Clifton Wharton
National Visionary

Born 1926 in Boston, Massachusetts

Business leader, international economist, and academic and public administrator

Clifton Wharton’s career has been one of the most important of the late 20th Century, spanning numerous “firsts”: the first African American to head a Fortune 500 company; the first to head a major, predominantly white, university; the first to chair a major foundation; and the first to hold the nation’s second-highest foreign policy post. Even more important are his successes in each endeavor. Harvard University, when citing him as an honorary doctor of law in 1992, called him “one of the commanding leaders of our time” and remarked that “yours is the great talent to transform organizations into communities of purpose working devotedly together to serve the common good of all people from all backgrounds.”

Born in Boston in 1926, Wharton came to his “firsts” naturally: he is the son of the first African American to be named a career ambassador. Wharton attended Boston Latin School and entered Harvard University at 16, founding the U.S. National Student Association and earning a B.A. in history. He was the first African American admitted to Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, a premier international affairs school in Washington, D.C., earning his master’s degree in 1948. He received an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago ten years later.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
His first career, in international economic development, grew out of his work with the Rockefeller family philanthropic interests, where he specialized in Latin American economic development. The next 13 years were spent on agricultural development in Southeast Asia, and as an advisor on East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the U.S. State Department, the first chairman of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, chairman of the U.S. Congress’ Food Advisory Panel, a member of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Economic Assistance, and member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. Beginning a second career in higher education, he was named president of Michigan State University, serving from 1970 to 1978 and winning national acclaim for his participatory leadership, and his handling of student unrest. Wharton then took on the troubled State University of New York System, the country’s largest, enacting major changes to lift the system to the forefront of U.S. higher education. He then began his third career as chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF (the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund), the 18th largest U.S. corporation with more than $268 billion in assets, the world’s largest pension fund. During his tenure, the firm’s assets doubled, new products and services introduced, and the corporate structure and management completely overhauled. He returned to international relations in 1993 when named Deputy Secretary of State by President Bill Clinton, a position he resigned at the end of that year.

Wharton’s deep commitment to bettering the world is clear from his work with the Council on Foreign Relations, Aspen Institute, the Trilateral Commission, the Museum of Modern Art, Overseas Development Council, and Winrock International. Wharton is a director of the New York Stock Exchange and Harcourt General, and former trustee for Equitable Life, Time, PBS, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Burroughs, Tenneco and Ford Motor Company. He has won numerous awards, including the first Black History Makers Award of Associated Black Charities. He is also the recipient of more than 60 honorary degrees.



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