Sterk Talks Political Dialogue

Courtesy of Emory Photo/Video
Courtesy of Emory Photo/Video

This interview was by Zak Hudak, Julia Munslow, Elana Cates and Annie Cohen. This interview was transcribed by Michelle Lou.

In her first four months as Emory University’s 20th president, President Claire E. Sterk faced a U.S. presidential election that shook the school, a movement to designate Emory a sanctuary campus and a changing Emory administration. In an interview with The Emory Wheel, Sterk discussed political expression and her role as president in an interview with The Emory Wheel.

This is an edited transcript.

The Emory Wheel: What does Emory need in its president?

Claire Sterk: We’re not looking for somebody who wants to be an internal manager [but] for somebody willing to be a change agent. What I’m being asked to do is be more externally focused than any of my predecessors have been. [I am expected to] spend 60 to 70 percent of my time externally focused. Emory hasn’t achieved its ambition because there [is] a need to tell more stories, make sure people want to invest in Emory — and I’m not just talking about money.

EW: Was President James W. Wagner internally focused?

Sterk: Very internally. [Former University presidents] Wagner, [William] Chase, [Billy] Fry, [James] Laney all said that Emory was [internally focused].

EW: We’ve had administrators, in particular [Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life] Ajay Nair, take clear, public political stances. [Student group] Emory College Republicans were outraged about this. They found your Hillary Clinton campaign contributions and were upset. What role does a place like Emory play in a political season as polarizing as this one?

CS: I’m a human being [with] the same freedom everybody else has to have my perspectives and to apply those in my personal life. I also have the responsibility as the president to not take my personal identity and force it on the institution. My identity and Emory’s identity are more intertwined than they are for anybody else in the University.

Universities are always politically engaged. When we talk about disparities, innovation and discovery, difficult conversations, at the end of the day, that all goes to politics. [Taking a political stance] takes away what we stand for as a university — to contribute and help guide people. What I love about universities is that we actually can debate … we can learn from debate. We may not like difficult conversations, but we value difficult conversations, which we should facilitate.

EW: Are there any updates on cabinet positions?

CS: [The] President’s Leadership Council [has] a number of searches going on. With me becoming the president, I needed to start a provost search. We have a search committee [chaired by] Carol Anderson from the College and Carlos del Rio from the School of Public Health. The committee is inviting eight to 10 candidates [for interviews] at the end of January. [In] the last two days of January, the committee will come up with three to four candidates. My hope is to bring the provost candidates to campus, have public forums … and then hopefully have that result by late March, early April. The reason I’m very intent on that is that the search for the dean of Emory College [is] four to six weeks behind [the provost] search. The plan is that the permanent provost will play a role in selecting the dean, and the dean knows exactly who he or she is going to work for.

The other President Leadership Council position is the executive vice president of business administration. That search is underway as well. [There is] a list of seven [or eight] candidates [who will be interviewed] the last day of January and first day of February.

EW: Can you update us on Emory’s actions to protect undocumented students?

CS: We have a stellar leadership team … Nair, [who] deals with campus life and the provost, [Stuart Zola]. The provost, Nair and myself had a lunch with the DACA students whom we knew, [and] shared fears, experiences [and] possible ways to address this.

EW: Do you have an added level of empathy for undocumented students as an immigrant yourself?

CS: I have empathy in understanding people who come to the U.S., for people who contribute to society who are not fully embraced and have no ways to fully join that society even if they want to. I have empathy for undocumented students. I’m very pleased that we have DACA because many undocumented people in the United States make tremendous contributions to our society.

EW: How do you plan on balancing the focus on being external and communicating with students?

CS: I don’t want you to think that I’m only going to be off-campus [or only] on-campus. What I really need to do is work with the leadership team and make sure that we are involved. I certainly will be available but we have really good people that actually will do a lot of the work. I believe everybody on campus knows that although the president is really important, the president doesn’t lead all of this directly.

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