Wharton, Clifton R. Jr. 1926–
Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. 1926–
International economist, academic and political administrator
Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., has achieved enormous degrees of success in the academic and business worlds. His resume contains an astonishing number of black “firsts”: he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, as well as the first to head a Fortune 100 company and the first to run New York State’s public university system. Less than a year after U.S. president Bill Clinton named him the first African American deputy secretary of state, Wharton added another distinction to his list, becoming the first member of Clinton’s foreign policy team to resign from the administration.
Born on September 13, 1926, in Boston, Massachusetts, Wharton spent a great portion of his youth in the Canary Islands, where his father, Clifton, Sr., was stationed as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. The elder Wharton had broken down some racial barriers of his own: he became the first person of color to pass the nation’s foreign service exam and the first African American career ambassador in State Department history, capping his career as ambassador to Norway. However, Wharton, Jr., informed Emerge that his father was denied the usual opportunity to attend the Foreign Service Institute because of his race; instead, he was shipped immediately overseas to a post in Africa. Years later, as deputy secretary of state, Wharton attended the dedication of the Institute’s new campus and told Emerge, “I couldn’t help but think of my father not being allowed to have that experience.”
Wharton showed promise at an early age, attending the well-known Boston Latin High School and, upon graduation, enrolling in Harvard University. At Harvard, he was a founder of a lobbying group called the National Student Association, and he also found time to become an announcer on the college radio station. (Incidentally, Wharton was the first African American to hold this campus broadcasting post.) He then attended the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University—again, the first black student to do so— and received his master’s degree there. He later took another master’s and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.
Initially, Wharton thought of following in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in the foreign service. As he noted in an interview with Ebony, “I had tremendous admiration for my father’s work and was taking steps to
Born Clifton Reginald Wharton, Jr., September 13, 1926, in Boston, MA; son of Clifton, Sr. (a U.S. ambassador) and Harriet (an educator and social worker; maiden name, Banks) Wharton; married Dolores Duncan (a corporate administrator), 1950; children: Clifton III, Bruce. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1947; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1940; University of Chicago, M.A., 1956, Ph.D., 1958.
American International Association for Economic and Social Development, executive trainee, 1948–49, program analyst, 1949-51, head of reports and analysis, 1951–53; Agricultura! Development Council (ADQ, associate, 1957-58, director of operations in Southeast Asia, 1956-64, director of American university research, 1964-67, vice president 1967-69; Michigan State University, East Lansing, president, 1970-78; State University of New York System, chancellor, 1978-87; Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), New York City, chairman and CEO, 1987-93; U.S. Department of State, deputy secretary of state, January to November 1993. Named director, Equitable Ufe Assurance Society of the United States, 1969; chairman, Rockefeller foundation, 1962-67; board member, Ford Motor Company, Time, Ine., and Burroughs.
Addresses: Office —Teachers lnsurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund, 730 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017-3206.
follow his lead. But I began to think if I went into the U.S. Foreign Service and did well, I would never know whether it was because I’m good or because I’m my father’s son.”
Instead, he focused on Third World development issues with the American International Association for Economic and Social Development, working his way up through that organization over five years. Most of his work centered on Latin America. After earning his economics degrees, Wharton went to work for American business mogul and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Ill’s Agricultural Development Council (ADC). Representing the ADC in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, Wharton became an expert in agrarian reform. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, he reminisced fondly about his six years’ work in Asia, saying, “Three of my friends and l formed an organization called CBCB-CRAEA. It stands for City-Born, City-Bred, City-Raised Agricultural Economics Association.”
Wharton eventually rose to become vice president of the ADC, a position he held between 1967 and 1969. In 1982 he was named chairman of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and served in that capacity for five years.
After establishing himself in the field of international economic development, Wharton switched gears in a dramatic way: he was named president of Michigan State University in 1970, in the midst of nationwide anti-Vietnam War protests at American college campuses. Wharton was the first African American to occupy the president’s post in Michigan and the first person of color in this century to preside over a predominantly white university. “People used to stop and stare,” he recalled in the New York Times. “Even liberal professors would stare at me.” He told Ebony that he was always aware of his race when breaking down barriers: “Whenever I’ve been in a pioneering position, I’ve tried as hard as I could to do a good job, because I didn’t want anyone to have the opportunity to say they put a black person in a certain position and he didn’t succeed as expected.”
At Michigan, Wharton was known as an able administrator who got things done without an inordinate amount of flash. He handled the student riots with tact, served with distinction for eight years, and, after leaving in 1978, was honored by the school, which named a new building on campus—the Clifton and Dolores Wharton Center for Performing Arts—for him and his wife.
Wharton became chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) System in 1978. It was a huge undertaking, since SUNY at the time had a $2.5 billion budget, hundreds of thousands of students, 64 campuses, and roughly 70,000 employees. In addition, the system was generally considered to be an administrative mess, with much red tape and a huge bureaucracy. Wharton’s most innovative move was to set up a special commission to figure out how to fix the state’s ailing public university system. The commission did just that. Under Wharton’s leadership, SUNY was able to get legislation passed that took some control of the universities away from the state’s bureaucrats in Albany and put it into the hands of university trustees. During the years Wharton worked in New York, a national survey of college leaders named him one of the top five most influential leaders in higher education.
In another bold career move in 1987, Wharton left his post in higher education and took over a huge private pension system with a name as large as the billions of dollars in assets it controls: the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF). The wide-ranging influence of the TIAA-CREF—as well as the problems the pension fund was facing when Wharton took it over—illustrate the depth of his managerial abilities.
By the early 1990s, TIAA-CREF had 1.6 million participants from colleges, universities, independent schools, and nonprofit organizations. Individuals at these institutions have money deducted from their paychecks and put into TIAA-CREFs retirement and investment programs. TIAA is the nation’s third biggest life insurer; CREF owns about one percent of all U.S. corporate stock. According to Newsweek, “Both take retirement money from colleges and nonprofit organizations and use it for things like the $625 million mortgage on Minnesota’s Mall of America; $30 million worth of Huntsville, Ala., solid-waste-disposal bonds; and 1.3 million shares of Indonesian cement maker Semen Gresnik. They don’t do business with the public.”
By the time Wharton left his post as chairman and CEO of the pension fund, he had overseen the doubling of TIAA-CREF’s assets to a whopping $113 billion. And, even more admirably, Wharton maintained his trademark benevolence and easy-going demeanor while shaking up the ranks of TIAA-CREF. “He is not a man who comes in and fires five levels beneath him,” an anonymous admirer told Newsweek. Wharton paid special attention to lower-level staffers at TIAA-CREF, noting, “The biggest mistake you can make is to assume all wisdom is concentrated at the apex.” The New York Times quoted him as saying—in an amiable manner—that his management style is comparable to “the mailed fist in the velvet glove.”
Whatever the persuasive techniques he employed, the end results were commendable. Black Enterprise reported that during Wharton’s tenure at TIAA-CREF, the number of minorities and women in key departments increased. And, in keeping with his record of “firsts,” Wharton’s work at TIAA-CREF made him the first African American to head a Fortune 100 company.
Wharton also gained a few moments of personal satisfaction from the job, including one he recounted during a 1991 Ebony interview. Decades earlier, he had almost been thrown out of Washington’s Williard Hotel because of his race. Years passed, the hotel closed, and eventually plans were made to renovate the structure and reopen. “To do that, they had to get some funds,” Wharton told Ebony with a laugh. “Guess where they got the funds? TIAA-CREF, and I’m the CEO of the company that loaned them the money. To me, that says something.”
In January of 1993, President Clinton named Wharton to the Number Two position in the U.S. Department of State. At the time, Wharton’s annual compensation from his TIAA-CREF post was in the range of $1.3 million, but he was willing to give it up. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “To serve with a new President and with his outstanding team of foreign policy people, I felt was a wonderful challenge.” Wharton was no stranger to government service, having served on a special world hunger panel set up by former President Jimmy Carter, a world trade panel under former President George Bush, and foreign policy panels under presidents Gerald Ford and Lyndon B. Johnson. But Wharton concedes he was unprepared for what occurred during 1993—what may have been the most difficult year in his stunning career of achievements.
In its first year, the Clinton administration was beset with a series of foreign policy crises, from war in Somalia and Bosnia to turmoil in Haiti and Russia. Wharton was not responsible for policy during his short stay at the State Department, having been assigned tasks along the administrative restructuring lines on which he had built his reputation. As New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal commented, “Mr. Wharton had not been brought into policy matters [—Secretary of State Warren) Christopher’s mistake. Good soldier Wharton accepted that— his mistake. Policy is the real business of State. If you are not doing policy, you might as well work for the post office.”
In October, rumors began to fly. Newsweek reported anonymous sources as saying that Wharton was “prickly and unreliable,” that he “has not been the best fit.” Wharton did not like the “administrator” role, other unnamed sources said. According to a report in the New York Times, “State Department officials close to Mr. Christopher said Dr. Wharton never mastered the bureaucratic intricacies of the department and was slow in making decisions, such as producing a plan to revamp the Agency for International Development.”
Wharton maintained that such “unnamed sources” and “officials” were undermining him. In his letter of resignation, as quoted in the New York Times, he wrote, “In the past two weeks, it became unmistakably clear that I was being subjected to the classic Washington practice of sustained anonymous leaks to the media. Therefore, I decided to resign, rather than permit my effectiveness to be further eroded.”
Reaction to Wharton’s departure was mixed. The Christian Science Monitor opined that Wharton’s exit “could be attributed to the usual shakedown of personnel that occurs in the first year of a presidency.” However, a New Republic contributor stated that Wharton was hired for “diversity” reasons and dispensed of for the same reasons: “So an African American, who never lobbied for the job, who had no responsibility for the State Department’s recent blunders and who did his job competently for the short time he was there, is now asked to fall on his sword…. Wharton deserves an apology from the administration for the way he has been treated,” Time’s Rosenthal was equally critical, calling Wharton a “world-known human asset” who was treated poorly by Clinton and Christopher.
For his part, Wharton remained diplomatic and above the fray when he granted an interview to Emerge three months after leaving the State Department. “There were these anonymous accusations that I was a ’prickly’ and ’ineffective’ administrator,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t think anyone who knows me or who has worked with me would ever describe me in those terms.” He went on to counter press statements suggesting that his supposed lack of foreign policy experience led to his resignation. “In fact, of course I do [have experience], and that’s easily documented. So I find it astonishing that the press wouldn’t stop to investigate whether this was true or not.”
Wharton believed the press did not delve further into the reasons why he left the State Department because he was perceived in some circles from the beginning as being a “token” black appointment. As he explained to Emerge, “Every time a minority or female nomination was made, a stereotype was used: that this individual was selected because she is a woman; or he or she is a minority, not because he or she is competent…. They did not look further than that because they were thinking that here is a stereotypic minority appointment, not the appointment of an individual who has any international experience.” Emerge editor in chief George E. Curry lamented, “Dr. Wharton… has been successful without relying on race as a crutch. [His resignation proves that] race matters a lot. And as long as race matters, being good won’t be good enough.”
With that blip on the path of his otherwise brilliant career surmounted, Wharton returned to New York, maintaining an office at TIAA-CREF and considering the numerous job offers that began to pour in. Among them, he told Emerge, was a university presidency, a CEO position, and work on several corporate boards. He also intends to spend more time writing.
Whatever he chooses to do, Wharton will most likely follow the credo he once stated in an Ebony interview: “I have always realized that what I do goes beyond myself. It can have an influence on those who have an opportunity to come afterwards. There may be significance in being the first, but there’s more significance in being the second, third, fourth, fifth.”
(Editor) Subsistence Agriculture and Economic Development, Aldine Publishing, 1969.
Continuity and Change: Academic Greatness Under Stress, East Lansing, 1971.
(With Theodore M. Hesburgh) Patterns for Lifelong Learning, Jossey-Bass, 1973.
Contributor to numerous professional journals.
Black Enterprise, February 1993, p. 134; March 1993, p. 76.
Christian Science Monitor, November 15, 1993, p. 1.
Chronicle of Higher Education, January 6, 1993, p. A15.
Ebony, September 1987, p. 29; August 1991, p. 106; May 1993, p. 64.
Emerge, February 1994, p. 28; March 1994, p. 4.
New Republic, November 29, 1993, p. 10.
Newsweek, January 11, 1993, p. 46; November 1, 1993, p. 4; November 22, 1993, p. 8.
New York Times, July 6, 1982; August 30, 1983; October 16, 1986; December 23, 1992, p. A14; November 9, 1993, p. A1; December 3, 1993, p. A33.
New York Times Magazine, March 27, 1988.
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