Calvin O. Butts, the long-time president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, civil rights activist, and the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, died on October 28. He was 73 years old and had suffered from cancer.
A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Rev. Butts grew up in New York City and graduated from Flushing High School in Queens, where he was president of his graduating class. Rev. Butts went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He held a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a doctorate in church and public policy from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
While in graduate school, Rev. Butts joined the Abyssinian Baptist Church as an office assistant. He later served as assistant pastor and was named pastor in 1989, a position he held at the time of his death.
In 1999, Dr. Butts was named president of SUNY Old Westbury. He served in that role until 2020 and was the longest-serving president in university history. During his time at SUNY Old Westbury, President Butts directed a period of tremendous success and growth, highlighted by the introduction of the highest admissions standards on record for the college, enrollment growth of more than 1,800 students, and the introduction in 2004 of graduate instruction at the college, which now enrolls more than 300 students studying in 19 master’s degree programs.
His leadership also included service in such national roles as being a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, chairman of the Board of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and a founding member of its Board of Commissioners, co-chair of the African American Men and Boys Initiative, president of Africare NYC, and as a member of the board of the September 11th Fund.
Timothy E. Sams, the current president of SUNY Old Westbury, said that “the widescale effect of his lifelong calling to serve others is incalculable. His was life lived in the service of others. While his loss is saddening, I hope we can all use it also as a call to continue the life-changing work he did on so many important issues.”