A Conversation with President Darrell Wheeler

"It's like an airplane refueling mid-air," said Wheeler. Photo Courtesy of SUNY New Paltz

Dr. Darrell Wheeler took office as President of SUNY New Paltz nearly 100 days ago. Since then, he has attended countless events, explored the campus and town and gotten to meet hundreds of students. You can see him all around campus, and if you do, say hi! President Wheeler is always repping his New Paltz gear, carrying around his orange notebook to write down anything important he sees. In the notebook’s inside cover is the school’s mission statement, which President Wheeler cut out and pasted himself, so that he is constantly reminded of the core values of New Paltz.

The Oracle had the opportunity to sit down with President Wheeler to ask him questions about himself, his time in office thus far and where he sees New Paltz going in the future. Some of the questions were our own while others came from followers on our Instagram, @newpaltzoracle.

How would you describe your first few months on campus? 

The first 100 days have been welcoming, exhilarating and busy. They’ve been full, I could show you my calendar as an example. It’s like an airplane refueling mid-air, you don’t get the chance to land the plane to stop to make an assessment, you have to keep moving. That’s the nature of a presidency; coming on board you have to pick up and keep on going right with the ship. It’s been very welcoming. Folks have been more than accommodating in terms of saying hello. Students, especially in the beginning, made me smile. The media team does such a great job of positioning me online. I could feel students’ eyes on me whispering ‘is that really him?’ to their friends. That took a little bit of getting used to. 

What have been some of your favorite moments on campus so far?

Let’s go with a day like today. Watching. The view from up here is a godsend. I don’t think anybody could have asked for a more spectacular view. Getting out and meeting the students; just kind of plopping in and sitting on the sofa next to somebody to normalize the experience of the president. I’m just a guy trying to make sure things are going okay, so that’s spectacular. The student convocation, running down that line and getting to meet the students. The energy I felt in the room and the energy I received from connecting with the students. Move in day, meeting with parents, walking with parents. There was a family on move-in day who was trying to pay their bill, and that’s over at Wooster. I could hear them talking and I said, “I’ll get you over there.” It wasn’t until we got over there and somebody said, ‘Oh, President Wheeler.’ The family was like ‘you’re the president?’ That to me is a really valuable experience.

What are some goals you hope to accomplish as your first year of active residency?

Survive? I’ve been in higher ed for a long time and I’ve been at a number of different institutions. I know the rhythm of the academic cycle, but you don’t know the rhythm of the school you’re in until you go through a whole first year. When I say survive, it sounds funny, but it’s just getting through the whole first year. We certainly have priorities, student enrollment, student engagement, financial, quality of life issues, safety all of those are on the regular agenda.

The work we do with our shared governance and working with your Student Government Association is really important to me. I’ve asked the team to restructure the way we’re doing the meeting down to the way we sit. Some of those are little things that have no money, no resources attached to them, but it’s starting to get it right for me and how I do the job that I do.

What have you been the most proud of since you took office?

The magazine that came out from the foundation, the preparation of that was absolutely phenomenal. We just had a great alumni weekend. The alumni were connected and celebrated 50 years of alums who graduated in 1972 — and they were here. There was one guy in one of the sessions whose kid, wife and him came up from Florida. He said ‘I haven’t stepped foot on this campus in 41 years,’ but he came back. I don’t know if he came back to see me — but he came back and as a President, I’m really proud. I’m proud of our academic programs; I saw the students at Career Day, dressed ready to impress with smiles on their faces filled with anxiety — but those are moments to be proud of because the reason you’re here is for the student’s success. I can’t take credit for much of any of it; the team around me and the onboarding that was done from moment that the announcement was about to be made, Chrissie and Shelley have been working with me in the background to make sure I have the information that I pointed in the right direction; I’m really happy with the way we’ve moved thus far. 

Can you explain the large increase of construction on campus?

When we put in a request for funds from the state to do a building, it goes through a set of processes. What may happen is those requests get bottlenecked and then all of a sudden, instead of one request getting approved, they all do, and if you don’t take the opportunity to do the construction when those four come up, what happens? It’s gone. So some of this is the result of us planning, finally getting the money and saying we got to do it — it may be an inconvenience, but we’ve got to remodel these buildings. 

What songs are you listening to right now?

My music taste is so eclectic. I listened to this app called Simple Radio, just because it helps me stay calm and grounded, and I listen to the gospel station. That’s the one I listen to during the day. It seems appropriate for the office; it’s not going to get me dancing. I listen to “Rebel Yell,” and I like The Cure a little bit. I can really get into Melissa Etheridge. I was born and raised on Chicago house music. So anything house music will probably get my head and my body moving in a way that may or may not be fun to look at for an old man trying to dance. Right now I’m a fan of the opera, so you might find me listening to classical music and listening to the musical, “The Wiz” because I really fancy that music. I love the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. It could be any of those things. It could be Carrie Underwood singing about the Louisville Slugger and both headlights. You know, knock it out and make it a kick out. It’s a whole gamut. There’s very little that I will find that I’m not gonna enjoy.

What is your favorite restaurant in town?

I don’t know that I’ve had enough experience to have a favorite but I’m not really big on red meat. I’ve eaten several times at Main Course. I’ve probably had enough chicken wings to become a chicken from Cuddies. I’ve tried Japanese restaurants, Huckleberry, pizza, the brewery, Italian places, Lola’s; I’m a creature of food from around the globe. I haven’t been here long enough to crave anything from a specific restaurant, but there are places that I go back to. 

How would you compare the community of New Paltz to your other experiences on campuses?

Each school I’ve attended had its own unique thing; our students, y’all have a grittiness to you. You don’t mind bristling up against issues, I do appreciate that. But seeing that there’s not a monolith and students have diverse ways of approaching the world is very nice.

What advice do you have to students who are currently trying to navigate their way through college and trying to figure out what they want to do?

You made it here and you can get through here. When you’re faced with complex scenarios, sometimes you need to step back. Put the social media down and find a calmness in yourself for a moment to really reassess. I have to step back sometimes too and it’s okay. Don’t write yourself out because you make a mistake; life is going to be fraught with mistakes. Recognize that whatever happened yesterday is history, so learn from it. Tomorrow is always on the horizon, but today is the one thing you can control so be present in the day and take advantage of the opportunities. Whether that’s a classroom or a walk, sharing five minutes with a friend that you’ve made. Maybe that’s a friend for life or maybe just a friend for five minutes — but those are five minutes you’ll never get back.

It wouldn’t be a New Paltz interview if we didn’t ask you, what is your zodiac sign?

I’m a Leo.