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SUNY Old Westbury's longtime president to retire from post

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, in two decades as the college's leader, has brought transformative change in academics, enrollment and campus infrastructure. He plans to stop running its operations in early 2020.

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III in his

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III in his campus office at SUNY Old Westbury on Thursday.   Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, president of SUNY Old Westbury for nearly two decades and the dynamic pastor of historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, said Thursday he will retire from the college post early next year.

“It’s just time. Twenty years in a college presidency is a long time," Butts, 69, said in an interview. "It’s been a joy, and it’s been a joy to be part of the state university system.”

He said he will go on study leave for the spring semester of 2020 and at that point will not be responsible for the college's day-to-day operations. He plans to be a professor, likely teaching American Studies, as of the fall semester of the 2020-21 school year. 

Butts expressed appreciation to his staff for their support and to state and local officials who have helped the college through the years. He also thanked donors and fundraisers, including former President Bill Clinton and the late Amy Hagedorn, the local philanthropist who was the school’s largest contributor, giving more than $1.4 million to expand programs for students.

"These men and women helped to set a tone, to show an interest, and as I told Newsday when I first came on board, 'The college is just about dead, and you got the right guy, as I am in the resurrection business,' " Butts said.

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson called him “an inspirational leader for SUNY Old Westbury’s campus and the entire system, serving a monumental 20 years in this role."

"As a strong advocate for access to an affordable, high-quality education, he will leave behind a lasting legacy that will live on at the campus,” Johnson said in a statement.

There was no immediate plan Thursday to name a replacement, permanent or interim, to the position, according to State University of New York officials.

Appointed by SUNY trustees in 1999, Butts has led the college through a period of transformative change.

"I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I walked into this office. There was nothing here," he said. "But then the challenges came — enrollment had to be increased and … we had no money. The buildings were leaking, the faculty was upset, the Foundation was in trouble. Each time you meet the challenge and … then it grows on you. You become a part of Old Westbury."

During his years at the helm, the college earned accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and created its first-ever graduate programs, which now include degrees in accounting, adolescence education, childhood special education, literacy education, forensic accounting and taxation.

Enrollment, which dropped sharply in the 1990s, has seen large gains, and buildings have sprouted on the 604-acre campus — a gleaming new academic center, a student union and residence halls.

Andrew Mattson, who chairs the Faculty Senate and has been at the college for 23 years, said Butts stabilized and strengthened SUNY Old Westbury.

"He really deserves a lot of credit for that," Mattson said. "He is a leader of people."

Kevin S. Law, president and chief executive of the Long Island Association, noted the rise in enrollment during Butts' tenure and said the college has spurred the region's economic growth.

 "He has been like a brother to me and a close partner with the LIA, working together to keep Long Island a great place to live and work; and his impact will continue to benefit the region long after his retirement,” Law said.

Butts is the longest-serving president of the school, which was chartered by SUNY trustees in 1965 and began operations three years later. It has been in its current location since 1971.

He already was well-known as the influential pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church when he was appointed to lead SUNY Old Westbury. His move into academic administration — an arena in which he had no prior experience — was both surprising and controversial.

At the time, the college had some of the lowest graduation rates and student test scores in SUNY’s extensive system and once was marked for possible closure.

Butts recalled Thursday that SUNY officials had approached him about teaching at the college and then offered him the leadership position. 

The Rev. Al Sharpton, told of the announcement, had high praise for the fellow minister and activist with whom he at times has been at odds.

"He ran a school for decades that excelled. He did this while pastoring a historical black church, all at the same time," Sharpton said in an interview. "He had the ability to master all of that because he is a man of unusual strength and gifts. And I say all of this even though he and I publicly disagreed sometimes. … He is one with an equilibrium that made the work he did seem simple when for anyone else it would have been insurmountable."

With Butts in charge, the college invested about $200 million in capital construction and renovation projects, introducing cutting-edge technologies and completing five new residence halls, the union and the 147,000-square-foot academic center.

From a student body of 2,995 in 2000, enrollment has risen nearly 60 percent to the current 4,777 undergraduates, according to data from the school. With graduate students included, the college’s 5,077 enrollment is its largest ever.

Full-time faculty has grown as well, from 113 to 170 employees.

The student retention rate also has shown improvement, with more freshmen returning for their sophomore year. That rate of 66 percent in fall 1999 now stands at 78 percent. The graduation rate of 48.5 percent is up from 25 percent in 1999, according to the college.

The academic profile of entering students has shown improvement. The average SAT score of new enrollees increased from 848 in 1998 to 1055 in fall 2018, according to the school, and the high school grade-point average of entering freshmen for the same time frame rose from 76.9 to 84.5.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who was in the state Assembly during much of Butts' tenure, said, "He transformed the college from being a stepchild in the SUNY system into one of the premier campuses in our state. He fulfilled the original mission of Old Westbury to serve a diverse student body with his vision and his passion for higher education."

Student Alex Plaisir, 19, of Huntington Station, who is a communications major, said Butts has done a "terrific job for the school. He continued to strive for excellence," offering new programs and opportunities for students.

The leaders of other Long Island higher-education institutions joined the chorus of plaudits.

"Dr. Butts has been a stalwart leader, not only for SUNY Old Westbury, but also for the broader Long Island community," Molloy College President Drew Bogner said.

Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra University, called Butts "a dynamic leader who shepherded SUNY Old Westbury through a period of tremendous growth and change. As a pastor and a college president, he has been a tireless advocate for improving education at all levels. His energy, commitment and contributions will serve as an inspiration to students and educators for years to come. We will miss his advice and counsel on the Long Island Regional Advisory Council on Higher Education.”

Butts, in reflecting upon whomever is his successor, said the next president should be someone who has a passion for the school and is not looking only for a professional stairstep. He said he hopes the college is able to continue its infrastructure and technological improvements, including construction of a state-of-the-art science building, and that the state adequately funds SUNY schools.

A native New Yorker, Butts earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1972, a master of divinity degree in church history from Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in 1975 and a doctor of ministry in church and public policy from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, in 1982.

He has taught urban affairs and served as an adjunct professor in the African Studies Department at City College, part of the City University of New York. He also has taught a course in Black Church History at Fordham University.

Throughout his 20 years as SUNY Old Westbury’s president, Butts has continued as pastor of Abyssinian, which traces its beginnings to 1808 and is one of the oldest Baptist churches in the United States. For decades, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was its pastor, and after him, his son Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who went on to become the first black congressman from New York City.

Under Butts’ leadership, the church committed to taking an active role in the ongoing development of Harlem, with establishment of the Abyssinian Development Corp.

Long a powerful presence and advocate for African-Americans and people of color, Butts has spoken out against racial profiling and police brutality, built coalitions to foster economic development and job growth, and mobilized support for the plight of Christian minorities being persecuted abroad.

According to his biography on the church’s website, Butts has spearheaded many boycotts against institutions that practice employment discrimination and racist policies. He has directed campaigns to eliminate negative billboard advertising in central Harlem and other city neighborhoods, and has spoken out against rap music that includes violent and negative lyrics directed at women.

Butts also was instrumental in establishing the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change — a public intermediate and high school in Harlem — and the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, which opened in September 2005.

He and his wife, Patricia, have three children and six grandchildren.

With Monte R. Young

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