NIA Report to the Board of Trustees, October 2016

Monday, September 05, 2016 8:59 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

5 September, 2016

Sean Williams


The NIA has enjoyed a busy spring and summer, as has become the norm over the past few years.  Our Board Members and Branch Representatives kept themselves busy with a string of branch meetings all over the world, and with the regular recruitment of new members.  The “Lifetime Member” category is especially popular, with 47 faculty members so far motivated to put $200 towards supporting the NIA.  Considering the income level of our faculty members, this is an impressive long-term commitment towards involvement with NOLS.  


Faculty ideas and concerns are consistent, with income level and job security always near the top of the list.  Although this is nothing new, I would be remiss in omitting from my report that this feedback is ongoing.  As NIA President, I have put a lot of energy into grasping NOLS’ long-term strategy and budget.  Based on this, and on conversations with EDT members and with you all on the Board,  I feel confident telling faculty members that although major changes in these areas don’t seem likely in the short-term, there may be some hope in the long-term.  Faculty usually seem heartened when they hear this.


With a view to more short-term changes that might make faculty members’ working lives easier, the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, the NIA has had some success helping Staffing and HR to investigate smaller changes and improvements in efficiency that would be good for everyone.  The faculty travel reimbursement process is now easier to understand, and we have seen some motivation to improve the time-frame and documentation requirements for these reimbursements.  Paying for expensive airline tickets in advance is a major financial commitment for many faculty.  Jeff Buchanan has helped in investigating a way to avoid contract domestic faculty having to pay taxes on their travel reimbursements (salaried faculty or those traveling internationally do not have to).  Rocky Mountain Assistant Branch Director Andy Blair and the IT department have looked into improving wifi in the Noble, possibly by taking advantage of HQ’s new direct link to a faster fiber optic system (this seems like a minor detail, until one considers that faculty traveling to work for NOLS, often without a permanent home, depend on the internet to organize their lives and communicate with far-away friends and family, and must do all this while they are not in the field).  The NIA has also donated funds directly to make small improvements around branches, including a bicycle for PNW staff and faculty to make the short ride to town, and a kitchen knife rack, food storage containers, and a bike pump in the Noble.  


Three NIA Board Members enjoyed a productive meeting with Education Director Liz Tuohy about the Training aspect of the current Strategic Plan. We discussed, among other things, the difficulty that faculty often have in seeking out feedback and owning their own need for improvement when job security is such a pressing concern, and when staffing decisions are based more and more on performance rather than seniority.  In short, it can be hard to admit that one is anything less than excellent, and to ask for mentorship and coaching for improvement, when one is afraid that one won’t get another contract if anyone finds out that one made a mistake.  This is especially paradoxical, given that NOLS instructors, as a whole, are passionate about improvement and deeply committed to doing what we do well.  It seems that success in training and in improving faculty performance is tied to faculty members’ feeling that they are supported by the school, including with job security, when they are continuing to grow.  Lack of job security may act as an unintentional inhibitor of good mentor ship and honest communication about work.


The Branding Initiative has been a big topic of discussion for faculty since it was announced at the Faculty Summit.  I am happy to report that faculty, for the most part, are enthusiastic about the results so far.  Faculty understand the need to improve NOLS’ marketing performance.  It is very clear to most instructors that the problems we experience with job security are directly tied to fluctuating and unpredictable enrollment patterns and to the seasonal enrollment differential.  Most faculty understand, as Valerie Nguyen of Wolf and Wilhelmine pointed out in her Faculty Summit presentation, that marketing is not just about “selling ourselves” or convincing students to sign up for courses, but about our own ability to understand our identity and communicate it to the world.  I have heard nothing but good things about W & W’s impression of our identity.  Faculty often used to say that NOLS taught three things: leadership, environmental studies, and outdoor skills.  This maps very well onto W & W’s idea that we “embolden people to step forward into uncertainty” (leadership), and that our values are “the wild” (environmental studies) and “our elite skills” (outdoor skills).  Adopting this language would mean that we have gained a more eloquent, compelling, and precise way of saying what we already sort of knew about ourselves, but couldn’t quite express.  This seems like exactly what we hoped for in a new brand.


Faculty have, in general, a reserved opinion about the new naming conventions and potential new logo; something like, “wait and see, it can’t hurt.”  My impression is that faculty hope to see more come out of NOLS’ willingness to make changes in marketing than the aesthetic and semantic changes proposed thus far, as important as these are and as positive as they seem to be.  Harnessing the potential of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of current and former faculty members might be an important future step.  After all, faculty members have the most in-depth and detailed grasp of what goes on in the field and classroom, and have spent the most time (in many cases, cumulative years of our lives) being immersed in the NOLS experience.  Brainstorming and experimentation in this area, maybe even some risk-taking, seems like a worthwhile investment of resources in the near future.


I am also happy to add that I was personally very impressed, as was everyone who has heard it so far, with W & W’s “bonus” feedback for the school as a whole, and with the administration’s willingness to have this shared openly, in such a schoolwide setting as the Faculty Summit.  I understand that there is a detailed, text version of the eight points of feedback laid out, which I have not seen.  From the oral summary, the most memorable part by far is that we are expert problem-solvers and risk-managers in the field, but basically too comfortable in town.  This resonates deeply for virtually all faculty members, I believe for most branch staff, and for at least some in HQ.  NOLS is certainly a values-based organization, and it feels important for those of us working directly with students that the values we share in the field are echoed in the way NOLS operates as an organization.  Being willing to take risks, make changes, set aggressive goals, and push to meet them is something that any successful NOLS student learns, and that faculty practice every day.  Translating this to a global organization of NOLS’ scale, granted, is not straightforward, but I suppose that is what W & W was trying to get us to think about.  It sounds like the question, for NOLS as a whole and for individuals with their responsibilities within the organization, is, how are we to be emboldened to step forward?


I am looking forward to seeing you all in California in February (or to someone seeing you there, since I will be running for re-election in December).  At that point we will have concluded the first year of our Field Faculty Lifestyle Survey, and I hope to have as much analysis of the results as time and my statistical ability allows.  I am writing this from an internet cafe in Bajawa, Indonesia, on the island of Flores, where Summers and I are having sort of an adventure honeymoon (we got married in August).  Suffice it to say that this is not the best place from which to direct anything, even such a 21st century internet-based organization as the NIA, but I will be home in Vermont (and also in Patagonia) in the fall and looking forward to some details and projects that summer fieldwork, a wedding, and travel have put on the shelf.  


Thanks for all your energy and hard work,


Sean Williams

NIA President

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