Wharton, Clifton R.

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Clifton R. Wharton

College president, business executive

Clifton Wharton Jr. decided not to follow his father's footsteps into foreign service but rather to pursue careers in foreign economic development, higher education, and business. Wharton worked with philanthropic organizations focused on economic and human resource development in Latin America and Asia. Later, he served as president of Michigan State University and then as chancellor of the State University of New York. He directed the largest U.S. pension system, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund, and served briefly as United States deputy secretary of state. Writers often note his impressive list of "firsts" for African Americans.

Clifton Reginald Wharton, Jr., born September 13, 1926, in Boston, Massachusetts, spent most of his first six years in Spain's Canary Islands, where his father served as U. S. consul. The elder Wharton, a lawyer and the first African American to pass the U. S. foreign service exam, became the country's first black career ambassador. Based in Romania and Norway, he retired in 1964 after serving forty years. His wife, Harriet Banks Wharton, gave birth to four children; Clifton Jr. and a brother were born in the United States, and a sister and another brother were born in Spain. A chemistry professor and social worker, she served as teacher for her children.

In 1950, Wharton Jr. married Dolores Duncan of New York City. They met during his sophomore year at Harvard University on a blind date arranged by one of Dolores's cousins. Dolores Wharton founded and presided over the Fund for Corporate Initiatives, Inc., a nonprofit organization created to enhance the situation of women and minorities in corporate America. Among many other positions, she served on the boards of Phillips Petroleum, Kellogg, and Gannett companies. The Whartons had two sons, Clifton III and Bruce.

The early experience of Wharton Jr. in the Canary Islands prepared him for learning cultures and languages. In the absence of U.S. schools, his mother used books from a Baltimore correspondence school to begin his education. Wharton learned Spanish along with English, and his mother frequently took him to a local French school run by white Russians, where he learned French, as well.

When he was old enough, his parents took him to Massachusetts to attend the prestigious Boston Latin School, the first U.S. public school noted for its excellence in education. He lived with his maternal grandmother and worked at the local spool factory. During his free time, he trained for the track team.

At sixteen, Wharton enrolled in Harvard University. He became the college radio station's first African American voice and founded the National Student Association, a lobbying group for college students. A strong performer on the track team, he abandoned the sport during his junior year because of an injury. In later years, a classmate described Wharton to David Bird as "well-heeled, well-bred, well-educated—a very bright guy, a very classy guy, and self-assured always." Wharton briefly trained as an Air Force pilot in Tuskegee, Alabama. He soloed in single engine planes, but before he earned his wings, the war ended.

In an interview years later with Black Issues in Higher Education, Wharton offered the following advice to college students: "This is one of the few times in your life when you have available to you this incredible range of extracurricular activities. Sample the ones that you think you might be interested in, because you may discover a hidden talent or hidden interest that you didn't realize you had." Wharton's college experience sparked his own interests.

Wharton received his BA. in history, cum laude, from Harvard in 1947. In the commencement address, Secretary of State George C. Marshall emphasized the U.S. commitment to European recovery. He outlined a plan for achieving that goal that became known as the European Recovery Plan—or, more widely, the Marshall Plan. The address impressed young Wharton, inspiring him to focus his career on international economic development. He had considered following his father's distinguished record in foreign service but chose now to establish his own path.

In 1948, Wharton earned an M.A. in international affairs from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, setting another first for blacks. Realizing his position as a role model, he worked extremely hard, foregoing many extracurricular activities. He finished second in his class despite his status as the youngest student.

Enters Foreign Economic Development

Between 1948 and 1953, Wharton worked with the American International Association for Economic and Social Development, established by Nelson Rockefeller. The organization helped Latin Americans develop higher standards of living by providing information about farming, nutrition, and homemaking. Wharton's experience as an executive trainee allowed him to gain a good overall perspective of the program. He spent time in a variety of areas, including public relations, accounting, and programming. As he progressed in the job, he became program analyst and then head of reports and analysis.

Wharton realized that to advance in his career, he would need a doctorate. In 1953, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago to study economics. He served as research assistant to noted economist Theodore W. Schultz, who would eventually win a Nobel Prize. Wharton's work involved evaluating technical assistance in Latin America. He earned his M.A. in 1956 and his Ph.D. in economics in 1958. His doctorate represented yet another first for blacks. Wharton would recall his work in Chicago as the most rigorous and intellectually demanding time of his academic career.

Even before Wharton completed his studies, he received a job offer from Arthur T. Mosher, executive director of the American Development Council (ADC). John D. Rockefeller III had founded the ADC as a nonprofit organization to develop human resources and to improve agricultural and economic development in rural Asia. The council provided many Asians the opportunity to train in the United States and then return to their own countries. Making advances in human development and high-yield crops, the organization became known for its "Green Revolution" during the 1950s and 1960s.

Serves in Asia

Wharton served first as associate, then as director of operations for the ADC in Southeast Asia. Based in Malaysia, he directed operations in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam as well. He spent time with the Asians in the rice fields and worked to help them develop their potential for expertise and leadership. Wharton told W. Hubert Keen: "We wanted Asians to work on the agrarian problems, not experts from the outside who would help for a couple of years and then leave."

Wharton advocated for less military emphasis in foreign policy and more focus on encouraging Asian leadership potential. In working among the Asian people, Wharton learned from them as well. The gentility and courtesy he experienced became a part of his own nature. His wife, Dolores, became interested also in the region's people and art, later publishing a book titled Contemporary Artists of Malaysia: A Biographical Survey (1972).

While in Asia, Wharton taught as a visiting professor at the University of Singapore (1958–60) and then taught economics at the University of Malaysia (1960–64). Many of the region's future economists benefited from Wharton's teaching. In 1964, he took a sabbatical year to teach economic development at Stanford University, bringing experienced insight into the differences and similarities between Eastern and Western cultures.

That same year, Wharton moved to New York to direct the ADC's American University Research Program. The AURP provided opportunities for scientists and scholars to focus on agricultural problems in the Third World. Wharton worked both within the United States and abroad, recruiting fifty to sixty Asians each year for fellowships in the United States. He oversaw research grants for universities studying Third World problems and held numerous workshops for professionals. From 1967 through 1969, he served as vice president of the program.


Born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 13
Receives B.A. from Harvard University
Receives M.A. from Johns Hopkins University; begins work for American International Association for Economic and Social Development
Marries Dolores Duncan
Receives M.A. from the University of Chicago
Begins work for Agricultural Development Council
Receives Ph.D. from the University of Chicago
Becomes president of Michigan State University
Becomes president of the State University of New York
Receives President's Award on World Hunger
Becomes chairman and chief executive officer of TIAA-CREF
Named U. S. deputy secretary of state; becomes director of the New York Stock Exchange and Harcourt General
Receives American Council on Education's Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement
Receives Africare's Legacy Award

In the spring of 1969, Wharton organized a conference at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Nicholas Luyks, an MSU professor of agricultural economics, submitted Wharton's name to a search committee appointed to select a new president for the university. The committee sent a couple of delegations to New York to interview Wharton, and after much deliberation, it chose him from around three hundred candidates.

Becomes President at Michigan State

In this new role in higher education, Wharton became the first African American president of a major research institution. On the evening of the Whartons' arrival on campus, students honored them with a huge welcome sign and a medley of Michigan State songs. In his first campus address as president, Wharton stressed the importance of the human element in education, the rights of all students to equal opportunity, the importance of scholarly creativity, and the university's responsibility to initiate positive change.

Wharton took office during turbulent times in academe, and the job demanded all the tact and diplomacy he had developed. The 1960s became characterized by demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, riots, and financial difficulties on college campuses, and Michigan State proved no exception. About the time Wharton assumed presidency, Ohio National guardsmen killed four students and wounded others in a Kent State University protest over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Wharton moved quickly, using closed-circuit television to reassure students of his own concern for Asian people. Five days later, he suspended classes for teach-ins that provided background on Indochina and information about effective protest measures and other relevant issues. He offered personally to take student and faculty concerns to Michigan congressmen in Washington. Wharton dealt with other campus disturbances with similar equanimity and respect.

Wharton soon gained a reputation for being a capable, tactful administrator and an encourager, sympathetic to both blacks and whites. Clif and Dolores Wharton made a special effort to get to know people, welcoming students and faculty into their home and making scores of visits to student dormitories and sororities and fraternities in the course of the semester. Dolores Wharton hosted in their home an art show featuring paintings and sculptures by MSU faculty.

Halfway through his career at MSU, Wharton told George Bullard, "This is one of the few jobs I know that demands every scrap of your experience and knowledge." As president, he advocated for universal access to higher education, led the university to growth, increased student involvement on advisory councils, and developed a new urban affairs college. He had initiated a Presidential Fellows program, giving selected students and junior faculty the opportunity to work in top administrative offices for six months. After eight strong years, Wharton resigned in 1978. MSU later named a new building the Clifton and Dolores Wharton Center for Performing Arts (1982).

Becomes Chancellor at SUNY

In 1978, Wharton moved to Albany to become chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. While achieving yet another first for blacks, he emphasized to David Bird that "he had always tried to make it on his own merits. 'I am a man first, an American second and black man third.'" At SUNY he faced the challenge of bringing cohesiveness to a system of sixty-four diverse campuses serving thousands of students and requiring thousands of employees. He immediately toured the various campuses, reassuring faculty and students that he would move the university forward. John LoDico reported that in national survey of college leaders, Wharton attained status as "one of the top five most influential leaders in higher education."

In 1984, Wharton appointed an independent commission to study two of SUNY's most important problems: a layer of red tape that unnecessarily slowed basic expenditures and a need to increase the national standing of SUNY graduate and professional schools. Wharton followed up on advice from the commission's educators, politicians, and businessmen by pursuing legislation that would grant campus administrators more flexibility in funding decisions. He considered that legislation one of his major contributions to the university. Wharton announced his resignation on October 16, 1986. He had advanced SUNY's reputation and funding and had appointed a greater number of women to leadership roles. In 1987, SUNY established the Clifton and Dolores Wharton Economics Research Center.


On February 1, 1987, Wharton became chairman and chief executive officer of the nation's huge private pension system, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF). The first university president to fill this position and the first African American to head a Fortune 100 company, Wharton doubled the fund's assets to $113 billion. He exercised his well-honed managerial abilities, paying particular attention to staff at the lower levels and increasing the number of women and minorities on the boards. He provided participants with increased options and greater control over their investments. In 1996, TIAA-CREF honored his leadership by naming the Clifton R. Wharton Auditorium.

Through the years, Wharton had served on several national fronts. In 1966, he joined President Lyndon Johnson's Task Force on Agriculture in Vietnam. From 1966 through 1969, he held membership on the U.S. Department of State's Advisory Panel on East Asia. In 1969, he served on Governor Nelson Rockefeller's Pres-idential Mission to Latin America. From 1976 through 1983, he chaired the State Department's Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, a position appointed by President Gerald Ford and reappointed by President Jimmy Carter. From 1978 through 1980, Wharton chaired President Carter's Commission on World Hunger. In 1983, Secretary of State George P. Shultz appointed Wharton co-chair of the Commission on Security and Economic Assistance. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush appointed him to the Advisory Commission on Trade Policy and Negotiations.

In January 1993, President Bill Clinton named Wharton deputy secretary of state to serve with Secretary Warren Christopher. Wharton had previously declined invitations to such positions, but now he felt he owed his county the benefit of his experience and expertise. Rather than participating in foreign policy decision-making as anticipated, however, he found himself engaged in administrative restructuring. Wharton became frustrated by not being able to use his expertise and by political rumors, including false assertions that he had no foreign policy experience. He resigned after eight months.

In 1993, although retired, Wharton returned to TIAA-CREF as an overseer and also became director of the New York Stock Exchange and Harcourt General. Later, he again served Agricultural Development Council as economist and vice president. Along the way, he had found time to write and publish on both international and academic matters. His books include: Subsistence Agriculture and Economic Development (editor, 1969), Continuity and Change: Academic Greatness Under Stress (with Theodore M. Hesburgh and Paul A. Miller, 1971), and Patterns for Lifelong Learning (1973).

Throughout his career, Wharton served on the boards of a variety of corporations. On February 26, 1969, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, one of the nation's largest companies, elected him director, another first for blacks. He served on the boards of Ford Motor Company, Time, Federated Department Stores, Burrough's, and other companies. He has also served on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). He actively participated in such organizations as the Carnegie Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art.

Wharton fulfilled the responsibilities of chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1982–87, the first African American to serve in that capacity. He contributed his expertise to the Aspen Institute for Humanities Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Overseas Development Council, the Foreign Policy Association, and the Council for Financial Aid to Education. He served as chairman of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Numerous awards reflect the quality of Wharton's accomplishments. In 1970, Boston Latin School named him "Man of the Year" and the American Missionary Association presented him its Amistad Award. In 1971, he received the University of Chicago's Alumni Professional Achievement Award and, in 1977, the Joseph C. Wilson Award for achievement and promise in international affairs. In 1983, The President's Award on World Hunger included Wharton among its first recipients.

In 1985, the National Economic Association conferred its Westerfield Award. The Boston Black Achievers of the YMCA presented its 1986 Benjamin E. Mays Award. In 1987, the New York Associated Black Charities named him among its first Black History Makers. Wharton became a Fellow of the American Association of Agricultural Economics in 1988. The New York Urban League presented him the Frederick Douglass Medallion in 1989. Wharton received the Rockefeller Public Service Award in 1993 and the American Council on Education's Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. Africare bestowed its Legacy Award in 2005.

More than sixty colleges and universities have granted Wharton honorary degrees, including Johns Hopkins (1970) and Harvard (1992). The Harvard citation read, "One of the commanding leaders of our time, yours is the great talent to transform organizations into communities of purpose working devotedly together to serve the common good of all people from all backgrounds."

By choosing to follow his own path, Clifton R. Wharton Jr. has touched the lives of thousands of people, helping improve quality of life and education both at home and abroad. He achieved many firsts for African Americans. But in the Black Issues in Higher Education interview, he observed, "It's great to be one, but I'd like to see more twos, threes, fours, and fives."



Keen, W. Hubert. "Wharton, Clifton Reginald Jr." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Ed. William L. O'Neill. New York: Scribner, 2003.

LoDico, John. "Clifton R. Wharton Jr." Contemporary Black Biography. Ed. Barbara Carlisle Bigelow. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1994.

Metcalf, George R. "Clifton Reginald Wharton Jr." Up from Within. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.


Bird, David. "An Identity with Achievement: Clifton Reginald Wharton Jr." New York Times Biographical Service, 10 October 1977.

Bullard, George. "MSU President Wharton's 4 Years: The Velvet Touch." Biography News 1 (January 1974): 117.

"Reflections of a Trailblazer." Black Issues in Higher Education 15 (14 May 1998): 14-17.


Michigan State University libraries hold many of Wharton's papers and audiotapes of speeches.

                                        Marie Garrett

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