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Darrell Wheeler prepares to take over as president of SUNY New Paltz

Dr. Darrell Wheeler
Provided photo by SUNY New Paltz
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Dr. Darrell Wheeler

Dr. Darrell Wheeler has been appointed as the next president of SUNY New Paltz. Wheeler currently serves as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Iona College. Current SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian announced his June 2022 retirement last May. Christian has been leading the college of about 7,500 students since 2010. Wheeler spoke with WAMC’s Jim Levulis as he prepares to step into the post on July 18th.

Wheeler: Well the position itself and looking at SUNY New Paltz together is a package deal. It was really the positioning of the college space that President Christian had moved the school to. It is a school that has very strong community connections, a very talented faculty, a very prominent position within the region. And throughout the interview process, and what I know of SUNY New Paltz, a very strong and vibrant engagement for its students and alumni. So those are quite appealing. And as I characterized it in my acceptance, it really is an academic leaders dream to come into the school that has so many positive upbeat elements to it, and has weathered the COVID pandemic and in a good stead. That all of those things coming together and this unique moment in time for me and being positioned to be a viable candidate. Those are exciting. I mean, the academic offerings, the regional impact.

Levulis: And you are currently Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Iona College. But have also served in a leadership role at the University at Albany along with academic positions in the CUNY system. Do you think having knowledge of the SUNY and CUNY systems will benefit you as you take the helm at SUNY New Paltz?

Wheeler: I certainly hope that it does. I hope that the entire portfolio of 30 years in higher education in in public and private research institutions, smaller institutions, actually should all come together and give me a keener sense. But the unique experiences of working in New York City and New York State public institutions, I hope provide me with kind of a compass orientation to some of the priorities and some of the structures that I'm familiar with and will be required to engage with as the next president.

Levulis: Now system-wide, SUNY’s enrollment has fallen about 20% from 2011 to 2021. And about 10% of that has occurred since the onset of the pandemic in 2019-2020. Over that decade, SUNY New Paltz’s enrollment fell about 9%. Do you think that's a problem? Or is there some benefit to be had with a smaller student population?

Wheeler: You know, that's an interesting question. And for SUNY New Paltz, I certainly need more information on the specificity of the trends and how that has lined up with the funnel. But overall, in higher education, all institutions are looking at enrollments and thinking, you know, if we've had 10,000, before, and we're at 8,000, is that a good position? And I think post-COVID, we're going to have new answers that will give us greater clarity. I think anything in the past two years is going to be anomalies in as much as people made decisions based on a public health situation. And I'm not sure that the past two years give me enough. But overall, yes, we're going to be paying very close attention to our enrollments. And I think, in addition to just the sheer numbers, we're going to be looking at what impact and what influence we're having as a state public institution for the regions and for the entirety of New York State. Are we training the right people for the right job? Are we working in collaboration with our communities to identify critical problems? Are we creating platforms of teaching and training that align with both those needs and the timeliness of elevating individuals to be prepared to take on those jobs and I think that's where the opportunities are going to come for reevaluating our right “sizedness” if that is a word, but it is about being the right size to do the right jobs for the citizens of New York.

Levulis: And obviously, college student loan debt is top of mind for many in the education field and those thinking about entering it. Do you think there needs to be federal student loan forgiveness?

Wheeler: I certainly think that we should be creating mechanisms so that people are not so saddled with debt that they can never get out of it. I think that's really important. And whether those are loan forgiveness or reductions in interest rates or prolonged periods of payment or different models on the front end, in terms of you know, we're based so much on a four-year trajectory of continuous continuation through school. Are we looking at models that might be different? Are we looking at pathways to education that are not dependent on payment right away, but on return to community? So you have different models in service learning and different models in training. For the short term, I mean, I think people have talked about loan forgiveness, because we've looked at the debt that people have collected. But it's a question that should be both reflective on what was and how we're going to move forward. And I think it's not just about debt forgiveness.

Levulis: And yeah, is the very cost of higher education, as most people know it, something that needs to be part of that conversation?

Wheeler: Oh, absolutely. And again, I think it goes back to the value proposition of why people seek college degrees, and how college degrees and beyond, graduate and advanced degrees, provide training that is going to be applicable to the citizens. And so are we tackling important issues? And I think that's where we may have new opportunities, whether that's in environment, or policy or health, or, you know, the humanities, are we taking on the tough issues and preparing students to engage in that work?

Levulis: And looking at your background, I thought that your research and community work provides an interesting cross section of public health and health disparities engagement involving HIV/Aids to go along with your work in education. You mentioned 30 years in education. Do you think that cross section has better prepared you, as you take over a college as this COVID 19 pandemic continues?

Wheeler: I would certainly hope so. The pandemic that we relate to COVID really had a global impact on all of us and certainly on higher education. We had to shift models. And so when we talk about higher education, I think that my roles in HIV work in the early years and see it and that's the closest analogy, we have to a pandemic effect in the United States, situated me to have maybe a bit of calm about how we can approach public health problems. It helped me to think about the kinds of intervention, prevention and mitigation steps. It helped me to create platforms to address not just the public health, physical issues, but some of the angst and concerns that faculty or students were having and to really listen and to be able to respond in a different way. So I think those were very helpful, and I hope that they will continue to guide me to make metered informed decisions that allow us to continue to grow and flourish.

Levulis: Finally, Dr. Wheeler as you prepare to take the helm at SUNY New Paltz, is there anything you would like the campus community, the Hudson Valley community, to know about you, your work, your goals?

Wheeler: In terms of my work, and you've kind of hit on it already, my work and my deep interest has been in aligning the higher ed institution and mission with the needs of the community. So whether that was in my early roles as Associate Dean for Research and Community Partnerships at Hunter or as the Vice Provost for a public engagement or my research that really looked at context and issues. That's what I want people to know is that as a leader, I want to build on the tradition and the foundation of higher education being a resource and not something esoteric too. And that people, community members, I look forward to working with our faculty, our staff, our students, our alum in the community, to continue that tradition and to make sure that we are doing things that are beneficial.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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