Barrier breaker: When Wharton was named MSU president

    Clifford Wharton Jr. officially assumed the presidency of Michigan State University on this day in 1970. He was the first African-American to lead a major American university.

    Clifford Wharton Jr. | MSU archives

    The Boston, Mass., native, who entered Harvard University at age 16, also became the first Black man to earn a master’s degree in international affairs from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Wharton later obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and served as a U.S. deputy secretary of state during the President Bill Clinton administration.

    Upon assuming the helm at MSU, Wharton told the Associated Press: “Mrs. Wharton and I have had an absolutely marvelous welcome, warm and sincere, from all segments of the university and the Lansing community. There have been several large testimonial dinners. We have been most pleased.”

    During his MSU tenure, he created the Presidential Commission on Admissions and Student Body Composition, which studied future enrollment policies. Additionally, plans for an MSU center for the performing arts was set in place.

    Wharton’s tenure in East Lansing lasted six years. In 1978, he became chancellor of the State University of New York system. In 2015, he penned a memoir, “Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer.”

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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