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Retiring SUNY chancellor. Wharton talks about college, students, blacks

College students today face a more complex future than did the militants of two decades ago, says Clifton R. Wharton Jr., retiring chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY). ``Students of the late '60s and the '70s rioted, protested, and demonstrated day in and day out against the Vietnam war,'' he explains. ``They also faced major financial problems.''

Black students also began to appear, first as athletes, then as activists, on mainstream campuses, adding race relations to student concerns, he adds.

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But today's students face even more complex issues - a job market in flux, a more subtle atmosphere of racism, and the mounting costs of a college education, according to Dr. Wharton. ``Students receive more financial aid from universities than ever before,'' he says. ``And if these funds aren't enough, they have the alternative many of us used in my day: They can work their way through college.''

Wharton is giving up a premi`ere job in college education as chancellor of the nation's biggest university system, with 370,000 students, 64 campuses, 66,000 employees, and a $2.3 billion budget. His peers (presidents of 500 public colleges and universities) rated him among the nation's five ``most influential'' leaders in higher education in a recent national survey.

Among his other observations on colleges, college students, and black college students in particular:

College students must not only be career oriented, they must also be concerned with social issues such as peace, women's rights, race relations, and apartheid in South Africa.

Black students appear to be losing confidence in the work ethic and the value of higher study. They need not bow to subtle racist evaluations of them as students.

Universities must educate young people by preparing them to live productive, creative, and responsible lives as citizens.

Students are the heart of higher education, says Wharton, who looks back on his 17 years as a college administrator, including eight years as president of Michigan State University. He was the first black to head a predominately white major college.

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``My life as an educator has always been at-risk,'' he says. ``As a college administrator I teetered between two poles - my personal goal to set high standards for education and to make the concerns of students top priority, and the taxpayers' desire for tight budgets. It's so easy to succumb to the pressures of tight budgets and influential directors and key politicians, to downgrade the concerns of students, our most important product.''

Starting this month, Wharton is the chief executive officer of Teachers Insurance Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), listed by Pensions and Investment Age as the nation's largest private pension fund and by Fortune magazine as the nation's eighth-largest insurance firm.

Wharton takes on his new job with three basic tools: a PhD in economics, service as president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and almost 20 years as an educator. Heading two universities is his key asset in his new office, he says.

As he leaves SUNY, he will bequeath to his successor some task reports on how to upgrade the system.

``Preparing students to operate as effective adults, public and private, has been my mandate as chancellor,'' he says. ``At SUNY my administration's basic goal was to strengthen our undergraduate programs. Next, we sought to coordinate our junior-college programs with four-year study and encourage community college students to seek degrees. Our third goal was to develop our graduate studies to challenge future scholars.''

The fourth mission was to strengthen the system's specialized schools in their research and scholastic missions.

In these areas Wharton is piggybacking on his work at Michigan State on the premise that students of today face more stress and pressures than did the students of the 1970s. At Michigan State he found himself in the midst of student turmoil over the war in Vietnam - demonstrations, protests, riots. On top of that, Michigan State had image problems - it was seen as a sports-oriented ``cow college,'' the newest school in the Big Ten, one of the nation's leading athletic conferences. It is now widely regarded at a major university specializing in research and innovative programs.

``Our whole campus family had to believe in Michigan State as a university among the best,'' he says. ``My job was to inspire the faculty to develop programs in which we were tops. We encouraged students to endorse scholarship as they did sports.''

Today's challenges for the collegian include a more diverse student body that may contain blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and foreign nationals who may not speak English well. Students ``face potential debts of more than $50,000 to pay for their college education after graduation. Then there's the changing job market beyond the campus.''

Wharton is particularly concerned with the experiences of black students on mainstream campuses. At Michigan State he worked directly with black students, both athletes and activists, to help them see how they could benefit most from college.

``My prime concern with them was this,'' he says. ``Whom do they tend to glorify as heroes? How do these heroes relate to the students' economic needs after college?''

Wharton has made athletes his personal project. ``I met with all incoming athletes at the beginning of the year,'' he says. ``I preached the importance of getting an education that prepared them to take advantage of job opportunities. I challenged them to think about what happens to them if they don't catch on as pro's, what they will do after their playing days are over.''

Looking back on his career as a ``first black'' in various situations, he sees race not as a handicap, but as an opportunity to achieve the unexpected. But he is concerned about black students today:

He is disturbed that today's black collegians are often identified by code names - ``disadvantaged,'' ``academically unprepared,'' ``special admission.''

Many black students need no special help to succeed, he says, but they accept negative images of themselves. He advises them to adopt the old-fashioned black family values of work and study to rise above racism and achieve in undergrad, graduate, and professional study.

``Cliff Wharton has set the pace for black administrators,'' says scientist John Slaughter, chancellor of the University of Maryland at College Park, a school recovering from athletic scandal. ``I've always looked to him as an outstanding model. I'm sorry to see him leave SUNY. Yet in leaving he bestows a legacy and a task on us who remain to seek to make our institutions the best in the land.''

Wharton, a Bostonian, is the son of the nation's first career black diplomat to become a United States ambassador. He originally intended to follow the career of his father, Clifton R. Wharton.

``But I changed because I just didn't want to make it on my father's name,'' he says.


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