When one of his triplets started to cry during a grand opening celebration at Oklahoma State University, Robert Sternberg casually left the podium then returned with his baby.
“He’s just bouncing her and patting and her she’s as happy as could be then, just smiling at everybody,” said Cheryl DeVuyst, assistant provost and director of the Learning and Student Success Opportunity Center at Oklahoma State. “And he’s smiling, and he continues on with his speech.”
Sternberg, the former Oklahoma State provost, soon will balance family life with serving as University of Wyoming president.
In the end, what you leave behind is through your children and what they pass on to theirs, he said.
“When you’re young, one of the things you don’t realize as much as when you’re older is how you can make lasting contributions through your work,” Sternberg said in a telephone interview. “But the most important lasting contribution I think you ever make in your life is through your kids.”
The now-2-year-old triplets are Samuel, Melody and Brittany. Melody and Brittany are also identical twins.
Sternberg also has two grown children. Seth works for Google and Sara is about to become an assistant professor at Duke University’s law school.
Like Sternberg, his wife, Karin, is a research psychologist. She worked as a research associate at Harvard before founding her own company. She also has a Master of Business Administration degree. Once she finishes a contracted book about love, she plans no further professional obligations. But she is interested in helping at UW, such as with study abroad exchanges.
The two met when Karin arrived from her native Germany to work on her psychology doctorate degree on a fellowship at Yale, where Robert taught.
“One thing that Karin sometimes neglects to mention is that I was her second choice,” Robert said.
To study hate and terrorism for her doctoral dissertation, Karin sought a professor specializing in the topic. Sternberg and a professor emeritus at Stanford both studied hate, but the professor at Stanford was retiring. So she decided to go to Yale.
“Every time I see this guy I thank him for retiring that year because it led her right to me. … I’ve never been as happy in my life to be a fallback as I am at this point,” Robert said.
When they met, Robert was busy directing a research center and was president of the American Psychological Association. He’d confused her with another student he was expecting to arrive from Germany.
“We had this conversation that made no sense because she was trying to talk about what she was interested in, and I was talking about what I thought she was interested in — but it was really someone else,” he said. “It was a total mess.”
With busy schedules, they didn’t get to know each other well during their time at Yale. Years later, they decided to catch up over dinner, and they “hit it off,” Robert said.
Robert was raised in Newark, N.J., in a family in which neither parent graduated high school. His father sold buttons in a second-floor walk-up and his mother was a housewife.
Sterling said he performed “miserably” on IQ tests as a child. Believing he wasn’t capable of more, he and his teachers were happy with him working far below his classmates’ level. It wasn’t until fourth grade that a teacher saw there was more to a child than an IQ score, he said in an email.
Since then, he has graduated summa cum laude from Yale with a bachelor’s degree and earned a doctorate at Stanford. His many accolades include being named a top 100 psychologist of the 20th century by the American Psychological Association.
Sternberg’s humble academic beginnings sparked his specialty in the field of psychology: human intelligence.
“So I have an especial interest in helping everyone fulfill his or her potential,” he wrote. “So often in life we create self-fulfilling prophecies for kids or adults—we give up on them as losers, as my teachers gave up on me. But if we view abilities broadly and realize that everyone can develop their skills in many different ways, we will realize the value people have to offer that often is hidden because we refuse to see it.”
Robert focused on teaching students with different learning styles and abilities at Oklahoma State. Colleagues said he spearheaded efforts to expand student services into the Learning and Student Success Center where students can find academic help.
“He has an uncanny ability to connect with people because he’s walked the walk,” said Jean Sander, dean of Oklahoma State’s veterinary school.
Sander said the University of Wyoming will benefit from Sternberg’s ability to speed up the typically glacial pace of academia.
“He really likes to get in there, figure out what the problem is, find a solution for it and implement it, which is just a breath of fresh air,” Sander said.
Moving to Wyoming
Karin said Robert had talked about moving to Wyoming long ago, but there was no job opening. One day, she read an article online about UW President Tom Buchanan announcing his retirement this summer.
The Sternbergs are excited to help their children experience the state’s ski slopes and hiking trails. They also believe their children will benefit from the state’s culture. Wyoming has a rare combination of “pioneering spirit,” individualism and concern for others, he said. Wyomingites care about and take care each another, he added.
“It’s pioneering in the best sense — of being creative and entrepreneurial and not just being happy with the status quo,” he said.
He added that too often in academia, people care most about their own careers and lose their loyalty to the institution.
“An exciting thing about Wyoming is people really care about the institution and making it better,” he said.
Years ago while teaching at Yale and giving numerous presentations, one of Sterling’s stops was the University of Wyoming.
“What I remember is not the details of the talk or arrangements but rather my impression of a small, cozy, beautiful town, plus a majestic setting, friendly people, interest in what I talked about, and a feeling that this is the kind of community that I would love to live in,” Sternberg wrote in an email.
He’s lived in a number of places, from Newark to Palo Alto, Calif.
“I have been fine with all of them [OK, Newark was not the best!] but I remember feeling and still feel like going to Laramie will be like going to the home I always have sought but never have yet quite found,” he wrote.