By Maria Saporta
The incoming president of Emory University wants to DeKalb County institution of higher learning to have a much closer relationship with the City of Atlanta and the rest of the region.
In a couple of brief conversations after Claire Sterk was named the next president of Emory on June 3, it was readily apparent that she wants the university to be externally focused on community issues outside the walls of what is often viewed as an Ivy League school in the South.
During the interview process, Sterk – Emory’s provost since 2013 – repeatedly said that she would love to have a memorandum of understanding with the City of Atlanta.
“What are the needs and wants of Atlanta community, and how can Emory help fulfill them,” Sterk asked rhethorically after attending the Rotary Club of Atlanta luncheon on Monday. “Of course there’s the business community and the business school. But there’s health – public health and issues of social disparities.”
Sterk said she is intrigued with the future of higher education in urban areas – saying the University of Chicago is a model for her. Going forward, she would like to have Emory’s students, faculty and staff more engaged in the larger community.
“What I got really excited about is what I will be able to do as a leader of Emory,” she said. When asked more about how Emory and Atlanta could work more closely together, she said it should be reciprocal.
“There’s much more we could do to help each other,” Sterk said, adding that she will take time to listen to ideas from both inside and outside of Emory. “I still feel I need time to get input.”
Sterk, a native of the Netherlands, moved to the United States “three days before I turned 30,” in the mid 1980s.
She moved to Atlanta in 1988 to become a visiting scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then, two years later, she joined the faculty of Georgia State University – an institution she still loves and one she hopes will be open to closer ties with Emory on community initiatives.
Sterk then joined Emory in 1995 – serving on the faculty of the Rollins School of Public Health. Since then, she has held several positions at Emory with increasing responsibilities until she became provost.
When long-time president James Wagner announced last September that he would be retiring, Sterk said she didn’t really see herself as a candidate to succeed him.
“I have very much enjoyed being Emory’s provost,” she said. But then a group of faculty members urged her to seek the post. And the more she heard about the direction of where Emory was headed, she said: “I could see myself getting excited about it.”
Because she has been at Emory for more than two decades and lived in Atlanta for three, Sterk comes to the position with a great deal of perspective.
She studied the transition of Techwood Homes to Centennial Place; she worked on the AIDS/HIV epidemic; and she is recognized as a leading international figure in the fields of public health and anthropology. She has written three books and more than 100 articles and book chapters.
She was selected – in a unanimous vote of the board of trustees – to become the Emory’s 20th president. She will assume her new role on Sept. 1 – allowing time for transition between Wagner and Sterk.
“James Wagner has been a fantastic president,” she said. “Think about where Emory was 13 years ago. Emory is now one of the major research universities in the country.”
Sterk said she signed on for a five-year term with an option for a second term.
Sterk’s husband and research partner, Kirk Elifson, serves on the faculty of the Rollins School of Public Health. Together, they have attracted more than $33 million in external research funding to Emory.
Asked how her new role would impact their relationship, Sterk simply answered: “He’ll be my research boss, and I will be his administrative boss – so it will be an equal relationship.”