound lessons. I got much more interested in participating in community activities. I always have been very actively involved in making volunteer work and civic engagement a priority.
EW: You’re from the Netherlands. What drew you to Atlanta?
CS: I had a job as the equivalent of an assistant professor [in the Netherlands]. I had traveled to many places, [but I] had not been to the U.S. I asked if I could spend time for my sabbatical to focus on some issues that were emerging all over the U.S. One was the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic; the other one was the crack cocaine epidemic that was really crumbling U.S. cities … I had no intent to stay in the U.S. but … I was very passionate about [the work] … It turned out, I was going to stay. I came to Atlanta because … the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] offered me a position as a visiting scientist.
EW: Will you continue conducting research during your presidency, or will you mostly serve as a mentor to researchers?
CS: I’ll probably do both. It’s good for my mind. It’s what’s at the core of who I am.
EW: What have you been doing to stay sane?
CS: I love gardening. I work out. I like to daydream — you just sit and you stare at space.
EW: What is your intended legacy?
CS: I want to be known as the person who has delivered hope. I want people to look back and be able to say, “You know, we believe that Emory could be this,” and that I have facilitated for us collectively, to get to our ambitions and be there.