Oct. 28 2015 11:51 AM

Former MSU President Wharton on racism and the loss of 'human capital'

Few Fortune 500 CEOs get the chance to weigh a loan application from a hotel where, a few decades earlier, they were nearly thrown out of the lobby for having the wrong skin color. Few executives are asked to join the board of directors of an oil company that wouldn't consider them for a job 40 years earlier for the same reason.

But Clifton Wharton is not like most people, and he has a lot of stories to tell. As president of Michigan State University from 1970 to 1978, he was the first African-American to lead a major U.S. university. It's hard to talk about Wharton without reciting his resume, but his tower of multifaceted careers casts a long shadow. He was chancellor of the huge State University of New York system, chairman and CEO of pension fund behemoth TIAA-CREF (making him the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company), deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton and much more.

Wharton, 88, is in the mood to look back, having published a 500-page autobiography ("Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer," MSU Press) that runs to 1,700 pages in online form. He'll dip into his long and eventful life Monday night in a talk with MSU President Lou Anna Simon at the Wharton Center (named after Wharton and his wife, Dolores, in 1982). He talked with City Pulse in a phone interview last week.

How do the '60s protests you dealt with as MSU president differ from the Black Lives Matter"protests of today? Is this a new moment of cultural change, pivoting on the issues of race and economic inequality?

It's not just the activity right now. It's a part of a long history. I'm a great admirer of Gordon Parks. He had a career as a photographer, he became a poet, author, filmmaker, musician. He composed. He produced those wonderful "Shaft" movies. He was a Renaissance man. He had a book I've always admired called "A Choice of Weapons." He pointed out that we blacks who have leadership positions — we need to choose the weapons of approach to attacking racism, using the skills that we have. There's no one way of going about it. In my case, it was my intelligence, my capacity to lead, to organize, administer and run. So I do it in my area. I don't do it marching on the streets. The people who do that — I admire them. I think it's necessary. But what I'm doing is also necessary.

You argue passionately in your book that we are "eating our seed corn" when it comes to "human capital. "What do you mean by that?

When I was president, one-third of the cost of students' education was paid for by tuition. The other two thirds was paid for by the state and federal governments. Today, that proportion has been directly reversed. It's two-thirds tuition and one-third state and federal [money]. That has consequences that I point out when I say we're eating our seed corn. These changes in priority are having a negative impact on the capacity and ability of higher education to provide and invest in the future capital of the country.

Clifton Wharton
Courtesy photo

It must break your heart when you consider the many talented people of limited means who are being excluded from the kind of opportunities you describe.

Yes, absolutely. One of the things I find amazing and disturbing is that recent studies show that if you have a family with an income level in the top quartile in the United States, the children of that family have an 85 percent likelihood of attending a college or a university. In the bottom quartile, you child would only have an 8 percent chance of going to college. That, to me, is completely impossible to consider. Here you have a major sector of society which is being denied the opportunity to receive that education and to develop their individual capital, their intellectual capital, which would make a contribution to our society. It's not only a moral imperative, it's also national interest imperative. This is not only minorities. This is also rural people, low-income people and families who have students who could make a major contribution.

It's very frightening when you think of 10, 20, 30 years from now, what the socioeconomic stratification will look like.


In your book, you write about the many forms that racism and discrimination have taken in your life.

Look at what I had to go through when I became the first black at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C. Washington was segregated in those days. When I went to the dining room to eat, there were times when some of my classmates would get up and leave before I sat down. The dean of the school had a program where he invited some of the students to lunch. During that entire year, I was never invited to one of those lunches. Those are patterns of discrimination.

I was interviewed [for a job] by a representative from the Esso Oil Co., looking for people to work in Latin America. My field of specialization was Latin America. I was bilingual, knew Spanish, I graduated from Harvard in history, working with diplomatic history. The interviewer said to me, "I don't think you'd be happy." That's a code word for "you're not acceptable." Now fast forward. Many years later, I became friends with the chairman and CEO of Esso. He wanted me to go on his board of directors! I said to him that I couldn't, because I was already on the board of the Ford Motor Co. and that would make it impossible for me to go onto an oil company board. I told him the story of how I had been treated by the interviewer from his company. He was horrified. That is racism in its most serious form.

Have you ever been profiled or pulled over because of your race?

That's not relevant in my particular case. In my book, I point out that I have faced many forms of discrimination. When I was at the [Johns Hopkins] school in Washington, there was one very famous incident. I was one of the founders of the U.S. National Student Association. The young man who was president while I was secretary had gotten married. He and his bride were celebrating their honeymoon and came to Washington. He called me from the Willard Hotel and invited me to dinner. I forgot that I was in segregated Washington. I went to the Willard Hotel and I called him on the phone. They were not in their room, so I sat down in the lobby. The people in the lobby looked at me and carried on. The clerk behind the desk came over to me and wanted to know what I was doing there, et cetera, and was ready to throw me out of the hotel. Just at that moment, my two friends came in through the revolving door, saw what was happening and we left.

Fast forward. When I became chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, at my very first real estate committee meeting, I looked at the agenda. It turns out that the Willard Hotel had been closed for 15 years. They wanted to re-open and they needed funding. Who did they apply to for the funding? I told my colleagues, "You would not believe this, but when I was a student, they wanted to throw me out of this hotel." Of course, we funded it. That's the kind of racism you're talking about in my life. There are many different aspects of it.

You are in a phase of life where you're getting many awards and honors and a great deal of praise. It's said that the Roman emperor had a man ride next to him in his chariot who whispered, 'You, too, are human.' Who, or what, is your most reliable reality check? How do you keep it real?

My greatest reality check has been my life partner, my wife, Dolores. She has been with me right straight through, she has been incredibly helpful and useful to me in my life, as well as having her own independent career. This has been a wonderful life we'd have together. The book starts as my autobiography but it's a love story. That's absolutely what it's all about.

Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr.

World View Lecture Series 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $23, free to MSU students, faculty, staff with ID

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