Wharton, Clifton Reginald, Jr.

views updated

WHARTON, Clifton Reginald, Jr.

(b. 13 September 1926 in Boston, Massachusetts), international development economist and adviser on human resource development during the 1950s and 1960s to Southeast Asian and Latin American countries, who later became a prominent leader in higher education and business and served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Several of his accomplishments and positions were firsts for an African American.

Although he was born in the United States, Wharton spent much of his early childhood abroad while his father, Clifton Reginald Wharton, Sr., served as a career foreign-service officer and diplomat for the U.S. State Department. Wharton's earliest education occurred during the family's residence in the Canary Islands, Spain, with his mother Harriette (Banks) as teacher. He had two younger brothers and a sister. He returned to the United States to attend the historic Boston Latin School and afterward completed undergraduate studies (1947) in history at Harvard University. During his sophomore year he met Dolores Duncan, a native of New York City, and they were married in 1950 and had two sons.

Wharton's earliest career interest was to follow his father into the foreign service. However, inspired at his commencement by the speech of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, in which Marshall described his plan for the post-war reconstruction of Europe, Wharton determined to pursue international development as a career. He completed an M.A. in international affairs at Johns Hopkins University (1948), the first African American to do so, and took a position in a philanthropic organization headed by Nelson Rockefeller. Later, he earned another M.A. (1956) and in 1958 became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago.

In 1957 Wharton began a thirteen-year stint in a second Rockefeller philanthropic organization, the Agricultural Development Council (ADC). ADC's primary mission was to help developing countries, through research and teaching, to establish the technical, economic, and social infrastructure that complemented agricultural development using high-yield crop varieties. This combination of human resource development and advances in creating high-yielding crop plants became known in the 1950s and 1960s as the "Green Revolution." Wharton occupied several successively more responsible positions in the ADC. As associate director of Southeast Asian operations, in addition to Malaysia where he was based, he oversaw the council's services to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. He was also active as a university lecturer and conducted economic research on the region.

Wharton's focus was on developing human capital, on cultivating local technical expertise and leadership, an approach he described as "rice-roots" development. "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 said. Although it was not ADC policy, his personal view was to advocate for changing U.S. foreign policy toward Southeast Asia, which was motivated largely by military objectives.

In 1964 Wharton returned to the United States to assume the position of director of the ADC's American University Research Program. The program's mission was to provide overseas experiences for U.S. scholars and scientists to stimulate their interest and research on the problems of developing Asian countries. As the Vietnam War escalated, the ADC found that its work was concentrated in a hot spot of U.S. military activity. Wharton himself was a critic of U.S. military policy: "The military solution is no longer viable," he wrote. "Our military policy has become little more than a simple-minded policy of force. Military policy has virtually become our sole foreign policy." In spite of the contradiction between U.S. policy and ADC's mission, the ADC enjoyed considerable success in support of the developing economies and agriculture in Southeast Asia.

Wharton became executive director of the ADC in 1966 and vice president the next year, a position he held until 1969. At the end of that year his career entered its second important phase when he was appointed president of Michigan State University (MSU) and became the first African American in the post. Assuming office at the beginning of January 1970, Wharton found himself in the midst of what was arguably the most tumultuous period of the twentieth century for higher education administrators. College students had grown ever more restive, their discontent fueled especially by the war in Vietnam. Wharton knew the cultures and economies of Southeast Asia as well as only a handful of U.S. experts; he opposed U.S. military policy there; and he had been a founding officer of the U.S. National Student Association during his college days. He thus understood fully the context of student dissent, but he faced the immediate and formidable challenge of assuring the safety of 35,000 MSU students during potentially violent times. Events on college campuses reached a feverish pitch after the announcement by President Richard Nixon on 30 April 1970 that the war was being expanded to Cambodia. On 4 May 1970, four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a protest demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio.

In the heat of student demonstrations that led to considerable damage on the MSU campus, some observers, including the Michigan Senate, and media were critical of Wharton's handling of the situation. But his demeanor and style, his empathy with the students' complaints, and his outspoken opposition to the destructive tendencies of a small minority of anarchic students, quickly won him near universal praise, unlike many of his contemporary U.S. university presidents. The prominence on campus of his wife, Dolores, during the student unrest was recognized as helpful in diminishing tensions.

Just as Wharton became a respected voice on U.S. foreign policy toward Southeast Asia, he became a national spokesperson and leader during the 1970s for universal access to college education. College, he said in a speech, "is considered to be a right today," not the "privilege" it was in previous years. On this view he was promptly—and prominently—derided by Vice President Spiro Agnew, who called for a return to the "Jeffersonian concept of a natural aristocracy." Wharton responded that to attack universal access to higher education, as Agnew had done, was "an argument of unbecoming arrogance."

In 1977 he became the first black chancellor of the State University of New York, and in 1987 he embarked upon his third career, as chairman and chief executive officer of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund. In doing so, he became the first African-American head of a Fortune 500 company. In 1993 Wharton made history for African Americans again when he accepted the position of deputy secretary of state in the administration of President Bill Clinton. He resigned within a year, however, for reasons that the news media described as early disorganization and mistakes by administration officials that were inaccurately attributed through news leaks to Wharton.

The approach and style that Clifton Wharton, Jr., brought to human resource development in Southeast Asia and Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s were essential complements to the success of the Green Revolution. His determination and consistently held beliefs about fairness, equality, and the development of human potential led to other widely recognized successes in a diverse array of prominent leadership positions. Considerable emphasis has been placed on the several "firsts" in Wharton's career, and he recognizes the significance of his accomplishments for African Americans. He has emphasized that he is interested in seeing "the seconds, the thirds and fourths."

George R. Metcalf, Up from Within: Today's New Black Leaders (1971), provides an account of Wharton's early life through the critical first year of his presidency at Michigan State University.

Wharton's report, The U.S. Graduate Training of Asian Agricultural Economists (1959), is his exposition of the problems faced by Southeast Asian graduate students pursuing the Ph.D. in U.S. universities. His paper in Foreign Affairs (April 1969) is an analysis of the challenges of developing human resources to facilitate agricultural and economic improvements in developing countries. A library of audiotapes of his speeches from 1969 to 1979 is in the Michigan State University library.

W. Hubert Keen

About this article

Wharton, Clifton Reginald, Jr.

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article