Reflections of a trailblazer – African American Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., former president of Michigan State University – Cover Story – InterviewJuly 13, 2007 |
Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr., reflects on his career and shares his
insight on the current status of African Americans in higher education
When Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr., was appointed president of
Michigan State University in 1969, he became the first African American
to head a major Research I institution. The graduate of Harvard
University (B.A., 1947 cum laude), Johns Hopkins University (M.A.,
1948), and the University of Chicago (M.A., 1956; Ph.D., 1958) went on
to become chancellor of the State University of New York system, was
the first African American to head a Fortune 500 company, TIAA-CREF,
and led an esteemed career in higher education, business, and foreign
policy before retiring in 1993. He is currently working on an
autobiography and spoke to Black Issues In Higher Education from the
TIAA-CREF executive offices in New York.
In your estimation, why haven’t more african Americans been
appointed to presidencies of Research I Institutions since your initial
appointment back in 1969?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. There have been a significant
number of Blacks who have become presidents of colleges and
universities over the intervening years, but it is, to a certain
extent, surprising that there haven’t been more at the
mega-universities, the large graduate research universities.
How do you think your appointment to Michigan State would be perceived today?
Today? It would probably get as much attention as it did then, but I
don’t think it would last as long. When I was appointed at Michigan
State, it was front-page news for the New York Times. Over the next two
or three months, I think they must have done almost a dozen in-depth
profiles on me for major newspapers and magazines. My wife and I were
under the media microscope for easily a year because it was so
unusual…. During that first year, many of the stories would say, “The
Black president of Michigan State University.” By the second year, it
was “The president of Michigan State University, who is Black.” By the
third year it was just “The president of Michigan State University.”
What’s the lesson, given what we’re now going through with rose and racial identification?
That if you are in a position where you have to perform and you are
meeting the needs, performance-wise, that the only time that the issue
of race is involved, is when there is some relevance. In my handling of
a funding crisis at Michigan State University, or anyplace else, it
would be a funding crisis. It would not be because I was a Black, it
was because I was president of Michigan State University and I had to
handle it. It was not that people were not conscious of the fact that I
was Black, but it was not the appropriate. focus of their attention
because it was not the relevant issue. It wasn’t that I consciously
said, “Don’t mention it.” Over time it just took place.
And at TIAA-CREF?
When I became chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, the largest pension
fund in the world, and the first Black to head a Fortune 500 company,
the newspapers, initially, didn’t even mention it. When I asked a
friend of mine, an editor at one of the newspapers, “Why?”, he said,
“Well, we hadn’t thought about it because we all know you, we’ve known
your career and what you’ve done, and it just did not come up in the
way in which they were approaching the story.” The point was that they
were looking at qualifications and past performance, they were looking
at what I was going to do. They were not looking at the racial
Some are going to point to you and say, “See Clif Wharton? We didn’t
have affirmative action then and look at what he did. took at his
career. He was prepared.” What can use learn that can help us today as
we struggle with this issue?
That’s hard and I’ll tell you why. In a situation where a choice is
being made to become a university head, there may be cases where, let’s
say, I or another Black was a candidate and not chosen. You do not know
what might have happened if there had been a level playing field in
that selection process. You don’t know. And so I cannot sit here and
say, “Oh, well. I became president of Michigan State.” But there might
have been other universities that I might have been a president of
before that or even after that, which did not occur because perhaps
there wasn’t a level playing field.
Similarly, take my having pioneered in the business world. There
may very well have been other instances where I could have become
chairman/CEO of a Fortune 500 company before TIAA-CREF, but you don’t
know. So, to me, the lesson is, and this is partly my rearing, being
prepared and ready for the opportunity when it arises and being in a
position to perform and to be accepted because then there is no
question about your competence.
The whole affirmative action controversy In California and across
the country Is not about the typical garden variety state university,
but the elite universities. What Is it about those universities that
makes them so Important In the lives of African Americans?
I think there are a number of facets. One is that at the
undergraduate level you have a wider range of curricular offerings.
Where this particularly becomes more important is at the graduate
level. That is where the ranking systems tend to bite — for an
individual’s subsequent career, and for finding a mentor and patron.
Should one of the strategies for Blacks be to concentrate on getting
quality undergraduate experiences, and then go to a top-tier graduate
school and avoid all of the undergraduate admissions controversy over
I think there is no single path. First of all, I think it’s
critically important that the student enroll in a good, strong,
undergraduate program which meets his or her needs and preferences. The
one thing that I would say, however, is that if a minority youth is in
an institution where they are a minority, they should not close
themselves off from interaction with their classmates. They should not
restrict their extracurricular activities to those which are uniquely
those of interest to minority youth…. I used to tell the incoming
students at Michigan State — both minority and White students — that,
“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 pay
discover a hidden talent or hidden interest that you didn’t realize
that you had.”
You are a keen observer of the higher education scene. What issue are you most perturbed about In terms of the academy today?
I would say at the top of my list would be the fact that higher
education has lost its rank as a critically important public policy
priority. We, in the United States, are doing ourselves great damage by
not recognizing the fact that the dollars which are spent, public and
private dollars that are spent in higher education particularly,
represent a critical investment. It’s not an expense, it’s not a
consumer good, it’s an investment. If we’re not making that investment,
then our nation suffers — if not now, then in the future.
Has there over been a point In our history where you think we had that public policy commitment?
Oh, yes. For example, the G.I. bill was an incredible public policy
priority. There were men and women who went to college who never would
have gone before.
I gave a speech not long ago in which I made the observation that
we, as a matter of public policy at the national level, are constantly
looking to try to encourage and support those areas of our economy and
industry where we have greater comparative advantage, so that we can
increase our exports and increase our growth rate. One of the highest
areas of comparative advantage is our higher education sector.
If you look at the total number of foreign students coming into the
United States to study, they are coming here to study at our
universities because that is our comparative advantage. But instead of
investing dollars to strengthen our universities and colleges, we are
reducing our level of support, which is absolutely contrary to our
Presidents of universities are having a difficult time today. Their
tenure tends to be short, they have difficult relationships with
faculty. One of the critical Issues is post-tenure review. Where do you
see all of that going?
This is purely speculative, but I think that the impact of
technological change and distance learning pedagogy is likely to be far
more significant than anything like post-tenure review. I sense that
the issue of who teaches, how that person teaches, and that whole
structure that is involved in the learning process, is being thought
through, just in the early stages now, and it’s going to result in
massive, massive change.
You are an icon to a lot of people. A lot of times, high-profile
African Americans have to walk a tight line. Now have you struck a
balance in your career between not minimixing racism and not
overreacting to It?
I have always operated on the basis that I am prepared to meet the
competition in any of the fields that I choose, head on, and let’s see
who wins. Now, if it turns out that race is a handicap, okay, I’ll take
that and I’ll still run. I have encountered instances throughout all
I frequently have young people who have come to see me and will
very often want to know, “How can I become a university president?” or
“How can I become a foundation CEO?” Then when the conversation is
almost over, I can almost predict that they will then say, “Well, do
you still experience racism?” When I tell them, “Yes,” they’re shocked.
They say, “You mean, at your level?” I say, “Yes.” And it comes as a
big surprise to them. But it is something which you live with and you
just go on.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t have a reaction to it, but I’ve
always operated on the basis, “I’ll get through it.” It’s based on what
I call “negative expectations.” There is always a negative expectation
about what you as a Black are going to be able to do.
About the events that precipitated your departure from the U.S.
State Department. Were you thrown a curve in Washington that you didn’t
expect in terms of politics and the brutality of It all?
No, that’s a different story. I had declined cabinet appointments
before, primarily because I did not want to get into the Washington
snake pit. When asked [the last] time, I felt I owed it to my country.
If they wanted me to try to be helpful, I would be glad to try to
provide my help and do what I could.
I did not do it because I expected to get some great big job when I
left. I had done all those things. I didn’t need it, so I was trying to
be helpful. The precipitative cause for my departure [from the State
Department] was that they started coming out with leaks in the press
which were not only factually inaccurate, but which were not, in my
judgment, satisfactorily refuted by my superiors.
For example, there were statements made that I had no foreign
policy experience. All my friends who knew me said, “Good Lord. You had
twenty-two years professional foreign experience in Latin America and
Asia. What are they talking about?” I had previously served five
presidents in foreign policy roles. So when those kinds of stories came
out, and were coming apparently out of the White House, and they were
indicating that I was responsible for certain areas in foreign policy
that I hadn’t even worked on, and there was no refutation, I said, “I
did not come to Washington to play this kind of game.” So I left…. I
just was not going to subject myself to that Washington leak game.
It seems that every place you’ve been you left a trail of
opportunity for African Americans: at TIAA-CREF with Tom Jones; Howard
University President Patrick Swygert still holds you in very high
esteem for helping him at SUNY-Albany; and Michigan State still has a
legacy in terms of its minority presence. You obviously felt that a
part of your scheme of things was to perpetuate those opportunities for
In this area, I also demonstrated by action and by example. So at
SUNY during my nine years as chancellor, I increased the number of
women presidents in that system tremendously. I increased the number of
women and minorities on the boards here at TIAA-CREF. My approach was,
“Okay, if I play with a level playing field, all can then see this is
And I felt good about it. If there were some positive things that I left behind, great.
Why are you writing an autobiography?
Immodestly, I think that I have had an interesting life and
particularly in that I have been a Black pioneer in so many different
areas. One of the most frequent questions that I get, particularly from
young minorities, is, “What was it like? How did you do it? Tell me
about it.” So for that group, I think that while I believe that their
circumstances will be different, there may be some things that they
might find helpful.
More broadly, I would say that I have non-minorities who regularly
ask me the same question and who are very interested in my perspective
on a variety of things. I’ve never tried to exploit whatever successes
I may have had. If there was coverage, fine, but I’m not in the
business of becoming a celebrity. The result is that I frequently have
people who will start talking to me about what I have done and they
say, “Well, I wasn’t aware of that.”
It’s like one of my favorite stories. I was getting an honorary
doctorate and in the commencement robing room, a professor whom I did
not know came up to thank me for all of the changes that I had made at
TIAA-CREF. Then he said, “Oh, and by the way, I want you to know that I
use your father’s book in my course on economic development.” And I
said, “Well, my father didn’t write a book on economic development.” He
said, “Yes, the book on subsistence agriculture and economic
development.” And I said, “Well, that’s my book.” He said, “You mean
there aren’t two of you?” He was not aware that I was the same person.
We both laughed about it.
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