The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has inducted SUNY New Paltz President Darrell P. Wheeler as a fellow for their Class of 2023.
The Academy is a society that recognizes excellence in the fields of social work and social welfare. Wheeler is one of 14 who has been given membership this year for his efforts to rectify the inequities in healthcare over a career spanning more than 30 years.
In an interview, Wheeler stated that in healthcare there are what he calls “persistent differential outcomes.” He used maternal and child care as examples. “In the United States, despite having some of the best healthcare opportunities in the world, there are different outcomes for women of color versus white women in terms of prenatal care access, premature birth, infant mortality, and deaths of women post-delivery or in the process of delivery,” Wheeler said. “In recent news reports, we still see a disparate outcome for women of color, particularly Black women, having anywhere from two to four or five times greater likelihood of dying as a result of childbirth compared to white women.”
“Persistence means that it’s over time,” Wheeler remarked. “Clearly it is potentially preventable, because we know some of the best practices.”
Wheeler has spent his career addressing such inequities in various fields of healthcare, through both “downstream’’ direct patient care efforts and “upstream” policy interventions. Wheeler had once served as a US Public Health Officer with the Office of Maternal Child & Family Health. There, he worked on one of the first analyses that explored whether federal funding supported students who would eventually go on to work in maternal and child healthcare.
Wheeler believes his HIV prevention work is the signature of his career. “I have headed research projects funded by the Centers for Disease Control and by the National Institute of Health, looking at HIV prevention amongst African American LGBTQ communities and other communities of color,” he said. “I’ve done, I can’t remember how many, community evaluation projects where I’ve worked directly with community organizations to assist them in evaluating their programmatic interventions and also to train their staff on best community practices and engagement.” Currently, Wheeler mentors the next generation of medical providers, epidemiologists and behavioral interventionists. He co-leads a project called the HIV Prevention Trials Network which aims to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who are to be leaders in HIV prevention and intervention.
Wheeler holds a Ph.D in social work and a Masters of Public Health in health administration from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as an MSW in social work from Howard University and a BA in sociology from Cornell College. He also served in the United States Air Force.
“It is just personally gratifying to be recognized by your colleagues who hold very outstanding credentials and represent a very important sector of leadership in our profession,” Wheeler said. “I think it is an acknowledgment of the work that I’ve done over the years.”
In July 2022, Wheeler was appointed as the ninth President of SUNY New Paltz. He shared how his background in social work makes him particularly suited for the job. “I think that my training in clinical practice has given me in-depth skills of listening and engagement and a focus on behavioral connectivity. I think my work and research has given me strong analytical skills and skill conceptualization,” Wheeler said. “I think my access and my leadership as President of the National Association of Social Workers, with 150,000 members and, at that time, 57 chapters, gave me the opportunity to provide leadership to a huge organization and to experience firsthand the role of sitting at the table with national and international thinkers on critical issues.”
Wheeler wants to utilize the skills he has developed throughout his career to strengthen SUNY New Paltz. He intends to ensure that the university is the strongest academic environment for its students and that it adds value to the citizens of New York.
However, Wheeler also stressed that the future of SUNY New Paltz is a community question. “It’s not thinking about what I want,” he said. “It’s thinking about how the institution remains vibrant, viable, very strong and in its key areas constantly growing. When I say growing, it’s not just the number of students, but growing in its ability to be a value, to be a relevant component of the world in which we live.”
“I hope my social work skills will help me facilitate further an environment of collective and collaborative thinking, of engagement and excitement that brings people together to say, ‘Hey, not only am I happy to be a part of this community; I want to work hard to make sure that this institution and the impact of this community is felt locally and globally.’”