Q&A with VCU’s newly hired director of fraternity, sorority life

Joe Wheeless assumed the newly created position of Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life on Nov. 11. He previously worked in student affairs at The College of William and Mary. Photo courtesy of Joe Wheeless

Josephine Walker, Contributing Writer

Joe Wheeless, the new director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, started in his new role at VCU on Oct. 11, after eight years at the College of William & Mary. Wheeless was formerly the assistant director of Student Leadership Development at the college and is currently finishing a doctoral program there.

Wheeless said his position was created in the spring, following the death of freshman Adam Oakes. 

Oakes died at an off-campus residence on Feb. 27 at a pledge event for the Delta Chi fraternity. On May 25, his death was confirmed to be due to ethanol toxicity, a type of alcohol poisoning, by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Oakes’ family said their son was hazed and forced to drink a bottle of whiskey at the fraternity event.

The university launched an independent investigation after Oakes’ death through consulting firm Dyad Strategies on March 2, to conduct a comprehensive review of the university’s Greek life, according to a university statement. The creation of this role was suggested in the Dyad report’s findings.

Charles Klink, senior vice provost for student affairs, stated in a press release that Wheeless was chosen because of his policy development, relationship building and strategic direction experience. 

Klink put together five working groups to research Dyad’s findings and determine the best way to implement them on campus, according to Wheeless. He also said each group is expected to publish its findings by Dec. 1.

In response to the death of Oakes, VCU announced on May 28 that Delta Chi was permanently expelled from campus as a student organization. The university has also paused recruitment for all Greek life organizations until February 2022. 

VCU spokesperson Matt Lovisa stated in an email that the competitive search for the new position was conducted from June 2 to July 2, with two applicants being brought to campus for interviews. 

Wheeless sat down with The Commonwealth Times to discuss his first week in office. He began at VCU eight months after Oakes’ death.

Some of Wheeless’ responses have been edited for clarity.

How was your first week?

Wheeless: My first week was great. I think with any new job, there’s always a transition and sometimes, you know, that can create some stress. But it’s been great.

What made you want to transfer from William & Mary to VCU?

Wheeless: So I was at William & Mary for the last eight years, as an assistant director. So the structure there was a little different — I was doing very similar work but we didn’t have a standalone Fraternity and Sorority Life Office. And so, when the director position was posted I had a couple of people reach out to me, but also my boss pulled me aside and said, “I hope you’re applying for the job, because I think you’re ready to be a director on your own,” and I already have a huge friend group that I’ve established in Richmond already. So it was a natural, like — if I’m going to transition, easier to transition down the road. I’m also still in the Ph.D. program at William & Mary so I’ve still got probably a year or two left in that, so I didn’t want to do a national search and move across the country before I finished that. So, I was ready to move on, not because William & Mary is a bad institution or anything like that, but to move along in my career. Ready for the next steps, and looking around to see what that was; this checked a lot of those boxes.

What would you say are the most important aspects of Greek life?

Wheeless: So, in addition to complementing the college experience I think it also can help a student find a sense of belonging. And that’s an innate human nature, to want to belong. And fraternities and sororities are an avenue to that belongingness, whether it’s to a smaller group on campus, or just belonging to something that’s larger than yourself. If it’s VCU, or whether it’s the national organization. To be able to go beyond VCU and meet people that are in your organization or are at a different institution, but you went through the same rituals and ceremonies and you have the same type of bonding, having never met before — it’s a pretty powerful experience. It’s like meeting another VCU alumni, right? You all know about the same things. You may have had different experiences in college, but you all know about generally the same stuff.

What findings in the Dyad Strategies report stood out to you

Wheeless: I think the overall theme that I found with the report is that it seems like the right pieces and the potential for a strong fraternity or sorority community are already here, and support, which seemed to put those pieces in the right place. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel like the overall support from the university was there. Support can look like a lot of different things. It’s not just staff and dollars. It’s what is the culture like? What is the overall community like? Are there alumni in various different roles? I think it speaks a lot to VCU that almost everyone in the working groups is affiliated with a fraternity or sorority. Not everyone, but a lot of people.

The Commonwealth Times: Is there anything in particular that you’re putting in place to help prevent any possible student deaths or illegal activities?

Wheeless: I mean, we’re definitely putting in prevention efforts in terms of looking at the, you know, trainings around hazing prevention and alcohol. Risk management, harm reduction, all that type of stuff. We also need to do the logistics things. And what can we already lean on from our national organizations and umbrella groups that are in place, so our chapters that do membership intake, have a lot more oversight for their intake process. And so making sure that those things are happening. And working with the Interfraternity and Pan-Hellenic councils to create a recruitment process that doesn’t take away from the academic experience, but also elevates the potential new member voice in terms of what they want out of an organization and helps them match up with the right organization.

If a student can make a more informed decision about the type of organization that they join, then that in and of itself is also a prevention strategy, right? So how are we articulating what the expectations are of the VCU community and the VCU fraternity and sorority community?

Even with anti-hazing strategies in place, some organizations, or segments of them will ignore the training. Do you have anything in place that can help root out that type of behavior?

Wheeless: So, I think the university has already implemented an anonymous hazing report form, which I’m familiar with because we have one at William & Mary. And so it’s making sure that everyone knows about that reporting form, and working with our Student Conduct and Academic Integrity Office to help make sure that the systems and structures around that reporting form and just student conduct are in place. Because accountability also is a prevention strategy, when people know that when a report’s made we’re going to do an investigation. An investigation tool is interim actions to kind of pause everything, just for that organization, until we have the outcomes of that. So, you know, making sure that students have the right information around reporting. We have the infrastructure in place to respond to those reports, it’s all a part of that prevention strategy.

Did you feel as though you added a special quality that can transform VCU’s Greek life image?

Wheeless: I mean, yeah, so I think I have the skills and the content knowledge that I can bring to the table. And that was made clear during the interview of, like, what type of person they were looking for. I’m also not one to come in and say VCU has to be just like William & Mary. I want to take what we have, and figure out what’s best for us, for VCU, incorporating the knowledge that I have, what’s standard practice in the fraternity-sorority industry, what access to resources we already have. VCU is a larger institution that has access to a lot more stuff. So how are we integrating what we already have into the fraternity-sorority community as opposed to reinventing the wheel? So yes, all of these other things I’m looking to bring together to hopefully strengthen the community.

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