Dr. Clifton Wharton Jr. has amassed a dizzying array of firsts over the course of his long career. On October 17, 1969, Wharton became the first Black president of a predominately white major learning institution when he was elected to lead Michigan State University.
Clifton Reginald Wharton was born September 13, 1926 in Boston, Mass. He entered Harvard University at 16, leaving the school with a degree in history in 1947. He was the first Black student to earn a Masters of Arts degree in International Affairs from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and then earned a Master of Arts and Ph.D in economics from the University of Chicago.
Wharton is also the first African-American to pass the Foreign Service exam and was a 40-year officer for the service and a career ambassador.
Wharton took the helm at MSU in 1970 amid tensions surrounding the Vietnam War. He supported students who demanded that their concerns be heard, vowing to get the attention of state officials on their behalf. In 1978, Wharton achieved another first when he stepped down from the MSU post to become the chancellor for the State University of New York system, making him the first African-American leader of the nation’s largest university system.
In 1987, Wharton was named the president and CEO of TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund), making him the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Another feather in Wharton’s cap was serving as Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton from January 27 to November 8, 1993 until his retirement.
Today, Wharton, who has dozens of honorary degrees, currently sits on several boards. In 2015, Wharton published a biography, Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer.
Along with his wife of nearly 70 years, Delores, herself a notable figure in the business world and the arts, they raised two sons together and reside in New York.
PHOTO: Michigan State University
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