Founded in 1965 by the State University of New York Board of Trustees, the College at Old Westbury began in 1968 at Planting Fields, the former Coe Estate and arboretum located in Oyster Bay, New York. In 1971, the College moved to its present Old Westbury site - the estate formerly owned by agriculturalist, industrialist, sportsman and philanthropist F. Ambrose Clark.
The College has been led by four permanent presidents and three acting presidents. Dr. Harris Wofford, Associate Director of the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, served from 1966 to 1969. Dr. John Maguire was appointed in 1970 and served until 1981. After an interim year during which Dr. James Hall, president of SUNY Empire State College, served as acting president, Dr. Clyde Wingfield was appointed in 1982. He left in 1985, and Cornelius Robbins served as acting president for three weeks. Ulric Haynes, Jr., the former United States Ambassador to Algeria, was acting president for a year beginning in August 1985. From 1986 through the end of the 1997-98 academic year, the college was served by Dr. L. Eudora Pettigrew. The current President is Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III.
The College was originally envisioned by then SUNY Chancellor Samuel B. Gould as an experimental college, innovative in curricula, procedures and academic policies. The first class of 85 students, recruited from across the nation, arrived in September 1968. Following a turbulent year, the president announced his resignation, and State University officials appointed a commission to examine the College's progress. The commission issued a report that caused the SUNY Board of Trustees to reorganize the College.
In fall, 1971 the College opened with a new president, Dr. John Maguire, a revised educational direction and a student enrollment of 571. Known as Old Westbury II, the College sought to organize the curriculum around a critical analysis of fundamental issues in American society and to establish a form of college government that involved mutual responsibility and action among faculty, students and staff on a broad range of decisions basic to the life of the College.