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.
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