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Lessons in Leadership

  • Author:
    Tom Kertscher
  • Published:
    Spring 2019
By the time Clifton R. Wharton Jr. became president of Michigan State University—the first African-American to head a major, predominantly white university in the United States—he had already reached other milestones. They included being the first African-American admitted to Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. 
In 1970, MSU trustees, on a 5-3 vote, appointed Wharton as MSU’s 14th president. It was a time of tremendous change and cultural upheaval for the country. Protests about civil rights and the Vietnam War were roiling campuses across the country—right up to the lawn outside the MSU president’s home. 
Through it all, Wharton proved to be an extraordinary man and mentor.
As a young adult, he had experienced firsthand the value of observing and working around top-level leadership. Now in a position to offer this opportunity to others, Wharton created the Presidential Fellows Program at Michigan State. The aim was to give students and junior faculty members experience in university administration. Fellows worked alongside Wharton and other members of his administration, learning about management and organizational operations.
Of 13 Spartans who participated in Wharton’s program, three went on to lead universities themselves. When Spartan approached Wharton about doing a feature article about him, he suggested the magazine instead highlight the accomplishments of students he counseled in the fellows program. We agreed.
We interviewed three MSU alumni about their recollections of Wharton’s influence on them. Two were fellows and one was Wharton’s assistant when the program launched. 
You will meet: Teresa A. Sullivan, former president of the University of Virginia; Carl S. Taylor, MSU sociology professor; and James Spaniolo, retired president of the University of Texas at Arlington.
Teresa A. Sullivan
Wharton Was a Role Model for Handling Challenges
Before she took on top university administration jobs, Sullivan established herself as an important sociologist at the University of Texas (UT). She authored or co-authored six books (including two on middle-class debt with Elizabeth Warren, the former Ivy League professor and current U.S. senator). Her first book was published in 1978, but its title, Marginal Workers, Marginal Jobs: The Underutilization of American Workers, resonates today. Indicating Sullivan’s early expertise in labor force demography, a Duke University reviewer said the book “raises issues that have long been neglected in labor economics and the sociology of work.”
In leadership, however, is where Sullivan has spent most of her career. At UT, Sullivan, as provost, eventually had presidents of the nine state university systems reporting to her. She went on to the University of Michigan, where as provost, she oversaw nearly a third of the school’s $5 billion annual budget.
But it was at the University of Virginia,  as the first female president of the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, that Sullivan was tested like never  before.  She arrived on campus amid waves of controversy after a student was killed by an ex-boyfriend, a star on the university’s lacrosse team. And in 2012, two years after Sullivan was appointed, UVA’s Board of Visitors removed her over concerns that the university was not adapting to financial and technological pressures. 
Two weeks later, after students, faculty, administrators and alumni rose to her defense, the board unanimously reinstated her. Then in 2014, Rolling Stone published an article portraying UVA as a campus where sexual assaults were common. (The magazine later retracted the article and reportedly paid a UVA fraternity $1.65 million to settle a defamation lawsuit.) When Sullivan announced she would step down when her contract ended last July, The Washington Post said she had led Virginia “amid one of the most tumultuous leadership tenures in the state flagship’s modern history.” 
And yet, she can claim many accomplishments. As president, Sullivan is credited with developing a new strategic plan for UVA, creating a new financial model to ensure stability and transparency, and improving faculty compensation. Also during her tenure, the university completed a $3 billion fundraising campaign, launched the Data Science Institute and the Brain Institute, and invested more in student services, such as advising and career services. Mark G. Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California system, has said that Sullivan promoted innovation while preserving the core of a prestigious public institution. She is now helping MSU navigate its presidential search during a critical time in its history.
Sullivan recalled that Wharton took over leadership at Michigan State during a time of student protests while having been appointed by a board that was split in its support of him. The insights she gained from him helped her later in her career.  Sullivan was a presidential fellow at Michigan State from 1970 to 1971. 
“It was a tough time for higher education institutions all over the country, and it was not easy at Michigan State, but I think that he helped to keep it more calm at MSU than it was at some places. I think that was because he was willing to listen to student activists and to people who opposed the student activists and others. I think that brought MSU out of that period in stronger shape than some other schools were. 
“He was really open about the different parts of the job, and if you haven’t held a job like that, you really don’t understand how many different things there are that you are dealing with. He made me aware of how many constituencies there are at the university, and that was something that has held me in good stead. Often, somebody will come to you with a complaint and the complaint sounds totally justified, and you think to yourself, ‘This person must be right.’
“Clif taught me there was always more than one side to every story. You don’t make a decision until you hear what the other people involved have to say about what happened.
“He has an incredible administrative temperament. He would be taunted and provoked, but I never saw him lose his temper.  He was always very even-tempered, congenial, he just didn’t let people get under his skin. I’ve always taken that as a model for a way you interact with those who disagree with you.”
Carl S. Taylor 
‘I Learned How to Be a Better Person, a Better Man’
Taylor, an MSU sociology professor whose research focuses on reducing violence among American youth, has worked with communities, foundations and government agencies, including the Guggenheim Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the FBI Academy and the Children’s Defense Fund, in understanding gangs, youth culture and violence. He also serves as the principal investigator for the Michigan Gang Research Project and is a senior fellow in University Outreach and Engagement at MSU. 
He has established a national reputation as an ethnographer and has worked in some of the most isolated and distressed communities in our nation. His books include Dangerous Society, about urban gangs, and Girls, Gangs, Women and Drugs, which is drawn from a sociological study in Detroit. 
Like Sullivan, Taylor was one of Wharton’s presidential fellows in 1970 and has vivid recollections.
“I had never met any male who could type that fast. I was fascinated by that. I came from the school that was probably relatively sexist. I was an athlete, and I was always taught that girls type. The other thing that stood out about (Wharton) was he was very carefree and yet at the same time very disciplined. I never saw him angry. He was very kind, very articulate, very diplomatic—very diplomatic. I’m a kid from Detroit, and I had been exposed to mature,  good leadership in my community, despite what the media tries to say. But Wharton was in a league of his own. I had never met anyone who spoke three languages fluently. And I had not seen anyone take command of different groups. He certainly wasn’t perfect, but he was the closest thing to it that I had seen. And I didn’t always agree with him. 
“I remember in the heat of student demonstrations a young woman—she was very much a live-wire activist—and she was screaming like a banshee at Wharton and then she spit, and it landed on Clif’s shirt and lapel. I lunged toward her, and I did not mean to do her any good, I assure you of that. Clif put his hand out and stopped me. When we got back to the office, he called for me. I just knew that he was going to tell me, ‘I appreciate you, but don’t do that,’ and congratulate me. But, boy, he chewed me a new one. Clif’s not profane, but boy, was he stern with me, and was I angry at him. I didn’t like getting chastised, and I explained to him that where I came from, when I’m in the streets, you spit on somebody, that was a death sentence. And he looked at me, ‘Well, you’re not on the streets. This is the office of the presidency.’ He taught me something that day.
   “My parents had high expectations of me, but Clif was the one who polished me. And a lot of it wasn’t verbal. I asked him one day why he didn’t wear an afro. It was 1970—what kind of black man doesn’t have an Afro? Because I had a big, bushy Afro. He said, ‘That’s not my style.’
“Clif allowed me to grow and allowed me to breathe, and at the same time, he regulated me. I learned how to be a better person, a better man because of Clif Wharton. I treasure those years with him, and it meant everything to me knowing that I could pick up the phone at any time in need. So I talked to him about everything. We have a very, very close and special relationship, and I deeply appreciate it. He helped me graduate from (the school of)  street machismo. Before, if I‘d been angry with someone, I’d say, ‘Let’s take this outside.’ You know what that means. He’d say, ‘That’s unacceptable, Carl.’ I had a hard time with that, because that’s the way I was raised. I look at Clif and what he did. He made me take the hard way. There’s only one way to do it, and that’s the right way.”
James Spaniolo 
Working with Wharton ‘Changed My Whole Career’
At the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), where he served as president from 2004 to 2013, Spaniolo was credited with numerous advancements. UTA evolved from a campus known as a commuter school to a four-year institution where students want to live. 
He oversaw construction of the College Park District, a 20-acre mixed-use development anchored by a new arena for the school’s basketball and volleyball teams. College Park also has residence halls and apartments for 600 students, plus retail and restaurant space. Under Spaniolo’s leadership, enrollment rose from 25,000 students to more than 33,000, and annual spending on research tripled, going from $22 million to $66 million. Private giving rose from $5.8 million in 2005 to more than $20 million in 2012.
“He’s heightened a sense of pride in the institution,” Raymund Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner, said when Spaniolo announced his retirement.
Previously, as dean at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Spaniolo oversaw an enrollment increase of more than 1,000 students and helped establish the James H. and Mary B. Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law in 1998 by raising more than $3.5 million. He was also a professor in the School of Journalism and taught courses on the First Amendment and communications law.
Spaniolo had just graduated from MSU when he went to work with Wharton as an assistant to the president, 1970-1972. 
    “It was something that I didn’t anticipate doing. It was a great opportunity, and it changed my whole career.
“I had a chance to not only work with President Wharton, which was the most heady part of the whole experience, but I was also the recording secretary for what he called the executive group, which was the vice presidents. So I had an opportunity to sit in a lot of meetings, informal and otherwise, and be involved in projects and various things that a 23-year-old would never have an opportunity to do. 
“There were a lot of challenges. There was a lot of acrimony on the board of trustees at the time. Dr. Wharton was appointed on a 5-3 vote. In addition to having three trustees who had voted against his appointment, other tensions flared. And they didn’t cease when he became president. There were the Vietnam protests. I was a part of all those conversations and discussions about what to do and how to proceed. The thing I remember most is that he had this calm about him. I never saw him agitated in public, and there were a lot of challenges. And of course the elephant in the room was that here is the first black president of a major public research institution, and that presented its own set of challenges. 
“I remember one time when Dr. Wharton was in a meeting and he was able to demonstrate a fluency in Spanish that surprised people. There were some Hispanic students who were protesting about something , and when he answered them in Spanish, it was rather disarming and surprising to them. 
“In selecting Dr. Wharton, Michigan State demonstrated that it was able to look beyond its own heritage in bringing in someone who had a different set of experiences. And I think that it helped Michigan State extend itself and mature into a major university. What President Wharton brought was a whole new dimension, and he helped create a new reputation and perception of Michigan State University as not just a state university, but as an emerging national university.
“I was not contemplating ultimately having a career in higher education. But I think having worked for him, having been so impressed with how he handled himself and his responsibilities as president of the university, planted in my mind that it was a really noble undertaking to be president of a university. I think it motivated me and encouraged me to pursue that opportunity. 
“I had never met someone as brilliant and as impressive as him. Forty-six years later, that’s still true. I’ve worked with a lot of leaders over the years and, consciously or unconsciously, I think you try to adopt strategies and approaches and a style that you felt worked for the people you respect; and on the other side of that coin, you try to learn how not to do things.
 “I learned from him the importance of being able to listen and reflect, to engage in conversation, to respect the people you are working with—even when people disagree with you—and to try to reach rational decisions and conclusions.”