SUNY Old Westbury President Reflects As Colleges Readies to Become a University in July

suny old westbury
Timothy E. Sams, president of SUNY Old Westbury (Photo by AJ Letterel/SUNY Old Westbury)

SUNY Old Westbury President Reflects As Colleges Readies to Become a University in July

Toward the end of April, Timothy E. Sams, president of SUNY Old Westbury, headed from Long Island to Albany after two of his school’s students won SUNY’s highest honor for academic excellence and leadership. 

He drove, rather than being driven, roughly three hours to the event where the students won Chancellor’s Awards for Student Excellence.

“That’s my students,” Sams, the 55-year-old leader of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, said of the winners at the awards he drove to, rather than using a driver. “I’d rather spend the money on my students.”

Although Sams may drive his own vehicle, he is very much a driven leader of a school that is graduating in a sense. 

SUNY Old Westbury officially becomes a university on July 1, a recognition that can bring prestige and opportunity as well as simply formalize a reality that is in many ways already in place.

Students this May will be the last to graduate from SUNY College at Old Westbury, its full name, as the school itself graduates to become a university. The college will be called SUNY at Old Westbury.

“We have to change the signs, buy new letterhead, change our cards, our communications,” Timothy E. Sams, the school’s president, said of those superficial changes, along with more substantial ones.

The school began referring to itself as SUNY Old Westbury for marketing purposes eight years ago, although some signage still says SUNY College at Old Westbury. Signage and stationery will shift to State University of New York at Old Westbury.

It’s a big moment for the school, and part of a change in the SUNY system, where many colleges are becoming universities.

SUNY Brockport, Cortland, Potsdam, New Paltz and Buffalo State University all have taken on the university mantle.

SUNY Old Westbury has about 3,700 undergraduate students and 300 graduate students.

The New York State Board of Regents’ new guidelines require all institutions of higher education — not just SUNY — seeking university status to offer registered undergraduate and graduate curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences, including graduate programs in at least three of the following: agriculture, biological sciences, business, education, engineering, fine arts, health professions, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. SUNY Old Westbury offers graduate degrees in five of these areas (business, education, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences). 

SUNY Old Westbury has 13 graduate programs, including three in business, seven in education, masters programs in mental health counseling, data science and a master of arts in liberal studies.

With its university status, SUNY Old Westbury hopes to expand its graduate programs.

“To maintain a competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape,” Sams said of the importance of the designation on the most basic level. “Many schools are moving to universities. Students are gravitating more to universities. We didn’t want to be left out because of nomenclature.”

When he took the helm about two years ago, Sams described the school as a “hidden gem.” The goal, he said, is to make everyone “understand what makes us a great place” and grow its place on the educational stage. “That’s truly the intention,” he said recently, noting that the university moniker makes a difference.

“We are more attractive to faculty members who want to be associated with a university from a research standpoint,” Sams said. “It opens us up for greater support for research at the undergraduate and graduate level and pushes our graduate level work.”

suny old westbury
Timothy Sams recently took over the presidency of SUNY Old Westbury from longtime predecessor Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.

SUNY Old Westbury is starting by expanding undergraduate research through pending partnerships with Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Northwell Health System, providing more research opportunities for undergraduate students.

The school also plans to renovate and expand its natural sciences building, as it invests in infrastructure.

And it has been raising money around its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) platform, receiving $1.89 million in congressionally directed spending through the FY 2023 budget, with the help of Sen. Charles Schumer.

“It will enable us to produce a greater pipeline into our STEM platform,” Sams said. “We’ll be able to graduate more biology, chemistry, and physics majors.”

The school also received an $878,000 basic needs federal grant to support financial security. “We don’t want students leaving because they can’t afford to feed their families or pay for their basic needs,” Sams said.

They also received $540,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to support veterans returning to school as they seek to carve out a niche as a good educational institution with increasing research opportunities.

“At the end of the day, what is most important is that we have the best possible teachers in front of our students,” Sams said. “There’s never compromising with that.”

Sams also talked about the importance of the proximity to faculty with teachers who help and work with students.

“Not only are they highly qualified professors. I want professors who care about their students. We’re fortunate to have that,” Sams said. “Our faculty take very seriously the success of our students and staff. As we make a transition to a university, we will not abandon that principle.”

He said they “have a lot of space for growth, particularly in our school of business.” SUNY Old Westbury’s School of Business is seeking accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

“There’s a great demand for graduates from our business school,” Sams said. “They are well trained.”

The university hopes to bring online a trading room and grow the number of students in their business program.

SUNY Old Westbury also is taking steps to increase the number of teachers through its School of Education. It is launching a summer institute for teachers, allowing up to 100 students to receive credit and certification toward teaching.

“Our goal is to help produce more people qualified to teach and meet the teacher gap we have in the state,” Sams said. “At last count we were short some 15,000 teachers in our state.”

He said the institution has been seeking to make up for missed moments during the pandemic. One was the delayed graduation ceremony for the class of 2020, held in the fall of 2022.

“We heard from our alumni that they wanted a ceremony on campus with faculty, having an opportunity to walk and have their parents see,” Sams said.

He also delayed his own inauguration until students had a traditional graduation, being inaugurated on April 14 as the sixth president of State University of New York College at Old Westbury – and soon-to-be first of the university.

“It felt wonderful. I was surprised. I thought it was unnecessary for me,” Sams said. “But when it took place, I thought this is good. Now I can get to work.”