On Alcohol, Leaders Wanted

September 4, 2008

Frostburg, Md., has absentee landlords like any other college town, and some students rent houses where people party but no one lives. Jonathan C. Gibralter, Frostburg State University’s president, recently passed by one of those shells. “They were literally raking the beer cans out of the living room.”

Gibralter told the tale Wednesday in accepting an inaugural, first-annual Presidential Leadership Award, which honors presidents for "success in promoting a vibrant intellectual and social climate that deemphasizes the role of alcohol." The award presentation at the American Council on Education’s Washington headquarters Wednesday came as the Amethyst Initiative, an official call by many college presidents “to rethink the drinking age,” has attracted significant national attention. So far, 129 college presidents have signed the Amethyst Initiative -- and Gibralter is not one of them. Nor are any of the other 17 presidents who were nominated for the leadership award among the signatories (a retrospective coincidence -- the nomination process predated the Amethyst Initiative's July launch).

There was just a bit of tension in the air when Amethyst came up, as it did, many times, in Wednesday's ceremony. In the audience for the presentation was the chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- which has criticized Amethyst’s supporters for "shirking" their responsibilities regarding underage drinking and recently responded to Amethyst’s message with a coordinated e-mail (or, depending whom you’re asking, spam) campaign.

At the same time, there were overtures Wednesday toward a common purpose for college presidents, whatever their stance on the legal drinking age. Brandon Busteed, founder and CEO of Outside the Classroom, a Boston-based company behind the online alcohol prevention program AlcoholEdu, said that the Amethyst Initiative has primed the public for the bigger debate he wants to be having. And it’s put the pressure on college presidents to step up and face a problem on which, historically, he said, their leadership has been lacking.

“What it does now, it puts presidents, whether they’ve signed this or not, into the limelight about what they’re doing on this issue,” said Busteed, whose company funded half the $50,000 award given Wednesday to Frostburg State’s foundation. The Gordie Foundation, which focuses on young people and alcohol and hazing, funded the other half. Other higher education-oriented organizations behind the award are ACE, the American College Personnel Association, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and the insurance company United Educators.

“The best thing any of us can do right now is seek and showcase presidential leadership on this issue. We’ve got everyone's attention,” Busteed said. “It would be a shame if the debate ended with the drinking age.”

At Frostburg

Thomas L. Bowling, vice president for student and educational services at Frostburg State, in rural Maryland, nominated Gibralter for the honor. “He’s been passionate about communicating to the students that he’s concerned for their safety and welfare,” Bowling said. “He’s also invested and redirected resources to assist those of us in student affairs’ work on this issue. It has not just been public pronouncements, but he has followed those up with resources."

At Frostburg, like at almost any campus, "Some students drink, sometimes to excess, sometimes with tragic consequences," said Gibralter. "We refuse to throw our hands up in exasperation.”

Soon after stepping into Frostburg State’s presidency in 2006, and responding to an alcohol-fueled act of violence, Gibralter published a letter in the student newspaper to announce a “zero tolerance policy. Students under the influence and abusing the university’s alcohol and other drug policies, both on and off campus, will be dealt with through the university’s judicial process with no leniency.” He also announced the formation of a university-wide Alcohol Task Force. It now meets twice a semester and offers recommendations in four areas: Campus and Community, Policy and Procedures, Alternative Programming and Today’s Student.

On campus, the AlcoholEdu course is mandatory for students, Gibralter said, and optional for parents. Off campus, the university has actively built up relationships in its surrounding city, including by increasing the sharing of information with local law enforcement officials (and vice versa). As for the bars and liquor stores that derive much of their livelihood from university students, Gibralter said they're discussing an incentive program to reward local bars that check I.D.'s carefully and refrain from hosting events that would encourage binge drinking. He said he imagined a small ceremony, with a plaque and a newspaper reporter present. “When do bar owners ever get public recognition for their efforts?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Gibralter hoped to dedicate "a significant portion" of the $50,000 Presidential Leadership Award to fund a grant program that would support students' ideas on battling alcohol issues. His nomination packet included a letter from a Frostburg student who first proposed a “SafeRide” program there. Gibralter acknowledged he was originally reluctant, wondering whether such an initiative would endorse drinking. But he ultimately supported the student's plan, including by making university vans available. In his April letter, David Tiscione wrote of Frostburg SafeRide's first semester in place, "We have had nearly 2,000 riders and this could not have happened without Dr. Gibralter's support."

“I want to believe that all this is going to make a difference. And I do believe it’s going to make a difference, but it’s still not going to help me sleep better at night,” said Gibralter. “I do not ever want to call a parent and say, ‘Your son or daughter died because of binge drinking.' ”

He continued, “I declined to sign the Amethyst Initiative and I won’t sign it. I won’t sign it because I don’t believe the drinking age should be lowered.”

Later on, when pressed, Gibralter likened the Initiative to a “head fake,” a move in one direction meant to ultimately take college leaders in another. He wants this conversation to be happening, he said, within the confines of current law.

On Amethyst

“It is not a head fake," insisted John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College. "It’s saying you cannot discuss the alcohol culture on college campuses but place the drinking age out of bounds. You can’t do that, because everything you do on a college campus is really shaped by what this law says.” McCardell is a drafter of the Amethyst Initiative and founder of Choose Responsibility, which promotes considering different policies for alcohol use among 18- to 20-year-olds.

“What I think every signatory president will tell you is under the law they are limited to the abstinence-only message. A president can’t get up and say, 'Drink moderately, drink responsibly, drink occasionally.' The only message, the only weapon, the only tool that you have is abstinence, and that is so clearly not working,” McCardell said in a phone interview.

He did agree that the initiative has brought to the surface “a welter of different views about the alcohol culture on our campuses and what might be responsible for shaping that culture. We can agree or disagree that the drinking age is at the core of that or at the periphery of that or somewhere in between. But I think it’s very safe to say that the American public is not of a single mind on that question, and the dialogue that the presidents' emphatic putting of that question has generated has been for the most part very, very positive."

Still, he didn’t think he’d be invited to the Presidential Leadership Award ceremony anytime soon.

Just before hanging up, he joked, “I probably won’t see you at this award ceremony next year either, but I will talk to you hopefully before then.”

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