Frostburg State tries to burnish its image

University seeks higher enrollment

December 07, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

FROSTBURG -- In the business world they're called "turnaround artists," executives who specialize in restoring flagging companies.

Jonathan C. Gibralter earned such a reputation as president of a small state university on New York's Long Island, where he is credited with "re-branding" a former agriculture school and boosting student enrollment by 25 percent. Now, Maryland's higher education officials hope Gibralter can engineer a similar turnaround at Frostburg State University, where he became president over the summer.

The former teachers college in the coal-mining country of far Western Maryland has been struggling for years to attract students who may be put off by its remote location and reputation as a party school.

But Gibralter, 50, believes Frostburg is poised for recovery. "What I found is an institution that has very strong academic programs, high-quality faculty, and staff who seem to care very deeply about students and their success," he said. "And a university that had been struggling with enrollment over time."

Though undergraduate enrollment is growing statewide, it fell at Frostburg this fall to about 4,250 students, the lowest level in more than 15 years. The state's university system had to lend the campus money this year so it could avoid staff and faculty layoffs.

Meanwhile, the counties from which Frostburg has traditionally drawn, Allegany and Garrett, have struggled with stagnant or falling population as manufacturing companies have moved away and coal resources have been depleted.

"There's a lot of work to do there," said University System of Maryland Chancellor William S. Kirwan. "But I think we found the right leader."

Gibralter said that eventually he would like to add academic programs, such as a graduate program in nursing. But he believes he can go a long way toward his goal of a steady population of 6,000 students, including 5,000 undergraduates, by better marketing the school's strengths. He said he has ruled out lowering admissions standards as a way of boosting enrollment.

A tall, quiet man with a neat mustache and rigid posture, the new president looks more like a stern taskmaster than slick ad man, but he is banking on a major branding campaign to improve the chilly reception the Frostburg name gets from many of the state's prospective freshmen.

At his previous school, Gibralter developed a comprehensive marketing campaign that included changing the name of the institution from SUNY Farmingdale to Farmingdale State, and Gibralter said he is open to a name change here, perhaps to the University of Maryland, Frostburg.

He has appointed the chair of the university's marketing and finance department to lead a marketing and branding task force. Professor Carol Gaumer said the research phase of the branding initiative should be completed by April or May and can then be converted into an advertising campaign.

"Frostburg State University is a really good story that's not being told," Gibralter said. "In the absence of information, some people have developed this view of us as a party school."

The stigma is undeserved, the president believes, and so do many current students.

"They need to end this perception," said political science major Brandon Wade. "It's really not a party school, no more than any other."

Not everyone in the 8,000-population city of Frostburg agrees.

"I think it may be well-deserved," said Lt. Kevin Grove of the Frostburg Police Department, noting popular off-campus fraternity parties as the source of the vast majority of police calls during the school year.

Underscoring Gibralter's challenges, a fresh spate of alcohol-related student violence has dogged the new president during his first semester.

A few weeks after Gibralter's arrival in August, Frostburg resident Steven Buckalew suffered severe head injuries after being assaulted outside a fraternity party by an undergraduate who police believe had been drinking.

More recently, a drunken undergraduate is said to have assaulted a Frostburg police officer, and a student was stabbed outside a party over homecoming weekend.

The fallout from the first attack - vows of "zero tolerance" from Gibralter, a big police raid at an off-campus party soon afterward - threatened to turn student sentiment against the new president. But students and city officials say Gibralter has weathered well this first major test of his presidency, negotiating his town and gown constituencies with messages tailored to mollify each.

In an open letter to the Frostburg community, Gibralter said the school will have no place for students who break the law. But at a campus forum, he offered reassurance that his administration would not seek to make Frostburg a "dry" campus, so long as students behave responsibly.

Though Gibralter's tough talk has made some students wary of him, many also appreciate his open appeals for their help in dealing with the school's long-standing alcohol-abuse issues.

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