Q&A: Jonathan Gibralter

Marjorie Malpiede / September 29, 2017

The President of Wells College on becoming an “accidental champion” for combating dangerous drinking

Jonathan Gibralter is a three-time college president and a leading spokesperson for preventing dangerous drinking on college campuses. He is the co-chair of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) President’s Working Group to Address Harmful Student Drinking. He was instrumental in developing the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix (CollegeAIM), arguably the most instructive tool available for addressing excessive drinking and substance abuse on campus.

Since July 2015, he has served as president of Wells College, a nationally recognized private, coeducational liberal arts college in Aurora, New York. Gibralter also served for nine years as president of Frostburg State University, a much larger state school in western Maryland with a very different set of student-affairs concerns.

While he eschews the phrase “party school,” Gibralter was appalled by the culture of excessive drinking he discovered when he arrived at Frostburg. He quickly led an institution-wide initiative to curb dangerous drinking, resulting in his campus serving as a national model, as well as making Gibralter the go-to president on this critical topic.

In speaking with him about his experience, Gibralter is thoughtful and candid about becoming, in his words, an “accidental champion” for combating dangerous drinking among college students. He is a scholar, educator, and administrator first, one who cares deeply about young adults and their education. Drinking and substance abuse get in the way of that, he says, sometimes in tragic and devastating ways.

Despite the progress being made in this area, Gibralter remains very concerned about drinking among college students and disturbed by what he sees as the continued resistance, on the part of many leaders in higher education, to devote the full power of their institutions to fight the problem.

Mary Christie Quarterly: How did you come to take this on so aggressively?
Jonathan Gibralter: To tell you the truth, I don’t think I took it on — I think it took me on.

It seems to me there are only a handful of presidents who are willing to speak out on this topic, and the number-one reason they do so is because something bad has happened at their college. I was in this category.

I arrived in Frostburg in 2005 to assume the presidency of Frostburg State University, and I was pretty appalled by what I saw. Soon after I arrived, we had a terrible incident involving an intoxicated student that left a person disabled. I decided, right then and there, that this was going to stop.

MCQ: How did you go about addressing the problem?
JG: I started by putting together a task force that was comprehensive, going beyond just faculty, staff, and students. I also included landlords, bar owners, police officers, and university police on the task force. I brought everybody to the table and said, “I think we all have the same goal here at heart. We know that students, for the most part, aren’t yet mature enough to always make the right decisions, and we don’t want any more harm coming to them. How can we put programs in place that meet those goals?”

We settled on a three-pronged approach. The first prong was about the individual. For example, all freshman students had to complete the AlcoholEdu course. It’s the single most effective online tool out there today that actually leads to a change in drinking behavior and an increase in understanding.

We then developed new programming for all freshmen in their orientation class that lasted the first semester, during which they were required to attend a certain number of alcohol-prevention programs.

The third prong was an external focus, because so much of our problem was sourced off campus. We talked to landlords. We talked to bar owners. When I went to the liquor control board, everyone told me, “You’ll never get bar owners to the table, so don’t waste your time.”

But you know what? I had so many people at the table, they couldn’t all fit in my conference room! They wanted to have the conversation and were really supportive of what we were trying to do. And so we worked closely with them. We gave them an award, an honor every year because we were in their establishments putting place cards on tables. We were making sure that they had the right equipment to properly ID students.

We met with law enforcement, a group which, by its nature, is very protective of information. We said, “We need you all to be aligned.” And we were able to get all of these different organizations to share that information more widely. We identified properties where there was a lot of high-risk drinking going on, and together we created a geo-positional map so that parents who were helping their student find off-campus housing could learn, for example, that the property at 224 Main Street had 12 arrests last year. So maybe 224 Main Street isn’t the best choice for their student to live.

We also used an academic approach to put an end to what had become, for many students, the three-day party weekend starting on Thursday night. I got the entire College of Business at Frostburg to hold required classes on Friday morning at 8 a.m. We learned through our surveys that this made a big difference to kids in helping to curb excessive partying.

Overall, it was really difficult to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and what you can afford to do. The CollegeAIM study (first released in 2015) is a huge resource for all of us now in this area. I was a facilitator on this effort and we were really committed, either to do something meaningful, or not do anything at all.

Now, college administrators can look at these best practices and say, “Out of the five best strategies, three of them are really expensive, and two of them might not work in my environment, but I’m going to put my money on these other two and see if it works.”

MCQ: Did you encounter resistance?
JG: Sure. I had a lot of students say, “You can’t do this. I came here to have a good time!” I’d say, “I’m doing it. If you don’t want to be here, then go somewhere else.”

MCQ: What about parents?
JG: You know 90 percent of the time, when we call a parent and say, “Are you aware of the fact that your son or daughter just engaged in an incident involving excessive drinking?” the parent will almost always reply that “my kid doesn’t drink.” We had a lot of educating to do.

When I first started this work, people would tell me, “Don’t talk about this to parents because you’ll scare them away.” But I have actually found that when we talk straight to parents and let them know what we are doing to keep their kids safe, they are very appreciative.

In fact, I think that college presidents who speak out and try to find a safe environment for students ultimately find that more people will be attracted to their campus.

MCQ: Where did you focus your efforts from the student population perspective?
JG: The truth is, only about 10 percent of students who attend college can be categorized as high-risk drinkers. Those are the kids whose goal for the night is to get blackout drunk; they will “pre-game” before they go to a party, so they will already be drunk when they get there.

We spent a lot of time and attention trying to get to these kids, because they were the ones who were coming up through the disciplinary board and the ones who were flunking out of school.

MCQ: What impact did this have at Frostburg State?
JG: We did an estimate a couple of years ago where we considered the time that public safety officers were devoting to dealing with drunk students; the faculty on judicial boards who were dealing with students regarding those alcohol-related incidents; and the amount of time that counseling center staff were spending with these students. We then factored in the losses from the attrition rate of students who left school due to alcohol (nationally seen to be between 10 and 15 percent).

When we looked at the cost of recruiting those students, we found that cost to be about $1.5 million dollars a year that we could save if we didn’t have alcohol issues in 10 percent or less of our students.

From a prevalence perspective, we took the level of high-risk drinking at Frostburg from about 57 percent down to 35 percent, which is roughly the national average.

But the other thing I’m proud of is that, over the course of seven or eight years, the number of Frostburg students who don’t drink at all has risen dramatically. These students and their parents know that the school is now a much safer and healthier environment for them. And there are a lot of families out there looking for those kinds of environments where wellness is valued.

MCQ: What is the most important piece of advice you would give other college presidents?
JG: If I were to suggest to other college presidents what I thought was the most effective intervention, it would be for them to stand up personally and make a commitment. They need to say, “This is going to change and I need you all to know that I will be the person leading that effort.” They need to say, “This matters. I take the trust of our families very seriously and I take the lives of our students very seriously and I’m going to empower you, AOD counselors, and I’m going to empower you, student life directors, and I will be behind you 100 percent.”

This is the most helpful thing a president can do.

MCQ: Do you see presidents stepping up to the task on this?
JG: There are a number of presidents, like Dartmouth’s, who are making this an institutional priority, but not enough of them. Maybe alcohol is very much a part of their culture. Maybe they’re afraid if they talk about it honestly and authentically, they will offend alumni and people will stop giving to the college.

But I would say to them [that] this has not been my experience. When you look at what’s happening around the country — with increasing numbers of students involved in alcohol-related deaths — no one wants that. Everyone wants to make sure kids are safe.

MCQ: Is there a place for moderate drinking in college?

JG: Yes. For example, here at Wells College, we have a pub on campus that serves alcohol to students 21 and older. I think college campuses can be an environment that teaches students to drink responsibly so that they can conduct themselves responsibly after they graduate.

But I think it is just as important for colleges to give students the message that you can have a good time without alcohol. And although we also use AlcoholEdu at Wells, I have not found it necessary to carry over some of the other elements of the Frostburg State approach. It’s an apples-and-oranges situation, and there is no cookie-cutter approach. For starters, Wells is a tenth the size of Frostburg State. It’s a small campus, one where everyone knows each other.

In addition, we only have two off-campus establishments within a mile of campus that serve alcohol. Because of these and other factors, Wells simply doesn’t face many of the same alcohol- and drug-related challenges that a state school like Frostburg does, and thus, our faculty and staff take a different approach that’s a good fit for our small campus.