AURORA | On college campuses across the state, students are moving in and readying for their next academic steps. At Wells College, new president Dr. Jonathan C. Gibralter, 59, also begins the next phase of his 30-year career in higher education.
Gibralter was hired in February to lead the 147-year-old institution and started his new position on July 1. Prior to arriving at Wells, for nine years he served as president of Frostburg State University in Maryland. Previously, he was the president of Farmingdale State College (2001-06), interim president of Corning Community College (2000-01) as well as dean of academic affairs (1998-2000).
He has also served as a dean and faculty member at University of Maryland, Frostburg, Mohawk Valley Community College and SUNY Morrisville.
Gibralter is a member of the board of directors of the American College and University President's Climate Commitment. In June, he received the Senator Harold Hughes Memorial Award from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an organization to which he is deeply committed.
He holds degrees in psychology, counseling, child and family studies as well as in business administration.
Recently, he sat down with The Citizen for an interview.
You have four degrees. The last one, an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland, University College, which you pursued in your mid-50s. Is it ever too late to get an education?
I've been a very strong advocate of online education and the MBA degree that I earned was an online MBA. I never attended a class. I got involved in all kinds of online projects with students all over the world. Because all of the students in the program, I would say, 50 percent of them are deployed military and the other 50 percent are adults working. I also teach online. I teach in the master's of science and management curriculum at UMUC, a course called Intercultural Communication and Leadership. I've taught, for several years, an undergraduate course, Abnormal Psychology, through Empire State College.
So why did I go back to school and decide at this point in my life another degree mattered? A couple reasons: One, a lot of people in my position spend a lot of time standing up and talking about the value of online education, but very few of them have ever taken a course. I felt for me to be able to talk about it intelligently and to fully understand it, and to be credible, I was going to do a whole degree. Secondly, in my position as a president of a college, having a little bit more in-depth knowledge of finance is an important thing. The MBA was very intentional, the focus on finance was very intentional and it was for all of those reasons.
I don't think you're ever too old. I think it's all about life-long learning. I think in life, whether you're working or not, if you always want to be sharp and on your game and knowledgeable it's always good to gain new knowledge. It doesn't have to be going back to school and getting a degree. You should read every day. You should be aware of local and national politics and what's going on in the world. I think that today we live in such a complicated global society that if you think that you're going to go to college and assume that you know it all you're going to be dramatically mistaken. Because most of the young people in college today, the jobs and careers that they one day may occupy, many of them haven't even been created yet. So, knowledge is what's going to help those young people develop their own career path. I think this is probably one of the most exciting and, I dare say, scary times in our history.
In what way do you think your counseling and psychology background serves you today?
Leading an institution is all about people and relationships and my counseling background has helped me to become a very good listener. It's important to me to understand and to meet people where they are and to get a better sense of what makes them tick. As much as I find myself leading an institution, I find myself actually doing a lot of counseling.
As you went through the vetting and interview process, what did you see as a need on the Wells campus?
Back years ago, Wells College had a very solid national reputation as a very fine private liberal arts college. What I perceive to have happened, over the years, is that the college kind of dropped off the face of the earth and people stopped knowing about it. That's not unlike what happened when I went, as president, to Farmingdale and Frostburg. I got there at the lowest point. I got there when enrollment had declined to the lowest point, and when morale was at a low point. I put both of them very much on the map. Enrollment increases that they never had before, fundraising campaigns the likes of which they'd never had before and program approvals that drove more students to the campuses also increasing academic standards for incoming students.
So, Wells College, there's something very special here. I just came from a ceremony where our students signed and honor code. All of our freshmen are required to sign an honor code and it basically says that you will not lie, cheat, steal, conceal. I thought to myself - wow, in a world where there's so much corporate greed and corruption, I thought how cool is it that there are traditions rooted in the history of Wells College that I think make people better people.
Prior to my being here, the board brought in an interim president, Tom DeWitt, and his skill set was in financial management and he righted the finances of Wells College and we're in a good place right now financially. We don't know the final numbers yet, but we're going to have a very solid enrollment this fall. We're looking at about 192 new students this fall. We should be at about 550, maybe a little more than that for the entire enrollment.
There are challenges here. The campus, while incredibly beautiful and historic in nature, has seen an enormous amount of deferred maintenance done in the last two years. The campus has improved dramatically in the last two years and there's a long way to go.
Is there a wish list?
New furniture in the dorms. Kids need new dressers and beds. Some of the buildings need new windows. The air conditioning system in the library has been broken for more than 10 years. Big capital expenditures are things we really have to plan for.
This spring, Wells announced a $2 million upgrade to its athletic complex. How's that going?
There are several parts to the project. First of all, a separate expenditure that was made was to put a new floor installed in the center for the basketball and volleyball courts and it's absolutely gorgeous. We're going to have new bleachers installed in about a month that's going to seat about 1,000.
In addition to that, the final part of the project is the turf field and the addition of two new sports teams — women's softball and men's baseball. Now we're going through the approval process for zoning and environmental issues as with any construction project we're working with the town of Ledyard Planning Board and we hope to have approval in the next few months. We should be ready to go by fall 2016.
Is a four-year liberal arts degree relevant today?
That's a really good question. I think the hard part is explaining to young people why the liberal arts matter. I don't think any college or university in the country does a very good job. When you talk to people, employers and adults, they say 'we need graduates who can write well, who can speak well, who can do advanced computations, who know how to work as a member of a group, who are fiercely creative, who know how to problem solve, who know what's going on in the world' — all skills that are taught in the liberal arts.
If you ask young people if they want to get a degree in the liberal arts, they don't know what you're talking about, that's the disconnect. What we're trying to do now, and what I'm trying to educate people about is how to talk and think about the modern-day liberal arts. At Wells we're in the process right now of creating new academic programs that are more career based. We have, right now, waiting approval in Albany a bachelor of science in business and entrepreneurship. Now, those students who want to specialize in business will be able to get a degree. We're seeking approval for a bachelor's degree in sustainability. We're waiting for approval on a degree in criminal justice and a degree in health sciences. And you might ask why are you doing that you're a liberal arts college, the point is that every one of those programs is rich in the liberal arts. The students who graduate in any one of those areas they need the core content of a business degree, but more than that they need to know how to think.
You are a national leader in on-campus binge drinking awareness and prevention. Why is that an important topic for you?
A week after I started my presidency at Frostburg an older gentleman was walking home from work on Main Street and he happened to walk by an off-campus party and a very drunk young man got into an altercation with him and threw him to the ground and he hit his head on the concrete and he was permanently disabled from it. While I was at Frostburg, I saw too many young people go to the emergency room unconscious. I saw several students end up in situations, not so much that they drank themselves to death, but that they ended up in situations where they ended up dying because they were too drunk to be able mediate their own behavior. This is a national health problem, in my opinion, 1,800 college students drink themselves to death every year. Hundreds of thousands more end up with the effect of something bad happening to them — drunk driving, physical or sexual assault — and if only they had been able to better understand the limits of their own alcohol consumption.
On Sept. 22 the National Institute for NIAAA is putting out a new instrument called the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix, it's called College AIM. I am the chair of the national president's council that has led the development of this instrument and it's going to be one of the best vetted, most user-friendly tool that's been released probably in two or three decades. The knowledge of this coming is really important.
It's a tool for colleges and universities to use. The difficulty level of the intervention, whether it be an individual or systemic level intervention, is about implementing the intervention from low-medium-high difficulty and what the cost of the intervention is. For example, one intervention might be all new freshmen are required to take an online alcohol intervention course. This is a way for people to actually say, all right I'm looking at all of these possible interventions, which one's going to work best in my environment.
Climate change and sustainability is important to you. Why? And what message about those topics do you wish to bring to campus?
I'm one of the founding presidents of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. It's one of the largest collaborative efforts in the country, engaging over 600 colleges and universities representing several million students, every one of them with a greenhouse gas emission plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions down to zero over the next ten years. It's probably the one sector in America today where we've seen the greatest impact.
I don't think you're going to find people more knowledgeable and energized about the environment than young people. And I don't think you'll find a time when it's more necessary for all of us to start to live a more responsible lifestyle.
I think it's one of the most important things we do today is talk about preserving our planet. Honestly, the state of our planet is something that everyone should be scared about. There is no doubt about the science, our planet is warming, the glaciers are melting, species are dying faster than they ever have before and everybody should be concerned.