“The Reverend Dr. Butts is a giant of the civil rights movement, and a New York institution,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “He is a powerful preacher and educator who has used his voice in the service of the city’s marginalized and dispossessed: in this he is our lodestar and our conscience. It is with great pleasure and humility that I formally welcome him into the Fordham family.”
A globally recognized leader in civil rights, education, and community development, Dr. Butts has served many organizations and causes in New York City, the U.S., and the world. His powerful sermons are attended by Harlemites and out-of-towners each week at Abyssinian, where for more than 30 years he has focused on the church’s core values of worship, evangelism, service, and education. He helped found and now chairs the nonprofit Abyssinian Development Corporation, a community-based organization responsible for over $1 billion in housing and commercial development in Harlem. He was also instrumental in establishing the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change—a public, state-of-the-art, intermediate and high school in Harlem, and he is the visionary behind the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School.
From 1999 to 2020, Dr. Butts served as president of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Old Westbury, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools in the SUNY system. His leadership reinvigorated the Long Island campus, leading to the college’s largest enrollment ever, the addition of full-time faculty, and the expansion of student support services. The school also earned new accreditations and created its first-ever graduate programs during his presidency. And he oversaw the college’s investment of approximately $200 million in capital projects. During his tenure, SUNY at Old Westbury received the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine for 2018, 2019, and 2020. After his retirement, Dr. Butts was named president emeritus of the college for his years of distinguished service as its longest-serving president. Former SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson has called Dr. Butts “an inspirational leader” and “a strong advocate for access to an affordable, high-quality education.”
As an adjunct professor at Fordham, Dr. Butts taught a course in Black church history. This semester he joined Fordham’s Graduate School of Education as a distinguished visiting professor in support of the Center for Catholic School Leadership and Faith-Based Education. Fordham education professor Margaret Terry Orr, Ph.D., praised the reverend’s “enormous range of experience as a social justice, religious, and educational leader,” which she said would enrich the school’s programs, faculty, and student experiences.
Dr. Butts has frequently been praised for his forceful leadership in times of crisis. During the pandemic, he publicly urged Black Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even getting photographed receiving the shot himself at Abyssinian. “To those who may be a bit skeptical about receiving the vaccine,” he said, “good religion goes best with some common sense.” When a white gunman killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, The New York Times quoted his sermon on forgiveness. “They were Christians; they had to shake off hate,” Dr. Butts said of the Charleston parishioners. “Because, you see, hatred kills the hater faster than it does the hated.”
Dr. Butts grew up in New York City, graduated from Morehouse College in 1972, and earned his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Union Theological Seminary and Drew University, respectively. He serves as a member of the leadership board of New Visions for Public Schools; is chairman emeritus of the board of the National Black Leadership Commission on Health; and served as president of Africare NYC, an independent organization dedicated to the improvement of the quality of life in rural Africa. He is co-chair of Choose Healthy Life, a collaboration of Black clergy to address racial health disparities and protect Black communities against COVID-19.
On the subject of faith in action, Dr. Butts has said it’s the responsibility of a leader to inspire faith that produces good works.
“That’s what God has called you to do, to convince people of the love of God and to show them that their faith, if it does not produce works, is dead,” he once told a Duke Divinity School publication. “And what are those works?” he said. “Well, what’s the need? And the need—it could be housing, it could be education— that’s the real responsibility of a leader.”