Campus History

One of the youngest of the sixty-four campuses of the State University of New York (SUNY), Old Westbury prides itself on the diversity and accomplishments of its faculty, staff, and student body , as well as  its longstanding commitment to academic innovation, access, and social justice.   From its experimental beginnings in 1968, the College has matured into a regional institution of higher education that works to prepare its graduates to serve the world through their character and leadership.  


Early Beginnings

Coe Castle Gardens
Coe castle gardens. Photo by Jon Angel

The State University of New York at Old Westbury was chartered in 1965 by SUNY’s Chancellor, Samuel B. Gould, who sought to add to the state system, a college that was innovative in curricula and academic policy. Its first president, Harris Wofford, envisioned the creation of a small experimental institution, centered on a common core of courses and individualized student projects, that would draw a diverse but talented group of students and faculty together. 

President Wofford’s background in politics and in organizing the Peace Corps were the underpinning of a pedagogical orientation that led him to believe that a participatory framework, broad exposure to world classics, common seminars, a multi-cultural focus, and dedication to community service constituted the ideal educational background for an engaged citizenry.  

The College launched its operation in 1968 at Planting Fields, the former Coe estate located in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Recruiting a group of talented students, faculty, and staff planners for the new college, President Wofford hoped to develop a program that would serve as a transformative model for higher education in the United States.  That vision encountered immediate difficulties, as disagreements quickly surfaced among the planners about the constituent elements of the core program. 

The first class of eighty-five students, recruited from across the nation, arrived in September 1968.  In an atmosphere that encouraged nearly unrestricted opportunities for experimentation and innovation, the first students opposed all academic requirements, insisting on equal voting rights with faculty on all policy matters.  By the Spring semester, political divisions led to protests that disrupted the educational program and President Wofford decided to leave at the end of 1969 to become President at Bryn Mawr College.

This earliest portion of the College's history has been featured in "Experiments," an online, multimedia presentation prepared by current members of the College's faculty. 

Following President Wofford’s departure, SUNY officials appointed a special commission to examine the College’s progress.  The commission’s report convinced the SUNY Board of Trustees to take several specific actions; it should cease to admit new students, reorganize the College, and, in tandem, continue classes at the Planting Fields site under the direction of Dr. Council Taylor, a distinguished anthropologist and member of the faculty.   


Construction of Academic Village

In May 1970, John D. Maguire, an innovative administrator and civil rights activist was named president.  Another planning year ended, and the College reopened in Fall 1971 with a student enrollment of 571. Its revised mandate called for Old Westbury to educate a diverse, multicultural student population.  The new curriculum was organized around a critical analysis of fundamental issues of society or, as enunciated in the new mandate, -- an exploration of “the riddle of human justice.”  This plan, like the previous one, emphasized arrangements that would facilitate the building of an integrated and egalitarian intellectual community and an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Old Westbury II, as it was sometimes called, unquestionably was in the vanguard of higher education reform.  Welcoming non-traditional students of all ages, ethnic and racial groups, as well as various walks of life, the College boasted one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation.  Moreover, at that time, it was one of the few colleges nation-wide that housed married students in its dormitories and provided day-care facilities.  Its departmental organization reflected its interdisciplinary educational programs.  Even the two pre-professional programs--Teacher Education and Communicative and Creative Arts -- were organized along interdisciplinary lines.  Governance, equally innovative, involved mutual responsibility and action among faculty, students and staff on a broad range of decisions basic to the life of the College.  Those institutional features engendered high levels of intellectual inventiveness, political engagement, and conflict.   

In 1973, after extensive discussions, the College capped enrollment at 3,500 and accepted a plan for the future that expanded its obligations to upper division transfer students from the regional two-year colleges while reaffirming the commitment to students from a broad range of economic, education, social, and ethnic backgrounds.   Under this plan, the College moved to expand its disciplinary and professional offerings; it reconfigured some existing programs and introduced new ones in order to create new majors in biology, chemistry, mathematics, languages, psychology, sociology, urban studies, and business.


The “Adolescent” Years

After John Maguire left the College in 1981 to become the Chancellor of the Claremont system in California, Clyde Wingfield, who had previously headed New York City University’s business-oriented Baruch College, became the next president.  President Wingfield, who served for three years, unsuccessfully attempted to remold the institution along more traditional lines.   During that period the campus building program was completed, the admissions policy revised, and the disciplinary and pre-professional elements of the curriculum reinforced.

When Clyde Wingfield left Old Westbury to take up the presidency at Northern Illinois, the College reconfirmed its commitment to the construction of a multi-cultural community and his successors, Acting President Ulrich Haynes and President L. Eudora Pettigrew, embraced the distinctive aspects of the College’s curriculum. However, even as the institution’s mission was validated, its development was curtailed by declining State support for higher education.


Despite the worsening financial picture, the institution matured and, with some success, attempted to stabilize and bolster its reputation in the local community. Led by the science faculty, the College was more successful than any other four-year SUNY campus in attracting institutional grants.  Developments in curriculum flourished as degree programs in literature, media and communications, science education, criminology and world cultures were introduced; a teaching resource center embarked on an ambitious program of activities; faculty governance was redesigned; and international programs were expanded.  Student enrollment surpassed published targets, reaching a high 4,226 in 1994.    

As was characteristic for many institutions of higher education in this period, however, every area of the College struggled to maintain facilities and programs.  Faculty and staff numbers were reduced; purchasing was curtailed; and physical maintenance was deferred. Retrenchments, carried out in 1996, intensified the sense of crisis.  By 1998, when President Pettigrew retired, the College had reached a low point in nearly 10 years in both enrollment and funding.


A New President and a Period of Remarkable Progress

In September 1999, the SUNY Board of Trustees appointed Calvin O. Butts, III, as the fifth president of the College.   Recognized around the nation and world for his work as a community activist, educator, and minister, President Butts served at the time of his appointment and continues to serve as Pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. 

Under President Butts’ dynamic leadership, the College has made remarkable progress in rethinking, renewing, and rejuvenating itself.  Among the priorities President Butts identified upon his entry at Old Westbury were: 

  • Enrollment growth and increased admissions selectivity
  • Enhancing academic innovation and increased hiring of full-time faculty
  • Expansion of campus life for students and the community 
  • Improving facilities and campus physical maintenance
  • Growing the College’s presence in the surrounding community
  • Earning distinctions locally and nationally that illustrate the College’s strength

While growth at the College continues and successes continue to accumulate, there is already a wealth of evidence as to the remarkable progress made during the Butts years.  This evidence includes:

Enrollment & Selectivity

  • Enrollment has grown nearly 40 percent
  • Remains among the most diverse liberal arts colleges in America
  • Launched the Office of First Year Experience (2003) and other retention strategies to increase persistence among first-time freshmen

Academic Innovation

  • 113 full-time faculty members were at the center of instruction at Old Westbury in 1999. Today, the full-time faculty numbers more than 150. 
  • Added to the roster of undergraduate programs with programs in Biochemistry, Visual arts: Electronic Media, Visual Arts (BFA) and Adolescence education: Social Studies 
  • Launched the College’s first graduate programs in Accounting and Taxation in 2004 which have now expanded to include 12 degree offerings in Adolescence Education , a degree in Liberal Studies, and a degree in Mental Health Counseling
  • Developed the Old Westbury Honors College in 2008, which welcomes 40 new students each year
  • School of Education now holds accreditation from the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the “gold standard” in its discipline 

Campus Life

  • Created an Office of Commuter Services to enhance engagement among the College’s largest student constituency
  • Grown the number of on-campus activities and programs to an average of more than 1,000 a semester
  • Cultivated leadership opportunities for residential students through Residence Hall Associations and the National Residence Hall Honorary
  • Expanded NCAA Division III athletic program from 10 to 13 sports

Facilities & Physical Plant

  • Opened in 2012  a new 141,000 square foot Academic Building, the first new academic facility to open on campus since 1985
  • Invested nearly $10 million in new technologies to support instructional and academic needs across campus
  • Completed first phase of Campus Library renovation in 2014
  • Opened the Woodlands Residence Halls and Student Union Building (2002)
  • Completed the Jackie Robinson Athletic Complex (2006)
  • Developed the University Police Headquarters (2012) 
Serving Our Community
  • Increased cooperation with regional partners in K-12 education, community colleges, government, business, and industry
  • Through the Community Action, Learning and Leadership for Change program, first year students volunteer an average of 20,000 hours annually to area community and human service organizations

Distinctions Earned

  • U.S. President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014)
  • U.S.News & World Report rankings in the following categories:
    • Campus Diversity (2000-2015) for 16 consecutive years 
    • Graduating Students with Lowest Debt  (2008, 2009) 
    • 10 College that Lead to Graduate School (2011)
  • G.I. Jobs magazine “Military Friendly School” (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015)
  • Long Island Association “Long Island Education MVP” (2006)


Looking Forward, Together

From February 2015 through May 2016, SUNY Old Westbury celebrated its 50th anniversary.  Old Westbury has always served as a vibrant learning community, where its students are challenged by the dynamic academic and social environment created for them.  The need for a dynamic academic environment is greater than ever before.  Without continued access to education that is of the highest quality, responsive to student needs and demands, and forward-thinking for the people and communities it serves, future students from across Long Island, New York State and our nation may be deprived of the very skills and knowledge required for success.  

As SUNY Old Westbury moves forward into its next 50 years, its goal will remain what it has always been:  To instill in students the ability to think critically, act ethically, and succeed in what is an ever-changing, more competitive global society.

This narrative was compiled using documents prepared by Professor Emeritus Naomi Rosenthal and Distinguished Teaching Professor Rita Colon-Urban for the College's 2000 Middle States Accreditation and by the staff of the Office of Public and Media Relations.