Emory University President Claire E. Sterk’s Dutch heritage may be a footnote in a page-long bio recounting her achievements as a public health scholar and university administrator.
But according to the Netherlands native, it also helped equip her for her current role, she told a breakfast meeting of the Netherlands-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast March 1.
In addition to their sense of humor, the Dutch are known for communication and collaboration, core attributes required for leading a sprawling private university and health-care system, Dr. Sterk said.
Emory has more than 30,000 employees, mostly in Atlanta, with the bulk of them working for its system of renowned hospitals and health clinics. The university also has 15,000 students who pick Emory — not the cheapest option in town— in part because of the opportunity to meld research with experience.
“You may hear me say some words more maybe than you like: collaboration and partnerships — because there is so much we can do that we’re not doing because we don’t collaborate, because we compete with each other,” Dr. Sterk said in responding to a question about private companies playing a more proactive role in the traditional health sector.
But the same holds true for faculty relationships across the university’s nine schools, from its undergraduate programs to professional institutes in theology, business, public health, law and more. And universities themselves are finding it more necessary than ever to work together.
“The old days of universities competing with each other are gone,” she said, noting her sharing of best practices with the Association of American Universities, a group of 60 top schools.
Either way, Emory’s mix of theoretical pursuits and on-the-ground practice, largely enabled by its health care assets, help set it apart from other schools.
When traveling by plane, Dr. Sterk finds it sometimes frustrating (though understandable) when fellow travelers talk about their experiences at hospitals and doctor’s offices when she mentions that she works for Emory. But that’s also an opportunity for the university.
“Then I start talking about how we have all these intersections, how we are able to do things that other universities cannot do because of the connections,” she said.
In today’s world, she said, this is vital. Technology is threatening more and more jobs, and artificial intelligence and big data are upending industries even outside the tech world.
”If there is anybody in the room who believes artificial intelligence has not impacted your life, then we need to talk,” she said.
To stay relevant in training the next-generation workforce, educators in the liberal arts have to focus on the human attributes that can’t be replaced, like empathy, flexibility, communication and critical thinking, she said.
On those same airplanes, Dr. Sterk likes looking at in-flight magazines showing the lines between Atlanta and hundreds of destinations around the world. It illustrates how collaboration doesn’t stop at U.S. borders, and how Emory’s location in Atlanta helps it further its goal of global connectivity.
Forty percent of Emory undergraduate students go abroad at some point in their studies, and Emory has collaborative agreements with some 200 institutions globally.
Formal centers range from the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative to the Emory Vaccine Center, which has a branch in India, to the The Lillian Carter Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility, which helps train nurses and midwives throughout the world, providing learning opportunities for students in the process.
International students from 100 countries make up about 17 percent of the Emory undergraduate student body, with the top contributing countries mirroring trends across the U.S.: China and India. Emory also has strong connections in South Korea thanks to former university President James Laney’s time as U.S. ambassador there.
While foreign students contribute to Emory’s diversity, integrating them into mainstream student life isn’t always easy, Dr. Sterk conceded. She used herself as an example: While she rarely uses Dutch in daily life, she jumped at the chance to speak with Dutch chamber members at the Buckhead Club. People like to cluster with others from their home culture.
“We have a residential campus, so we actually push people to not be together. It’s an interesting song and dance, where on the one hand, you want there to be support and affinity, but you also want to have the integration,” she said.
“It’s nice to be open-minded and see where the world takes you.”
Faculty and scholars sometimes integrate more easily, but they can often be hindered by visa issues or other challenges.
Growing Closer to Atlanta
Dr. Sterk took up the post as president in September 2016 after serving as provost, which she likened to the chief operating officer of the university. She had no ambition for the top position, but insists she now likes it just as much as what she thought was the best job on campus.
Emory was founded in 1836, coincidentally a year before the city of Atlanta, and Dr. Sterk sees their future being more connected than their past.
Previously, the school had an Atlanta address but remained tantalizingly outside the city. Emory’s campus was officially annexed Jan. 1 via a small sliver of property bought by the university to connect the city limits with the 744-acre campus.
Dr. Sterk believes the move will pave the way for better integration, both physically and psychologically, as Emory will now be at the table in talks concerning the city — where it already has significant assets like a hospital and proton therapy center in Midtown. Last year, the university received $400 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, its largest ever. The money will fund a cancer center tower in Midtown and a Health Sciences Research Building on campus, among other programs.
“We’d like to have more of a presence, and this will help us have more of a presence and really become not just a suburban university, but a suburban university with an urban footprint,” Dr. Sterk said.
One big benefit of annexation is how it will change the picture for public transportation to the campus, she said. The Jan. 1 timeframe was accelerated in part because of the need to keep millions of dollars of federal funding in play for MARTA expansion.
“I never realized how proud I should be of the public transportation in the Netherlands,” she said, until she experienced the “miserable” traffic here in her adoptive hometown.
Emory sits in one of the largest metro-area employment centers without access to a nearby MARTA rail line. The controversial “Clifton corridor” plan proposes to remedy that issue, with the campus (and nearby CDC and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) being a core stop on a light rail line linking the Lindbergh and Avondale stations on Atlanta’s eastern side. That line would provide the whole metro area with better access to the jobs and health care that Emory provides, she said.
It’s all part of keeping Atlanta and the “global gateway” that helps local institutions stay engaged with the world and attracts skilled immigrants, including her.
After her undergraduate and master’s degree in the Netherlands, Dr. Sterk left headed to New York with a single duffle bag to research the growing HIV epidemic in the 1980s.
“My friends and family knew that I was not going back,” she said. “It took me two years to figure out that I was not going back.”
She came to Atlanta as a visiting scientist at the CDC and joined Emory in 1995. Her research interests include addiction, mental health and HIV/AIDs, with a focus on community-based interventions.
“That wasn’t a planned path, and it’s nice to be open-minded and see where the world takes you.”