Darrell P. Wheeler, PhD, MPH, ACSW, the ninth president to take the top post at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that he can still remember his third-grade teacher telling his mother during a parent/teacher conference that she should probably “not consider college” as a viable option for her son, as he was “not college material.” The newly appointed president laughs when he says this to illustrate that there’s still a feeling of unreality to the decision. He was chosen after a nationwide search to fill the position left by Dr. Donald Christian, who announced his impending retirement last year.
Contrary to his teacher’s erroneous assessment, Dr. Wheeler has been studying, teaching, researching and administering inside academic institutions for the past three decades. Dr. Wheeler received his PhD in Social Work and MPH in Health Administration from the University of Pittsburgh, his MSW in Health/Mental Health from Howard University and his BA in Sociology from Cornell College. Having served in various capacities at Iona College, SUNY Albany and Hunter College, he is most familiar with higher education in New York State, and said that, while he has always read about and been interested in SUNY New Paltz, visiting the campus in person and getting to know some students and faculty was an enlightening experience. “I’ve always read and been aware of the mission and commitment of this institution; but being here, on the campus, seeing the vibrancy of the students, the dedication of the faculty and the college’s commitment to inclusivity and education was what drew me to this position.”
Dr. Wheeler believes that the faculty is the “most enduring aspect of the college community.” “Students come and go, as they should; but it was very clear to me how committed this faculty is to the mission of SUNY New Paltz.”
When asked how or where he believes he could have the most immediate impact, Wheeler said, “I’ve been thinking about that question,” and feels that the best thing he can do right now is to “understand what the community’s priorities are. I want to create strong relationships to engage people. That’s what is in my immediate control, not bulldozing in and saying, ‘I’m here to do X, Y and Z.’”
He said that, as the vice president for Public Engagement at the University of Albany, this was a primary area of focus: “How do we engage the community in order for everyone to achieve? If there is a communitywide concern, I want the campus to be a thought partner. It could be physical safety or the environment; but whatever it is, I believe it’s critical for the institution to partner with the community, which I believe has been well-established by Dr. [Donald] Christian.”
In that same vein, Wheeler believes that there is a porous relationship with the college and the larger New Paltz community and feels that “The relationship between the college and the community is critical to how I think about higher education. Whether it’s about members of the community coming to lectures, exhibitions, theater, taking courses, we need to be contributing to the quality of the community.”
In terms of who Dr. Wheeler is, outside of his decades-long academic and public health career, he said that he considers himself a “citizen of the world,” a “consumer of the creative arts, culinary experiences” who “loves to travel.” “I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica, and I believe that I enjoy integrating all of the different arts, cultures, music, culinary experiences.” Besides having a passion for fine arts and good food, Dr. Wheeler also “likes to get outside and exercise, whether it’s in the mountains or in my driveway.”
Asked what he believes is the greatest challenge that SUNY New Paltz faces currently, he said two things, the first being the “global challenge for higher education: enrollment, retention, success. We need to make sure that we have viable resources to ensure that we meet this challenge while being fiscally sound. SUNY New Paltz has been doing a great job with this under Dr. Christian’s guidance, and we cannot relinquish those efforts.”
More pointedly to the time in which we’re living, Dr. Wheeler noted that “Higher education has undergone an unprecedented two years of the pandemic. We did well, but we need to look now at: How do we come out of this and conduct business? There are new technologies, new social/economic models and there are psychological traumas to deal with. Nothing is going to look the same, and we need to figure out what we want to look like, how we want to best operate in this post-pandemic world to best stabilize ourselves and regain that sense of health and strength.”
Dr. Wheeler’s number-one priority is to foster relationships, to listen, to engage with staff, students, faculty and the community to help SUNY New Paltz put its best foot forward and ground itself in a way that is inclusive, empowering and continues to prioritize learning.
He is not quite sure of his formal arrival date, as the moving plans are still being worked out; but he will be in New Paltz as a full-time resident on or before July 18, when his tenure officially begins.