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Wharton, Clifton R.(1926–) - Enters Foreign Economic Development, Serves in Asia, Chronology, Becomes President at Michigan State

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Between 1948 and 1953, Wharton worked with the American International Association for Economic and Social Development, established by Nelson Rockefeller. The organization helped Latin Americans develop higher standards of living by providing information about farming, nutrition, and homemaking. Wharton’s experience as an executive trainee allowed him to gain a good overall perspective of the program. He spent time in a variety of areas, including public relations, accounting, and programming. As he progressed in the job, he became program analyst and then head of reports and analysis.

Wharton realized that to advance in his career, he would need a doctorate. In 1953, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago to study economics. He served as research assistant to noted economist Theodore W. Schultz, who would eventually win a Nobel Prize. Wharton’s work involved evaluating technical assistance in Latin America. He earned his M.A. in 1956 and his Ph.D. in economics in 1958. His doctorate represented yet another first for blacks. Wharton would recall his work in Chicago as the most rigorous and intellectually demanding time of his academic career.

Even before Wharton completed his studies, he received a job offer from Arthur T. Mosher, executive director of the American Development Council (ADC). John D. Rockefeller III had founded the ADC as a nonprofit organization to develop human resources and to improve agricultural and economic development in rural Asia. The council provided many Asians the opportunity to train in the United States and then return to their own countries. Making advances in human development and high-yield crops, the organization became known for its “Green Revolution” during the 1950s and 1960s.

Serves in Asia

Wharton served first as associate, then as director of operations for the ADC in Southeast Asia. Based in Malaysia, he directed operations in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam as well. He spent time with the Asians in the rice fields and worked to help them develop their potential for expertise and leadership. Wharton told W. Hubert Keen: “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 advocated for less military emphasis in foreign policy and more focus on encouraging Asian leadership potential. In working among the Asian people, Wharton learned from them as well. The gentility and courtesy he experienced became a part of his own nature. His wife, Dolores, became interested also in the region’s people and art, later publishing a book titled Contemporary Artists of Malaysia: A Biographical Survey (1972).

While in Asia, Wharton taught as a visiting professor at the University of Singapore (1958–60) and then taught economics at the University of Malaysia (1960–64). Many of the region’s future economists benefited from Wharton’s teaching. In 1964, he took a sabbatical year to teach economic development at Stanford University, bringing experienced insight into the differences and similarities between Eastern and Western cultures.

That same year, Wharton moved to New York to direct the ADC’s American University Research Program. The AURP provided opportunities for scientists and scholars to focus on agricultural problems in the Third World. Wharton worked both within the United States and abroad, recruiting fifty to sixty Asians each year for fellowships in the United States. He oversaw research grants for universities studying Third World problems and held numerous workshops for professionals. From 1967 through 1969, he served as vice president of the program.



Born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 13


Receives B.A. from Harvard University


Receives M.A. from Johns Hopkins University; begins work for American International Association for Economic and Social Development


Marries Dolores Duncan


Receives M.A. from the University of Chicago


Begins work for Agricultural Development Council


Receives Ph.D. from the University of Chicago


Becomes president of Michigan State University


Becomes president of the State University of New York


Receives President’s Award on World Hunger


Becomes chairman and chief executive officer of TIAA-CREF


Named U. S. deputy secretary of state; becomes director of the New York Stock Exchange and Harcourt General


Receives American Council on Education’s Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement


Receives Africare’s Legacy Award

In the spring of 1969, Wharton organized a conference at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Nicholas Luyks, an MSU professor of agricultural economics, submitted Wharton’s name to a search committee appointed to select a new president for the university. The committee sent a couple of delegations to New York to interview Wharton, and after much deliberation, it chose him from around three hundred candidates.

Becomes President at Michigan State

In this new role in higher education, Wharton became the first African American president of a major research institution. On the evening of the Whartons’ arrival on campus, students honored them with a huge welcome sign and a medley of Michigan State songs. In his first campus address as president, Wharton stressed the importance of the human element in education, the rights of all students to equal opportunity, the importance of scholarly creativity, and the university’s responsibility to initiate positive change.

Wharton took office during turbulent times in academe, and the job demanded all the tact and diplomacy he had developed. The 1960s became characterized by demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, riots, and financial difficulties on college campuses, and Michigan State proved no exception. About the time Wharton assumed presidency, Ohio National guardsmen killed four students and wounded others in a Kent State University protest over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Wharton moved quickly, using closed-circuit television to reassure students of his own concern for Asian people. Five days later, he suspended classes for teach-ins that provided background on Indochina and information about effective protest measures and other relevant issues. He offered personally to take student and faculty concerns to Michigan congressmen in Washington. Wharton dealt with other campus disturbances with similar equanimity and respect.

Wharton soon gained a reputation for being a capable, tactful administrator and an encourager, sympathetic to both blacks and whites. Clif and Dolores Wharton made a special effort to get to know people, welcoming students and faculty into their home and making scores of visits to student dormitories and sororities and fraternities in the course of the semester. Dolores Wharton hosted in their home an art show featuring paintings and sculptures by MSU faculty.

Halfway through his career at MSU, Wharton told George Bullard, “This is one of the few jobs I know that demands every scrap of your experience and knowledge.” As president, he advocated for universal access to higher education, led the university to growth, increased student involvement on advisory councils, and developed a new urban affairs college. He had initiated a Presidential Fellows program, giving selected students and junior faculty the opportunity to work in top administrative offices for six months. After eight strong years, Wharton resigned in 1978. MSU later named a new building the Clifton and Dolores Wharton Center for Performing Arts (1982).

Becomes Chancellor at SUNY

In 1978, Wharton moved to Albany to become chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. While achieving yet another first for blacks, he emphasized to David Bird that “he had always tried to make it on his own merits. ‘I am a man first, an American second and black man third.’” At SUNY he faced the challenge of bringing cohesiveness to a system of sixty-four diverse campuses serving thousands of students and requiring thousands of employees. He immediately toured the various campuses, reassuring faculty and students that he would move the university forward. John LoDico reported that in national survey of college leaders, Wharton attained status as “one of the top five most influential leaders in higher education.”

In 1984, Wharton appointed an independent commission to study two of SUNY’s most important problems: a layer of red tape that unnecessarily slowed basic expenditures and a need to increase the national standing of SUNY graduate and professional schools. Wharton followed up on advice from the commission’s educators, politicians, and businessmen by pursuing legislation that would grant campus administrators more flexibility in funding decisions. He considered that legislation one of his major contributions to the university. Wharton announced his resignation on October 16, 1986. He had advanced SUNY’s reputation and funding and had appointed a greater number of women to leadership roles. In 1987, SUNY established the Clifton and Dolores Wharton Economics Research Center.

What's a Nice Girl Like You [next] [back] Wharton, Anne Hollingsworth (1845–1928) - Popular History

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