Calvin Butts discusses SUNY Westbury and why more people should consider higher education at public institutions.
Question: What are you trying to accomplish at SUNY Old Westbury?
Rev. Butts: Well, now, I’m trying to make sure that the budget cuts that we have to endure in the State of New York do not hurt the progress that we’ve made. We’ve taken the college with some 40 plus majors, 46 plus majors and added at least 8 graduate programs. We are the most diverse college. We are one of the most diverse colleges in the nation and we are certainly the most diverse college in the SUNY system and I want to maintain that diversity. When you come to SUNY Old Westbury, you’ve got white, black, Latino, Asian, but you’ve got everybody else also. You have Muslims, Christian, Jewish, Catholic. It’s a very wonderful community. It’s a microcosm of the 21st century world. I want to continue to build on that. I want to continue to increase the number of students. We are now at about 3,500. I want us to remain a small college, but I’d like to get our headcount up to about 5,000. We’re on 605 acres of land and I want the beauty of that land to attract particularly young men and women from urban settings, not only in the 5 counties of New York City but also from upstate New York, you know, Buffalo, [Utica], Syracuse, but I also want to attract from around the state in terms of increasing our population. Most important, as we continue to shine this jewel and make it sparkle, we’re doing great now, you’re welcome to come and visit us. I want to make the case for public education. It cost too much money for something that should be a right. I’ve got young men and women. We have young men and women in our country who are bright, but they can’t afford $20,000, $40,000 a year, $20,000 a semester, plus you got to add on room and board and books. I can give, when I say I, the State University of New York can give a young men and or women a quality education. I’ve got a wonderful faculty, wonderful faculty for right now, room and board, tuition $14,000 a year. That’s what I want people to understand and especially poor people and particularly black people. I’m a graduate of a HBCU Historically Black College and University, Morehouse College, I love it. I love all the HBCU’s but I can give you a better education than HBCU at half the price or quarter the price. Come. That’s what I want to do. I want men and women who are struggling everyday. I mean, this mortgage crisis is terrible. You’re seeing, you know, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch being sold. Lehman Brother is failing. People are struggling out here. Gas price is going through the roof, but yet education and that’s why we spend so much time building the public schools in Harlem. We know about charter schools and vouchers and, you know, that’s another discussion, but most of our children particularly poor children, black and white will have to go to public schools and we should not abandon these schools. And so, our commitment, I’ve created an education [carita]. I can get you and head start which is [legislation] of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. I can bring you through kindergarten in a public school setting, middle school up to high school, all public schools and then take you to public college. It’s a [carita] and the parents have little expense than if they had to go through the private school. That’s part of my calling. That’s why I can do Old Westbury with great joy because it’s all a part of trying to empower most of us who are in America. We don’t have a lot of money. We’re struggling everyday, that’s the common ground. That’s the cruel hoax of race. The poor white person and the poor black person ought not to be at each others’ throats trying to scapegoat the other. We’re in the same boat. I have traveled this country completely, and I’ve seen poor whites, they’ve got the same issues – drugs, alcohol, early pregnancies, broken families, trying to make mortgages work, same thing that poor black people are going through. And that’s the commonality. That’s what made Martin Luther King, I would argue so dangerous in the end because he was bringing poor people together as they used to say the long-haired hippie and the afro black. He brought us together and we were marching. That’s what made people in the higher places afraid because we are realizing who we are as Americans. We found the common ground and we discovered where the real focus of our attention ought to be. So, at Old Westbury, I want to continue our focus, I want to keep the diversity so that black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, “so to speak”, we all see our commonality. We can respect each other’s religions, languages, but we know what we want. So, you take a fellow like Barack Obama, a Kenyan father, a mother from Kansas and he has an opportunity, went to Harvard, great! Everybody can go to Harvard, at least can afford to pay for it. So, now, I’m saying don’t spend all of these money, come to a public institution, and we’ll do a good job for you and that’s I’m a preacher for the public institutions. You know, I’m just trying to spread that gospel all across the country, all across the tri-state area because it makes sense. And I’ll put any member of our faculty up against anybody else, any other faculty person and some of our students are doing very well. They’re in all kinds of jobs all across the country. They are doctors, lawyers, Oscar winning film producers, all out of Old Westbury. So, you better ask me another question ‘cause then I, I’ll get off on Old Westbury.