How Clifton Wharton, who became the first Black Fortune 500 CEO in 1987 saved a company in crisis

BY Preta Peace Namasaba September 8, 2023 11:37 PM EDT
Clifton R. Wharton. Photo credit: MSU
Clifton R. Wharton. Photo credit: MSU

Clifton R. Wharton Jr. has worn many hats throughout his distinguished career, including economist, educator, and C-suite executive, among others. His life has been marked by a series of groundbreaking achievements, a legacy that began with his father, Clifton R. Wharton Sr., who became the first African-American to pass the Foreign Service exam and hold the title of Career Ambassador of the United States Foreign Service. Consequently, Wharton spent a significant portion of his formative years in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he acquired fluency in Spanish.

From a young age, Wharton demonstrated his potential. At the tender age of 16, he matriculated at Harvard University, where he earned a BA in history. His educational journey continued with remarkable speed, as he obtained a Master in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies just a year after his graduation from Harvard. He further solidified his academic prowess by completing a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. Wharton’s intellectual achievements are underscored by the impressive fact that he has been awarded 63 honorary doctorates.

Wharton embarked on his professional journey with the Rockefeller philanthropic endeavors, focusing on economic development in Latin America. His career then led him to serve as an economics research associate at the University of Chicago and the John D. Rockefeller-led Agricultural Development Council. Notably, he later assumed the helm of the State University of New York, the largest university system in the nation. During his tenure as Chancellor, Wharton oversaw an extensive network of 64 campuses, managing the education of 370,000 students and an annual budget of $2.5 billion.

Wharton and his family. Photo credit: MSU

In 1987, Clifton R. Wharton Jr. etched his name in history as the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company, namely the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA-CREF), a financial services organization. TIAA-CREF specializes in providing financial services to academia, research, medical, cultural, and governmental sectors. Presently, TIAA serves over 5 million active and retired employees from 15,000 institutions, amassing total assets exceeding $1 trillion and holdings in more than 50 countries.

When Wharton assumed leadership of the nation’s largest pension fund, doubts about his ability to navigate effectively through turbulent times prevailed. Facing the Association of American Universities during a stock market plunge of over 170 points, he projected a poised and self-assured demeanor, despite a crowd demanding answers. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had plummeted by more than 500 points, with the value of securities traded on the New York Stock Exchange shrinking by over $500 billion. In the face of a crisis, Wharton demonstrated exceptional leadership.

Even as nearly half of the $60 billion entrusted to Wharton remained entangled in a faltering market, he implemented transformative changes within TIAA-CREF without causing disruptions. Prior to the market crash, he had shared a report with the trustee’s committee outlining new investment options and eliminating the possibility of stakeholders withdrawing cash. During a time when the future of Social Security hung in the balance, Wharton’s innovative strategies fortified the organization, forever altering the landscape of pension plans.

Wharton’s sweeping reforms safeguarded an organization in crisis, doubling its assets to $112 billion during his six-year tenure. This remarkable achievement silenced his critics and ensured that educators and lecturers had a secure retirement fund to rely upon. Subsequently, Wharton left TIAA to serve as Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton in 1993. In recognition of his lifetime achievements, he was honored with the American Council on Education Distinguished Service Award in 1994.