SUNY Old Westbury Mourns Passing of Founding President Harris Wofford

Former President Wofford in 2016

The entire SUNY Old Westbury community today mourns the loss of former President Harris Wofford, a civil rights icon and civilian service advocate who served as president of the College from 1966 until 1970.  Mr. Wofford died on January 22, 2019. Below is the message shared with the campus community today by current President Calvin O. Butts, III.

Good afternoon to all on campus and welcome to the spring 2019 semester.

Unfortunately, we begin this new semester with sad news. Harris Wofford, the founding president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, died yesterday at the age of 92 in Washington, D.C. Mr. Wofford was appointed the president of the College in 1966 and served through 1970.

Many people can talk about the movements of change in the United States over the past 60 years, but very few can say they played a part in those events. Harris Wofford was one of those few. He played a part in creating American history and dedicated most of his life to helping shape the future of our nation by promoting social justice and civilian service among Americans.

His own list of service was long as well:

  • He served as a special assistant on civil rights for U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
  • He worked alongside Sargent Shriver in launching the Peace Corps.
  • He was a supporter, legal counsel and friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • He was president of Bryn Mawr College from 1970 to 1978.
  • He became a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania in 1991, influencing both the National Service Act of 1993 and legislation that led to the establishment of such entities as Americorps and the Corporation for National Service.
  • He served on the boards of such organizations as Youth Service America and the National Commission of Service Learning, along with founding America’s Promise, a nonprofit national service coalition, alongside then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Most notable to our campus, of course, was his role as the founding president of SUNY Old Westbury.  His time as the leader of our campus was relatively short, but it was during that tenure that the foundation was laid for our ongoing mission to empower all students through education and to advocate for a just society for all humankind.

Following his tenure as president here, Mr. Wofford described the College in a report written for an international academic symposium: “Old Westbury proposes to be a ‘school of the world’ in the broad sense of the word ‘world,’ which is to mean the world students will go out into as it is defined by its problems. Take any of our major domestic concerns – urbanization, education, integration, automation, poverty – and they turn out to be world problems.”

As we remember and honor the memory of Harris Wofford today, we can still define ourselves in that way – as a college seeking to understand and to educate about those issues that face our world, so that we can, in the end, each do our part to improve that world for all who inhabit it.

Thank you.

Calvin O. Butts, III
SUNY Old Westbury

(Photo courtesy of The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph 2016)

Photo of President Wofford from the "Experiments" oral history project.

See and hear Former President Wofford and other founding faculty and students of SUNY Old Westbury by visiting the website of "Experiments - Old Westbury Oral History Project."