'Privilege and Prejudice'

Cliff Wharton -- who led Michigan State, SUNY and TIAA-CREF -- discusses his new autobiography.

October 6, 2015

Clifton R. Wharton Jr. has had an education and career in which he was the first African-American to hold many positions. He was the first black student admitted to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the first black Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. When he was named CEO of TIAA-CREF in 1987, he was the first black person to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Along the way, he held key positions in international affairs and development -- and he was president of Michigan State University and chancellor of the 64-campus State University of New York. When he became president of Michigan State in 1970, minority presidents were highly unusual outside of historically black colleges -- and he led Michigan State and SUNY through periods of protests and sometimes rocky relationships with state leaders.

At age 89, 23 years into retirement, Wharton has written an autobiography, Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer (Michigan State University Press). He responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: You spent your career being the first African-American in many positions. To what do you attribute your success, especially early in your career, when many talented black people were denied opportunities to advance?

A: Most advances in my life involved a combination of preparation, help and opportunity. There was also a strong component of continuous lifelong learning. Overcoming racial obstacles, such as in my case, required a strong self-control in the face of bias and a commitment to excellence. The result was my multiple career racial breakthroughs in three different areas --- philanthropy, higher education and business.

Q: Can you recount opportunities you were denied because of your race?

A: Very frequently. I was rejected by the Harvard Club of New York after graduating with honors and was recommended by a Harvard alumnus. Thirty-five years later I became the first black member of the New York University Club. I was the first black M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1948, but upon graduation rejected for possible employment by the oil company Esso. But 40 years later, the Esso CEO offered me a directorship on his board, which I could not accept because of conflict with my directorship of Ford Motor.

Q: While leading Michigan State University and the State University of New York, you saw ups and downs in state support for higher education. What is your advice for public higher education leaders today, when many doubt state support will ever return to previous levels?

A: I have repeatedly spoken out on the need for stronger advocacy in support of higher education’s role in the future of the nation. A key explanation is that expenditures on education are an investment, not a consumption good. Moreover, there are both individual and collective, societal benefits from an educated citizenry. Thus higher education funding is an investment in the human capital which builds the future. I have described the current underfunding as analogous to ignoring the dictum of poor farmers: never eat your seed corn. We are destroying the seed corn for our future. This understanding is critical to any change in the priorities and public policy of funding higher education.

There is another failure. My friend Brit Kirwan [recently retired chancellor of the University System of Maryland] has pointed out that “A child born into a family in the highest quartile of income (in the U.S.) has a roughly 85 percent chance of earning a college degree. A child born into a family in the lowest quartile of income has a less than 8 percent chance of earning a degree.” We have failed to recognize this difference as a tremendous neglect of the national interest and our national future!

Q: At Michigan State, you created a commission to study the composition of the student body. As you look at higher education today, affirmative action is under legal attack. Can higher education achieve diversity without affirmative action?

A: My personal experience has ranged from attending higher education when there was no such thing as affirmative action -- at Harvard my class in the 1940s had only four blacks, who were admitted on intellectual merit, not affirmative action -- to the University of Chicago, where I was the first black to receive their economics degree. At MSU in the 1970s, I created a commission on admission which recommended a then radical program rooted in the need to provide enhanced activities that improved the ability of economically disadvantaged students -- black and white -- to succeed. We did not have any numeric diversity admission goals or affirmative action quotas. The result was that when fully operative, the graduation rates for economically disadvantaged minority and white students were the same as their classmates. And the numbers of such students increased steadily.

Q: Much of your career outside academe was focused on international affairs and international development. These days, many colleges are focused internationally on recruiting full-paying students from a few countries. Do you worry about the way American academe is engaged with the world?

A: As the son of a career U.S. diplomat who is considered a “third world culture kid” (a research concept of the late MSU professor Ruth Useem), I am at heart an internationalist. Therefore for me the search for knowledge and the intellectual world are not centered in one nation. Broadening the international reach of our universities is merely reflecting the reality and consequence of its goal to push back the frontiers of human knowledge.


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