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MSU's first black president reflects on his life

January 14, 2016

To describe someone as “larger than life” usually carries with it the unintended result of instilling doubt in peoples’ minds about the person’s actual accomplishments. It’s easy to find stories of people who’ve accomplished so much in their lives and to slap the label on them, building them up as these near King Solomon-esque caricatures.

That’s not the case with former MSU president Dr. Clifton Wharton Jr., the first black American to hold the title of president at a major university.

The son of Clifton Reginald Wharton, Sr., the first black American to pass the Foreign Service exam and eventually become the first African-American ambassador to a European nation (Norway), Dr. Wharton carried forward his father’s trailblazer ethos into myriad aspects of the public and private sector. “It was always a case for me of trying to do the very best that I could wherever I was, and it was not done because I wanted or expected to get all the of the flowers and encomiums and praise and that sort of thing, I really didn’t. That was not my goal, my goal was to do the best that I possibly could wherever I was,” he said. 

Born September 13, 1926 in Boston, much of Wharton’s early upbringing took place overseas in Liberia and Spain.

He attended Harvard University at 16, was the first black American to be accepted into the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the first black American to earn an economics doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Shortly after graduating from Johns Hopkins, Wharton accepted a position with Nelson Rockefeller’s American International Association for Economic and Social Development (AIA,) which would set him on a 22 year long philanthropic career in Latin America and Southeast Asia helping struggling regions reform their agricultural and economic policies.

As he was preparing for his job at the AIA, Wharton received a call in 1949 from Betty Fitzgerald, a friend from Harvard. She was asking if he could pick up Dolores Duncan, Fitzgerald’s cousin, and drive her over to meet Betty’s train for a weekend date they had with two West Point cadets.

Thus began a courtship that would later become a steadfast marriage, entering its 65th year. 

Her affinity for the arts would go a long way in promoting the expansion of creative arts at MSU and her gregarious personality ingratiated herself with the student body. 

“Dolores and I cast a single shadow," he said. "It has been an incredible 65 years and it's been magnificent." 

After being looked over for the University of Michigan, MSU’s former president John A. Hannah announced his resignation in March of 1969, with several friends calling to suggest Wharton be a candidate to replace him.

“Dolores and I both sensed that here was a university we could really get excited about," he wrote in his autobiography. "Michigan State was a school with a strong tradition of extension and public service, plus a commitment to an international role that meshed smoothly with my background, experience, and values."

The election of a new president by the Board of Trustees was a heated one, with numerous candidates vying for the spot including among them former Michigan governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams. Soapy’s run for the presidency put Wharton at odds with three particular trustees who much preferred the former governor to a relative unknown.

“Don’t unpack, cause we’ll have you gone by the end of the year,” Wharton remembered them saying after he was elected president.

Wharton’s rocky start to his time at MSU was only the beginning. Student reaction to his selection was mixed, with some taking an ambivalent approach while the black community on campus and outside it fluctuated between either outright approval or concerns that Wharton would just be another tool of the establishment.

MSU pulled through the tumultuous period of the 1970s, through Wharton’s crisis management skills. Under his leadership MSU faced student protests about Vietnam, unrest revolving around the killing of four students at Kent State University and met with members of the Black Liberation Front. 

He said he had no major regrets in life. 

“One of the things I found fascinating was…that I learned a great deal about not just politics in general but also about students and what students are like. 

“I said this was very serendipitous because when I was at Michigan State we had many students who were engaged in political activities…I was dealing with individuals and these differences, all kinds which I had dealt with before,” he said.

In his time as both a servant of the people and a manager within the private sector, Wharton was no stranger to racial discrimination. However, his outlook on it could be said to be far more individual.

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“A man first, an American second, and a Black man third,” Wharton described himself to a journalist after his inauguration as MSU president. 

“I have been that way all of my life but that doesn’t mean that you don’t feel racism, experience racism, fight it and so on, absolutely. One of the things which has been quite revealing to me as a result of my book is that a number of white Americans who have known me, not well but known me, have come up to me after reading the book and said, ‘we never, ever realized how much racism there is in the United States and how you were treated and how you overcame it.’”

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