Working to better students, Atlanta and the world

Earlier this month, I was inaugurated as the 20th President of Emory University. Growing up in a small town in the Netherlands, the first person in my family to attend college, I never envisioned this opportunity would be part of my future. It is a testament to our leaders that I am the first woman, first foreign-born and first social scientist to lead this institution. It was an improbable path, but one that I relished – moving far from home to broaden my education; tackling some of the most devastating health crises of our day, including HIV/AIDS and addiction; and embracing the greatest challenge of my career as Emory’s new president.

I’ve been privileged to live and work in Atlanta for the past three decades. I’ve seen Emory grow and advance beyond anything I could have imagined. Out of more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning, we are consistently ranked among the top 20. This lofty status is a tribute to all who came before us. Emory is a great institution, but it has the opportunity, and I believe the obligation, to make greater contributions — academically, socially, and economically. We are in a challenging era where the role of universities is dramatically changing and, as leaders, we must recognize and adapt to that change in order to stay relevant.

Research universities must move beyond the narrow perception of elite, ivory-tower institutions. We must not only look inwards to define who we are, but outwards as well. We must commit to a more expansive role in our neighboring communities, the greater society and our global village. Emory can take the lead here through our Atlanta location, our renowned research and health care facilities and our international relationships. Our core values of inclusion, compassion, collaboration, integrity, optimism and boldness have never carried more meaning. Think about each of those words and what they truly mean. For me, they encompass our path forward – and outward.

One of my key priorities is building a stronger and more dynamic relationship with Atlanta. Not only can the city bring new opportunities for our programs and our students, but Emory has much to offer in return. Our ties stretch through every neighborhood and interest in Atlanta. From our association with The Carter Center to our shared research activities with the CDC, we are connected to our neighbors. As one of the leading employers in the city, we are deeply invested in the economic well-being of Atlanta. And through our academic research, we bring a global spotlight to this community. But we can and should do more together.

I am so proud to call Atlanta home because it is one of the public health capitals of the world. Among my greatest passions – both personally and for the university – is to have a substantial impact on society’s greatest challenges – from emerging infectious diseases to racial and economic disparity to empowering women. Universities must play to their strengths in choosing what issues to tackle. One of Emory’s greatest strengths is our multi-disciplinary collaboration among medicine, ethics and public policy. For example, Emory offers joint degree programs in ethics with medicine, nursing and with public health so that our students learn not only how to care for patients, but also how to understand the broader societal issues they will face. With Zika, HIV/AIDS, opioid addiction, and growing economic disparity to name a few, what a powerful impact we can have with this expertise.

Finally, we must continue to expand opportunities for our students to be part of the global community. Like many colleges, we are part of the discussion about supporting our undocumented students. As our country becomes more fragmented, universities must continue to strive to add diversity of race, economic strata and thought to our campuses. It is yet another vital and valuable role we play on the world stage.

All these endeavors have one theme in common – an ongoing commitment to serve humanity. It sounds grand, but I firmly believe that research universities like Emory are invaluable communities that bring together the most inspired minds to collaborate in a way no other institution can do. We are incubators for research, drivers of innovation and builders of character. By building these broader alliances, I hope Emory can provide more to our students and faculty, to Atlanta, and to society as a whole. We are at a crossroads and it will take a commitment from all of us to embrace a bold new future. I believe Emory is poised and ready. I know I am.

Claire E. Sterk is president of Emory University.