As an elderly patron entered the Cannon Chapel for an April 8 lecture, she happened upon Emory University President Claire E. Sterk. Of Sterk’s numerous responsibilities, including fundraising for the University and advocating on behalf of Emory, she typically does not direct patrons to their seats or collect tickets.
“How are you?” Sterk responded to the woman. “I’m probably not the person — hold on one second.
Despite her momentary surprise, Sterk collected the tickets and helped the patrons find seating, encouraging them to move closer to the front. Sterk didn’t tell the woman who she was, instead finding quiet joy in helping a University visitor.
On April 5, the Wheel shadowed Sterk to see what a day in the life of a University president looks like. Sterk’s day began at 7 a.m. with a meeting in downtown Atlanta to discuss how Emory will integrate with the city in wake of the University’s recent annexation into the city. By 10 a.m., she returned to campus to meet with executives from Emory Healthcare and the Business and Administration Department.
In many ways, Sterk does not resemble the typical University president. Sterk is the first woman to hold the role at Emory. Known for her style, Sterk’s wardrobe is conservative, yet colorful. A native of the Netherlands, she speaks with an accent. But above all, her informal, almost playful demeanor sets her apart from the stereotypical figurehead.
Sterk speaks with a perpetual smile, peppering her speech with laughter and often touches those she interacts with warmly on the shoulder. She chooses interaction over aloofness, formatting her appearances as question and answer sessions rather than straight lectures. Sterk said she prefers to hear what others have to say.
Although Sterk’s days are hectic, she said that after more than a year in office she has begun to build her routine. Grouping similar appointments on the same day has helped Sterk manage her unpredictable schedule, she said.
“Monday and Tuesday are days when I tend to cluster a lot of my regular meetings so it’s easier to work through whatever else comes up,” Sterk said. “Friday tends to be Atlanta-focused, which could be [working with] the metro Atlanta chamber [of commerce] or … the Carter Center.”
The Wheel began shadowing Sterk at 10:30 a.m. when she returned to her office for a closed-door meeting with Emory’s 2018 Honorary Degree Recipient and Atlanta Community Food Bank founder Bill Bolling. Bolling told the Wheel that the meeting consisted of him thanking Sterk for the upcoming recognition. He said that he had known of Sterk since she served as provost, but this was his first time speaking with her.
Sterk then rushed to another meeting with recently appointed Interim Vice President of Campus Life Paul Marthers, Assistant Vice President for Community Suzanne Onorato, Director of Programming and Learning Initiatives Elizabeth Cox and Assistant Vice President of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Wanda Collins. During the meeting, they debriefed Sterk on the state of resources and programs available to students who may face challenges such as mental health, drug and alcohol abuse.
After everyone gave their updates, Sterk asked each person an amalgam of follow-up questions: “Do you feel we are at a good place? Can we be doing more? Are there things you are worried about, and therefore I should be worried about?”
The meeting was supposed to last 30 minutes but went over time by five, a frequent problem because Sterk says she is an enthusiastic speaker, but then she had to rush to Conversations on the Quad. Before she walked to the Quadrangle, Sterk reviewed the notes that she had prepared for her speech.
“This job is quite amazing, isn’t it?” Sterk remarked. “There is so much to do. It’s like having your finger on a pulse all the time.”
When it was time to head to the Quad, Sterk entered the stairwell of the Administration Building — she seldom takes the elevator because she prefers to exercise after sitting at her desk for hours on end.
“Every time I take [the stairs], I’m reminded of high school, where my friends and I would try to see who could make the loudest noise on [the metal stair nosings],” Sterk said. “Sometimes, when I’ve sat down for too long and I can’t go outside, I run up and down the stairwell.”
Sterk will relocate her office to the old Pitts Theology Library building on the Quad this summer and expressed mixed feelings about the move.
“My office [in the Administration Building] is beautiful. I don’t think I am ready to give that up,” Sterk said. “But I am excited to open up the building to the community.”
The second floor of the Pitt’s Building will primarily be offices, including hers and Provost Dwight A. McBride’s. The first floor, however, will include a conference room and the building’s original chapel, both of which “will be open to the community.”
After she gave her speech on the Quad to introduce her Senior Advisor and Professor in Moral Leadership Robert M. Franklin Jr., Sterk spent about 30 minutes on the Quad speaking with various student and faculty members in casual conversations ranging from the warm Atlanta weather to what she ate for breakfast that morning. Students reacted with laughter and cheer, surprised to be getting face-to-face action with the president.
After some time on the Quad, Sterk headed to her office hours with various student groups, including Emory Hillel, Emory Muslim Students Association (MSA) and Sigma Phi Epsilon (Sig Ep). Each student group came to Sterk to discuss their involvement, concerns or just chat. About 50 student groups had requested a time slot for that day, but the president could only accommodate four. Sterk said that the office hours initiative, formally known as “Student Organization President’s Office Hours,” allows her to learn about each student group.
“I really struggle with knowing a little about a lot,” Sterk said. “I see myself sort of as the conductor, who says, ‘OK, I can get you in contact with this person.’”
Each student meeting lasted around 20 minutes. After their meeting, Emory MSA told the Wheel that they found Sterk to be helpful and warm.
“Student groups’ concerns range from wanting to share with me what they’ve been doing, to wanting to collaborate, wanting resources to do something,” Sterk said. “But very often, it’s about space, because there’s never enough space on this campus.”
Sterk spent the next several hours working privately until the annual James Weldon Johnson Distinguished Lecture at Cannon Chapel at 3:45 p.m. Although Sterk was set to mingle with speaker and historian Taylor Branch, who lectured on Martin Luther King Jr., there was one problem: Branch wasn’t there.
While event organizers, including Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute and Associate Professor of Political Science Andra Gillespie, became increasingly worried about Branch’s lateness, Sterk maintained a calm and upbeat demeanor.
“I could be looking at my email, but being here is much nicer,” Sterk said. “We don’t [leave the office] enough.”
As the event start time of 4:30 p.m. drew nearer, Sterk continued to smile and greet audience members, unphased by the event organizer’s panicked state. She brushed aside bureaucratic concerns about where to sit or the precise time she should leave, instead choosing to chit-chat about the projects and interests of others. Sterk seemed equally comfortable discussing the urban renewal movement of the 1960s as repurposing medieval churches in Europe as community space.
Branch entered the building with minutes to spare and just enough time for an obligatory picture with the president before she made her opening remarks.
“This event is really important to to all of us and me as a person,” Sterk said to the audience, commending the James Weldon Johnson Institute for its interdisciplinary nature. “In my mind, [the Institute] is really a model for the Emory community … [and] a great partner in the Atlanta community.”
Shortly after speaking, Sterk headed to a graduate student mixer at Double Zero restaurant in Emory Village. Sterk said she prefers to attend informal events like these.
Sterk spent about an hour at the restaurant talking to about 40 graduate students from various graduate school divisons. Although Sterk asked the group about their confidence for the future as Emory graduate students, conversations veered toward the casual as participants enjoyed wine and appetizers.
Event attendee and 2017-2018 Graduate Student Government Association (GSGA) President Mark Neufeld (18B) told the Wheel that he appreciates Sterk’s efforts to communicate with the graduate student body.
“I’ve met with the president a few times this year, and I feel like she’s doing a really good job of reaching out to graduate students in a way that’s very different from past presidents,” Neufeld said. “She’s mentioned in several meetings the importance that graduate students have a lifestyle here that’s not just academic … so I wanted to come out and support her as she works to get feedback on what graduate student life could be.”
Sterk left the event at 6 p.m. so she could make it on time to her final stop of the day: an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert.
In an average day, it’s possible that Sterk connects with a more of the campus and Atlanta community than perhaps any other individual. From fellow administrators to prospective students, she treats each conversation with a fresh attitude. Students are often surprised to see her walking across campus alone. One such student stopped her on her way from the lecture to Double Zero.
“How was your day?” the student inquired.
“Good day,” Sterk responded. She paused. “Great day, actually. Thank you for asking.”