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Reports to the Board of Trustees

  • Thursday, October 26, 2017 12:11 PM | Sean Williams

    NOLS Instructor Association Report

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    Spring, the slowest season for NOLS field instructors, has been humming along as usual at the NIA. We have held branch meetings in Patagonia and the Pacific Northwest and a women’s specific meeting at the Rocky Mountain campus, which included discussion of women’s progression to Course Leader and family planning for field instructors. The Annual General Meeting, scheduled for May 15th at the Faculty Summit, will include a presentation of the Lifestyle Survey results (as did the Pacific Northwest meeting).

    The NIA Board has continued to refine and organize our internal operations, spending time this winter organizing a clearer structure, with working groups and lead positions on key tasks, and instituting a regular budgeting process. We have spent considerable energy brainstorming and exploring new avenues for fundraising. Twenty dollars per member per year from 300-odd members does not go a long way in funding the kind of professionalism and productivity needed by the faculty organization for a school of NOLS’ scope. Hopefully the future will lead us to some solution; in the meantime, we will soldier on just as NOLS did for decades, with our strongest assets not located in the bank.

    We are continuing to explore options for another survey in the near future. One idea would focus on compensation received or offered at other outdoor-based organizations, while another is to find a way to use faculty voices to articulate the value of NOLS semesters whose enrollment has recently suffered. Yet another is to gather lessons from successful senior faculty about how to make a NOLS career work, to share with newer instructors in a statistical, rather than anecdotal, form.

    On a similar note, NIA Board member and NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructor Adam Baxter is exploring a pilot version of Morgan Dixon’s “Teach for America idea,” (although he thought of it on his own). The goal would be for NOLS to harness the industry power of its alumnus faculty to provide career assistance outside of NOLS for current instructors. Several contacts in the rock and alpine guiding industry have expressed interest in inviting NOLS faculty to “shadow” their guides or take on other apprentice-type roles, which might lead to a more lucrative and sustainable post-NOLS career for those instructors. Other organizations, which operate primarily in NOLS’ off-season, rely heavily on out-of-work NOLS instructors to staff their courses, and might be eager to establish this relationship more definitively. The NIA may be able to serve as a semi-formal clearinghouse or contact center for these career relationships, helping underemployed instructors to fill the gaps in their schedule and helping senior instructors to successfully leverage their NOLS experience into other careers. As discussed during the NOLS Branding Initiative, both of these outcomes could help expand NOLS’ positive presence on the market by ensuring a steadier supply of satisfied former instructors, the kind who move on from NOLS gracefully and happily and would be more likely to spread the word to potential future students or faculty. As with the NIA Mentorship program, the NIA may actually be in a better position than NOLS to fill this role.

    Finally, as in the past several years, we included a survey of priorities for the NIA to focus on in our 2016 Board elections. Voters ranked seven priorities in order of importance. The most chosen was “Ensuring instructors are represented at all Board of Trustees meetings”, and the third most was “Advocating for a salaried Faculty Chair to represent instructors at the EDT level” (the second most popular was “Championing continued increases to the travel reimbursement”). Inclusion of working faculty at the highest levels of NOLS decision-making is clearly a priority and an area of concern for instructors, and is a core element of the NIA’s philosophy of Faculty Engagement.

    We at the NIA have been working from the ground up to establish better conditions for such an outcome: educating ourselves and faculty members in general about how NOLS works and how and why decisions get made, so that their comments and contributions are better informed, and providing ideas, solutions, advice, and teamwork at the administrative level that is more than just advocacy for the faculty’s “interests”. There has been good success with this at the mid-level of administration (for example, I am on the Faculty Assessment Working Group, which could easily have been organized without a member whose primary role at NOLS is in the field). I believe NOLS is making progress in using the experience and knowledge of the faculty in school-wide leadership. I would be happy to hear any feedback and ideas on how the NIA and myself could be more useful to the Board of Trustees in the future.

    Thanks again for all your hard work, and for your eagerness to listen. I will be at the meetings in Alaska, which has been my NOLS home for thirteen summers, and is quite a special place. Looking forward to seeing you all there!

  • Friday, January 06, 2017 10:25 AM | Sean Williams

    NIA Report

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    January 4, 2017

    This report is devoted entirely to a presentation and very brief analysis of the results of our Field Faculty Lifestyle Survey, conducted from mid January to mid December 2016. As some of you may remember from my report a year ago, we conceived the Lifestyle Survey as a way to gather hard data about the financial, career, and lifestyle choices that NOLS faculty make in order to maintain and build their careers at NOLS. It is often said that working in the field is the best job in the world, in terms of the work itself. Creating the environment for exceptional student experiences, working with passionate, creative, and motivated colleagues, and being part of a truly unique global community makes for an incredible workday, every single day we are on contract. Among the faculty, it is also a truism that working for NOLS is quite difficult in terms of financial realities, job security, and career advancement. Anecdotal evidence and urban legends abound to demonstrate how this is so, and how individual instructors organize their lives with impressive ingenuity, in order to be able to work in the field. Our goal with this survey is to present a statistical picture of these realities. We would like to replace the myths and legends with data, and start to build a picture with numbers of how faculty members support the mission of the school, not just with their work itself, but with their willingness to arrange their lives for what is, by most standards, a very unusual job.

    I present the basic survey responses in the next two pages, followed by a few highlights of data points that I find particularly interesting or surprising. The survey consisted of fourteen questions with multiple-choice answers, covering topics related to seniority and longevity at NOLS, income, job security, career advancement, and housing situation. We have the ability to filter results based on the answer to any one question. I hope to be able to do this in real-time during my presentation, if needed, and am also happy to provide any of this information by email in advance, or to share the data in a spreadsheet form or a Google Forms widget, if anyone wants to pull specific queries themselves. The basic presentation is also available on the NIA website at http://www.nolsinstructorassociation.org/bod/4507050

    I have opinions about every question on the survey, which I will, mostly, refrain from sharing at this point. I am more interested in gathering information, and in hearing the responses and impressions of everyone at this meeting, in order to build a more nuanced and informed opinion for the future. There is some inevitable interpretation even in the form of the questions themselves, and in any analysis, but my goal is to keep this as objective as possible. We at the NIA believe that NOLS needs an accurate, data-driven understanding of the faculty’s experience working for the school, and we offer these survey results as a step towards that.

    Analysis and highlights

    I believe the large sample size for the survey, 41% of faculty, presents a statistically significant picture to represent the body of faculty as a whole. Considering that NOLS faculty work by contract and are not obliged to fill out random surveys when not at work, we were very happy with the response rate, and we received an enormous amount of positive feedback from respondents about the questions themselves and the NIA’s interest in gathering this data. What follows, again, is simply a few highlights that piqued my interest; feel free to make what you will of the data itself, and to take issue with any aspect of my interpretation below.

    First, I am surprised by the large number of respondents with relatively little seniority (about one third had less than 30 field weeks, while measuring by years with the school, 27.1% had less than two years of experience and 52.4% had less than five years of experience). However, since more senior instructors are often offered more contracts, it is probably the case that more courses are worked by a smaller number of more senior instructors; for example, a single question data query reveals that for instructors with less than 15 weeks of experience, 63.5% worked 0-5 weeks last year, while of instructors with 100-150 weeks, 46.7% worked 5-15 weeks, 20% worked 15-25, and 10% worked more than 25 weeks in the last year.

    A large percentage of faculty worked only a few courses per year: 36.9% worked 0-5 weeks, which is one standard month-long course or section or a shorter course, and another 43.2% worked 5-15 weeks. Only 4.2% worked more than 25 weeks per year, leaving only 15.7% to work 15-25 weeks in 2016. Again, statistically, more of the actual courses will be worked by the instructors who work a lot in a single year, or to put it in another way, more student days will be with instructors who work more than a few courses a year than these numbers indicate. Regardless, it is very clear that only a small proportion of NOLS faculty work in the field on anything like a full-time basis, or even on a significant part-time basis.1 This is born out by other responses; for example, 61.9% of respondents report that their current work balance at NOLS is less than 25 weeks per year, plus another job. Only 3.5% work more than 25 weeks per year, and only 0.7% work more than 25 weeks per year and also hold another job. Income statistics present the same picture: 54.9% of respondents receive only 1-25% of their yearly income from NOLS fieldwork, and only 6.9% of respondents earn all of their income from fieldwork.2 86.1% of respondents report that they have more than one job.

    Despite the fact that most instructors work relatively little, and bring in a relatively small proportion of their income from NOLS fieldwork (only 26.3% receive more than 50% of their income from fieldwork), a higher proportion, 41.1%, report NOLS fieldwork as their top work priority, with another 45.3% rating NOLS as their second work priority. It seems that NOLS’ importance in many faculty member’s lives and career priorities significantly outweighs its contribution in terms of amount of work or income. 

    We included several questions about housing, non-job income, and total annual income, in order to build a picture of how other financial arrangements contribute to the yearly maintenance of our “statistical instructor.” Clearly, even making conservative spending choices and willingly adopting a simple lifestyle, a certain amount of money is required to maintain a person throughout the year, and since most faculty members work so little for NOLS, only a small part of that money comes from NOLS in most cases. A common technique among faculty members to reduce spending is to eliminate what, for most households, is the largest yearly expense: housing. Indeed, 38.9% of respondents either lived at NOLS branches, camped, and traveled, or stayed rent-free with friends or family last year. Only 27.3% owned their own home, and of those, rather impressively given the young average age of NOLS instructors, almost a third owned without a mortgage.3


    1  What constitutes “full-time” fieldwork is unclear. Annual Faculty Position instructors must work 25 weeks to qualify for group health insurance at the ¾ time rate. Eligibility for retirement contributions, which begins at 200 weeks in the field, is calculated using a 10-hour workday, which would equate to about 28.5 weeks per year; a more realistic 14 hour workday would equate to 20 weeks per year.

    2  Respondents were asked to consider in-town or Wilderness Medicine work as separate jobs.  13.6% of respondents combine fieldwork with in-town or Wilderness Medicine work, and 8.4% combine both of these with a third job in addition.

    3  This seems to be a little higher than the national average, which itself is boosted significantly by retirees, of whom there were presumably very few in this survey.

    An impressive 56.7% of respondents enjoyed income from non-job sources such as investments, gifts, family support, or living in a rent- and mortgage-free home. This is an especially notable number, considering that this type of income is typically under-reported. While 17.3% of respondents received less than $1,000, 17.6% enjoyed $5,000 - $25,000, and 5.3% benefited from more than $25,000. Even $5,000 is quite significant, considering that the upper levels of attainable income from fieldwork are in the $20,000s or low $30,000s. This combined 22.9% of respondents would likely have an easier time living with an unpredictable income source such as NOLS fieldwork, while still feeling secure and enjoying some of the consumption and spending habits expected by most Americans. They may also have the freedom to avoid committing to other jobs in order to take last-minute NOLS contracts, thereby taking advantage of opportunities and advancing their NOLS careers more rapidly.

    One way or another, an impressive proportion of faculty manage to live on very little money, wherever it comes from: 34.7% have an annual income of $10,000 - $20,000, another 22.9% rely on $20,000 - $30,000, and 7.6% squeak by below the poverty level with less than $10,000. 8.7% are comfortably above $50,000, and 26% are squarely aimed at the middle class, with $30,000 - $50,000.

    The take-home point from these income responses, to me at least, is that our “statistical instructor” is simultaneously creative, willing to make sacrifices, and lucky, in finding the financial support and strategy to make a NOLS career possible. Whether it comes in the form of free housing, no housing, simple living, family wealth, or a lower priority second career that produces more income, all of this constitutes an indirect form of support for the NOLS mission. Our statistical instructor also pulls all this together despite being in a state of some confusion about his or her career: 31.6% report struggling to build a long-term career, and 20.1% report having no idea where their careers are going. The good news is that, adding the struggling 31.6% to the 33.7% who believe their NOLS career is going well and has excellent long-term prospects, and leaving aside the 14.5% who see NOLS fieldwork as only a short-term interest, 65.3% see themselves to be in for the long haul with NOLS. 29% hope to work for NOLS for their entire working life, and another 16% are going for at least another 10 years. However, if the past is any indication, they may change their mind: only 17.7% of respondents reported working for NOLS for more than ten years already, and according to Director of Field Staffing Marco Johnson, only about 20 field faculty out of 694 total, or 2.8%, have worked in the field for more than 25 years.

    These are the points, with, hopefully, a minimum of interpretation, that seem most relevant to me. Please feel free to get in touch if you would like me to pull any specific queries (it only takes a few seconds) or if you would like the data in a spreadsheet, or access to the Google Form in order to make the queries yourself. We are eager to continue the survey in 2017, and I would very much appreciate any feedback. We could change the questions slightly, add new questions, eliminate questions that don’t seem useful, or use a different surveying and data analysis tool. I welcome any suggestions.

    I look forward to seeing you all in San Antonio, and especially to learning from anyone who has more statistical skills and training than me about how to improve this survey in the future and make the data more useful and accessible. Thanks for taking the time to read this longer-than-usual NIA report and for being willing to take a hard look at the numbers.

    Sean Williams



  • 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

  • Tuesday, August 16, 2016 11:23 AM | Sean Williams

    NIA User’s Guide to the June 2016 NOLS Board of Trustees Report

    People of the NIA:

                Here is a short list of highlights from the June Board of Trustees meeting report, held in Park City, Utah.  These notes are based on about three hours of intense reading, and represent my guess of what might be most interesting and relevant to NOLS faculty and staff.   At this point, the NIA is invited to and represented at only the February Board of Trustees meeting.  My hope is to pass along some interesting points and provide a little interpretation of these important documents, to promote the NIA’s goal of Faculty Engagement and make sure we know what the leadership at NOLS is thinking and talking about.  A big focus of the June meeting is the budget for the next fiscal year, so that is the major focus of this report as well.  Paraphrasing of the report is in normal type, my interpretation or explanation is in italics.  The complete report can be found in paper at all branches, usually somewhere in the office, and online at:  http://rendezvous.nols.edu/files/Human_Resources/Board_Reports/4_BOT&RendezvousGenSessOnlyJune2016-reduced.pdf

    -       Sean Williams, NIA President

    Review of the minutes from the February meeting:

    -       Finance report: there was a discussion of reducing NOLS’s savings goal from 3% to 2.5%.  This means that rather than budgeting to save 3% of total revenue in order to build cash reserves and fund very large projects, NOLS would aim to save only 2.5%, i.e. spend a little more each year on all expenses.  The reason would be because we are now cash rich and may not need to continue building reserves at the same rate as in the past, and instead need to fund ongoing priorities like marketing and compensation.

    -       Our very healthy cash reserves (see below) may someday become a “quasi-endowment,” in the form of long-term investments with specific guidelines for when they are to be sold and spend.  This would be to avoid looking cash-rich during the coming new funding campaign.

    -       The trustees discussed some questions about NOLS’s pricing and tuition.  We have documented a slow erosion in students from lower-income households.  We may need a change from cost-based pricing towards more market-based pricing; how does pricing achieve our goals for education and for diversity?  Can we do more to encourage certain demographics to enroll on certain courses with more strategic pricing?  Scholarship availability has dropped 5% for average income students, in order to to prioritize lower-income students.  We need clarity on what socio-economic range we hope to help with scholarships: the lower ranges who would never consider a NOLS course otherwise, or the middle ranges who might find it just barely out of reach.  Marc Randolph encouraged thinking about price elasticity - tuition levels that change as enrollment and time to the course start date changes (like the airlines).

    -       Discussion of the “Pete Calhoun philosophy” (after Trustee Emeritus Pete Calhoun, who was present at this meeting: the 2-9 problem.   Our product is great, a 9/10 or higher, but our national recognition is very poor a 2/10, worse than we deserve. We need to put more resources in to improve this recognition and thus to increase enrollment and be able to be more flexible/creative with tuition and scholarships.

    Finance report

    -       NOLS has good “expense management” - this is the process by which we make realistic budgets and strive to meet them, and make cuts or avoid growth in expenses when necessary.  This feels painful and tedious at times, but has helped us to reach the secure financial position we now enjoy.

    -       Long-term cash trend: NOLS has been in the black since 2006.  Before this time NOLS often operated with nothing in the bank except for student equipment deposits - i.e. if all of the students had chosen to not buy anything in the issue room, NOLS would have not been able to pay its bills.  As of April 2016, we have $11 million in undesignated cash (this means it is technically available to be withdrawn and used for any purpose at any moment, although it’s unlikely we would spend it all in one place), $5.5 million in board-designated savings for program research, meeting our insurance deductible, and in case of a business downturn, and $2 million in short term stock investments, and $5.5 million in a board-designated fund for the purchase of long-term assets (like property and buildings at branches).  In the past two years, NOLS has moved $6.2 million out of its cash reserve, into the endowment, the short term investment above, and the long-term asset reserve, plus paid gain shares.  The point of all this is that NOLS has a lot of cash, and is saving it strategically for clear purposes.

    -       Endowment is at $33 million, which is over a third of our total assets.  It has grown by 50% in four years, ⅔ from gifts and ⅓ from board designations (from NOLS’s income).  The release to operations, now about $1.2 million, is set at 4%of the endowment’s size.  This amount covers about 3% of our operating expenses, and 29% of it is designated for scholarships.

    -       The budget process begins in January, and is based on a Director-level discussion of NOLS’s goals and needs, and projections for enrollment.  As the budget is created, it changes as enrollment predictions change.  It is finalized by the Board of Trustees in June.  The fiscal year begins in September and last through August.  This means, for example, that the 2017 budget, for September 2016 through August 2017, is based on a prediction of revenue from estimates of enrollment made in January 2016 and revised in March and June of 2016, way before most students actually enroll in the courses to be run during that fiscal year.  In short, and as contract NOLS instructors know all too well, it’s hard to make a budget when your income fluctuates unpredictably.

    -       Notes about enrollment for purposes of the budget: the average course length is 3.5 days shorter than in 2013.  This is bad for the budget, as our total income depends more on student days than total student numbers, and our costs per day are higher for shorter courses.  Enrollment is currently not meeting the strategic plan goals of 2% annual growth for summer and 2.5% growth for fall/spring.

    -       Investments made so far toward strategic plan goals: IT, marketing, and Director of Education.

    -       Large project for this year is the Lander Distribution Center.  This will be expensive, but is necessary to free up space in HQ and make the distribution of goods around NOLS globally much more efficient.

    Budget 2017 details:

    -       For Expeditions, Wilderness Medicine, and Custom Education, revenue is budgeted to be about 50% higher than expenses, as it was last year.  Another line item, called “Other program” includes the Risk Management and Education departments, for which revenue is about 50% of expenses, which are $3 million.  $7 million of expenses is “Administration” (this is much of HQ, such as Admissions/Marketing, Finance, the EDT, but not Risk Management or Education, and not branch administration, which falls under the “Operations” line).  Of total revenue, Expeditions are budgeted to bring in $23 million, or 59%, WMI is 16%, Custom Education is 10%, annual giving is 5%, and the endowment release is 3%.  Total Development costs, i.e. fundraising costs, are about 30% of Development” income, i.e. the endowment and annual gifts. 

    -       In the big picture, wherever revenue is higher than expenses, that excess goes to support another area in which revenue is lower than expenses.  The latter areas, such as administration and “program” costs, are areas which are needed for the school to function or to meet its goals, but which do not directly bring in much revenue.  Ideally, these areas operate in a lean and efficient way, just like revenue-producing areas such as branches or WMI, so that the benefits they bring are worth the expense involved.  Excess revenue over the entire year is saved as cash, sent to the endowment or other asset accounts based on a schedule set by the Board, or distributed as gain share (the equivalent of “profit” at NOLS).  Comp is 55% of expenses,  broken down 40/60 in/town vs. field.

    -       The budget proposes that we finish fiscal 2017 with net assets of $81 million.

    Admissions and Marketing

    -       There is a clear trend in semester enrollment, down 10%.  Within that, international semester enrollment is down 36%, domestic is up 15%.  Total student days are down 2.6%, although student numbers are up.

    -       Air service to Riverton will be change from Great Lakes to a charter service called Denver Air Connection - from $99 each way, without TSA or baggage check (allow lots of time to connect in Denver).

    -       NOLS gets several Americorps alums using their Americorps scholarship for courses.  NOLS will match Americorps’ scholarship so that these students will be able to enroll on a semester, not just a short course.


    -       We have achieved a 10% reduction in carbon footprint per student day (including staff travel, not including student travel to course).  Our goal was to achieve an absolute reduction, but our absolute carbon footprint has stayed flat. 

    Students and Studies:

    -       Labor compliance: New federal law to pay overtime to salaried employees earning less than $50,440 was scheduled to take effect in July.  This affects 91% of NOLS middle managers, so these individual’s’ schedules will need to be adjusted to make sure they work less than 40 hours/week most of the time.  This is a logistical problem for NOLS, because our workplace model often requires in-town staff to work more than 40 hours per week, but potentially an advantage if improves work-life balance and retention for these staff.

    -       New research is being conducted, in connection with a graduate student from Yale University about sense of place, and with a University of Utah researcher about whether outcomes for Gateway Partner students are the same as for other students.

    Alumni and Development:

    -       The next major fundraising campaign will probably begin in September.  It will begin with the “quiet phase,” and will later be more clearly defined and enter a phase of more direct fundraising.  The goal may be to raise around $30 million (about the size of the current endowment, or about 40% of NOLS’s total current assets).

  • Friday, February 19, 2016 1:56 PM | Sean Williams

    Report to the NIA from the Board of Trustees meeting

    Delray Beach, Florida, February 12-13 2016

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    This report is meant to serve as an overview of what I found to be the highlights of the Board of Trustees meeting, from an NIA and NOLS faculty perspective.  The formal minutes will be published in the next official Board of Trustees report, compiled by Kathy Dunham and published around the time of the June Board of Trustees meeting.  As usual, I attended the Students and Studies Committee meeting and the Staff Committee, so I have no report from the Risk Management, Marketing, Alumni/Development, or Finance Committees, as they run concurrently, or from the Governance Committee, which concerns governance of the Board itself and is attended only by the Trustees and John Gans.  

    The Students and Studies Committee meeting was very well-attended by about half of the Trustees, and included several topics that are important to instructors, including the work of the new Education Department, the challenge of ongoing (post-IC) training for NOLS faculty, and the idea of staff retention as an overarching strategy.  NOLS education director Liz Tuohy first presented the recent work of her new department.  Trustee Emeritus Pete Calhoun pointed out, quite insistently, that NOLS already does a very good job of “education,” as evidenced by the consistently high level of student satisfaction we produce, apparently an average 9.2 out of 10 on Course Quality Surveys. We fail abysmally, however at broadcasting that success record to the world at large.  His point was that we should be putting even more energy into marketing, since education is already a strong point at NOLS.  Liz, Scott Robertson, and a few current Trustees argued that the work of the Education Department is to better articulate, understand, and communicate what we are already doing well, and that this effort of better school-wide self-conception should actually help in our marketing efforts.

    Liz then solicited input from the Trustees about how to effectively train current faculty to integrate the ideas and offerings from her Department.  She pointed out that NOLS’ Instructor Course is the envy of the industry for the depth of training it provides before the new instructor starts work, but that we have relatively little ongoing training for current instructors, aside from a few hours in each briefing period and various optional seminars.  However, we have consistently very good results from a model which basically trusts CLs and senior faculty to informally mentor newer staff and each other on each course, with relatively minimal guidance at the program and school-wide level.  This works well in general, but occasional training gaps are a concern.  The philosophical question is whether to continue trusting this model while trying to fill the small gaps, or to re-invent the model in some way that would include more ongoing formal training for NOLS instructors.  It was pointed out that institutionalizing more formal training would probably require paying instructors for the increase in training days.  Chairman Emeritus Michael Schmertzler made a strong case against being too heavy-handed in pushing new training and expectations on senior staff, who usually have a high opinion of their own teaching effectiveness and skill at their jobs.  “Training” for senior staff, he said, needs to be in the form of gentle mentorship or the transference of ideas for people to get excited about, rather than lists of new expectations and without direct ties to assessment.

    The topic then came up that the current model for ongoing training, of relying on the mentorship that happens in the field, requires the maintenance of a pool of senior staff and would thus benefit from improvements in staff retention.  Trustee Annie Morita, who has just joined the Board and works for Dreamworks Animation in California, gave an enthusiastic overview of the success of her company at making staff retention an overarching goal that served to unite the organization and create an exceptional level of staff loyalty and longevity.  She emphasized that this was not the result of a few separate policies, but an integrated strategic approach.  It involved attention to quality of life for staff, mobility within the company to maintain engagement and novelty, positive mentorship and training to make staff feel valued even when they had not performed as well as hoped, as well as a commitment to providing the best compensation in their industry.  Trustee Ethan Meers pointed out that in his field of investment banking, providing newer employees with a clear possible route to the top of the business is a key motivating factor, and that NOLS might do well to make career possibilities more clear to faculty and staff.

    The Staff Committee meeting was very small, with only two Trustees and four staff members, but this provided space for honest and engaging discussion.  Progress on the Morehead Survey recommendations was discussed, including in-town staff Merit Pay, as was a planned 1.6% compensation increase for next year, and the problem of providing competitive compensation for NOLS’ IT department.  This is apparently a persistent problem, as several of our Strategic Goals rely on major improvements in IT.  Young programmers tend to come to work for NOLS, benefit from a few months of training and practice, then leave for much higher-paying jobs in the for-profit sector.  

    There was also some discussion of progress on the US Instructor-in-Training program, and staff diversity goals in general.  Trustee Morgan Dixon pointed out that our diversity goals should include socio-economic diversity, not just racial and ethnic diversity.  She was very clear that in her mind, the very low job security available for most NOLS faculty is a huge barrier to improvements in staff diversity.  This gave rise to an interesting discussion of her experience at Teach for America, which employs teachers for only two years, and then puts enormous resources into career assistance after their teachers finish working there.  This has contributed to a situation where Teach for America now has tens of thousands of “alumni teachers” cheering it on, providing marketing and guidance, and actively changing mainstream education in America through the positions of power they’ve reached outside of Teach for America.  She wondered if NOLS could learn from this “distribution” model: rather than recruit, train, and attempt to retain staff, we might also actively “distribute” former instructors to take on important positions in alternative education and in the outdoors.  This would both cement NOLS’ place as a leader in the field, improve marketing, and provide prospects of jobs and careers to instructors, which NOLS is not able to provide enough of on its own.  There was good discussion of how such a model would have to be vastly adapted to function at NOLS, as retention beyond 2 years will always be our goal.  From the faculty perspective, where job security is such a huge concern and where “what to do after NOLS” is often an unsettling question, this was an inspiring idea, and a great example of the creative and outside-the-box thinking that the Trustees are able to provide.

    The Board meeting itself, in which all the Trustees and staff sit around a huge table and comment on presentations given by Committee heads, was also full of interesting tidbits and intelligent discussion.  Here are a few highlights:  the branding engagement with the Wolf and Wilhelmein firm, which will cost $250,000, was discussed, and it seems clear that this firm was the obvious choice among its competitors for the attention they gave to NOLS, the commitment they seemed to express, and also the youth and creativity of its partners.  This seems like a lot of money, but it represents a strategic investment in NOLS’ future, to help solve the problem of flat enrollment and help us better communicate the value of a NOLS course to the wider world.  If it works, it will be worth it.  

    There was a vigorous discussion of NOLS’ scholarship systems and diversity goals, a topic to which the Trustees are passionately committed.  Trustee Don Kendall has been crunching data to show a history of student’s household income based on their home ZIP code, which unfortunately shows a slow but steady concentration at the upper income ZIP codes, and an erosion of students from lower-income ZIP codes.  This should be a “yellow flag,” i.e. a slow trend that needs attention in the long run, either through better scholarships or changes in NOLS’ pricing structure.  There was also a discussion of the philosophy around scholarships: are they meant to raise the numbers of very low-income students, who couldn’t dream of a NOLS course otherwise, or also to raise the numbers of middle-income students, to whom a NOLS course is barely out of reach?  We don’t seem to have a consistent strategy on this.  Course pricing strategy was also discussed: will we ever move toward dynamic pricing, like the airlines, i.e. charging more for close to full courses, and offering discounts for far-in-advance enrollment, unpopular courses, or last-minute holes?  This would increase revenue from students able to afford whatever they wanted, and increase availability of lower-cost courses for students who could be more flexible. Or, could we have a sliding tuition scale, or much higher tuition combined with much larger and more widely available scholarships?  There was no consistent opinion on these questions.

    Ten minutes were allotted for the NIA presentation.  I gave a brief overview of the NIA’s record-setting membership and last year’s activities, and of our efforts to set up a Mentorship program, which have seen great success in gathering Mentors, but little success in motivating potential mentees to contact them (see http://www.nolsinstructorassociation.org/Mentors).  I offered support to any big ideas to improve job security for instructors, and raised Morgan Dixon’s Teach for America idea (which had already been discussed in the General Meeting) as an example.  I also outlined a suggestion for a potential Faculty Chair position, which has been a popular topic in NIA meetings, emphasizing the need for independence from the NOLS hierarchy and lots of field time for such a person to convincingly represent faculty.  Finally I shared the NIA’s goals in our Lifestyle Survey (http://www.nolsinstructorassociation.org/Surveys), which seemed to be supported by the Trustees and the EDT.

    Even more than before, I was impressed with the Trustees’ intelligence, hard work, and commitment to NOLS.  I am more and more convinced that they provide an absolutely essential roll at NOLS, of big picture, strategic thinking that is creative and informed by their varied and impressive experiences.  They come up with ideas that would be unlikely to arise from within NOLS.  They also work very hard, and are really nice and fun to talk to.

    Thanks for reading this far, and for caring about the leadership work being done in this part of the NOLS family.  Feel free to address questions or comments to sean_williams@nols.edu.  

  • Monday, February 08, 2016 9:24 AM | Sean Williams

    Report from the NIA

    To the Board of Trustees

    Delray Beach, Florida, February 12-13, 2016

    As we move into 2016, the NIA’s membership is still breaking records at 358, including 39 lifetime members, plus a whopping 613 Facebook members (which is open to non-members and in-town staff). 23 WMI-only instructors, those who do not work in the field at all, have also chosen to become members, which is very encouraging given that most WMI instructors have never heard of the NIA and often feel quite separate from NOLS as a whole. We also have 20 “cross-over” members, those who work in the field and for WMI. In 2015 we hosted 14 Branch Meetings in Patagonia, Mexico, the Southwest, Vernal, Three Peaks Ranch, New Zealand, NOLS Northeast, Alaska, the Teton Valley, the Rocky Mountain, and the Pacific Northwest Branches, which were each attended by 10-40 people, including NIA members, field staff, and in-town staff.  We also held our General Meeting, as usual in Lander at the Faculty Summit, with 50+ attendees. Between these meetings, our growing membership, the discussions on our website and Facebook activity, and the interactions of our members and Board Members with the NOLS community at large, we believe we are doing a better job than ever of providing independent representation of NOLS faculty to the NOLS administration and to the Board of Trustees.

    Interestingly, we have noted a high level of desire, and even an expectation, on the part of NOLS branch in-town staff that do not work in the field at all, that the NIA work to gather their input and represent their ideas and needs as well. Branch in-town staff do not have any organization comparable to the NIA. Given that they are typically more attached to one branch and much less mobile than most field instructors, and also may have a shorter tenure at NOLS in many cases, it is hard to imagine an “in-town NIA” being formed. In a way this kind of representation is easy and feels quite natural for us to provide. Field instructors work very closely with branch in-town staff and rely on their direct support for their courses, and often also live, work, and play with them at NOLS branches for much of the year, so the connection is strong. Many faculty, especially as they gain seniority, have a well-developed sense of branch in-town concerns. We have been raising this question at meetings and online, and it seems that faculty overwhelmingly support the NIA taking a leadership role in the representation of branch in-town staff.

    Branch Meetings and other discussions over the course of 2015 included many conversations about ways to streamline the process of reimbursements for travel to get to work. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small administrative detail that causes too much frustration. Bearing a portion of one’s travel costs is a burden on many instructors and can be a deterrent to work: the goal of the school’s travel plan is for travel stipends to cover 70% of the average cost to get to each branch, while our ongoing Travel Survey shows a 50% average of costs actually covered. Given the global reach of NOLS locations, the costs borne by the faculty member can often be a significant percentage of one’s income, so the increased frustration when the reimbursement is difficult to access seems understandable. Much of the current discussion revolves around a felt need for the process of reimbursement to be faster, and to have a simpler, more consistent, and more electronic-friendly documentation system, in addition to the long-standing and more distant goal of someday covering more of the actual costs of travel. On the advice of a NOLS Advisory Council mmittee member, I did some preliminary research into a program called Expensify, and passed this on to Marco Johnson.

    Another exciting idea, which we mentioned briefly in our last report, is a “semi-annual” faculty position, which would offer a mutual guarantee, between a faculty member and NOLS Staffing, of a part-time yearly work commitment, perhaps 12 or 15 weeks. The current AFP system, which involves a commitment of 25 or 33 weeks, only includes 18 positions (out of 600+ instructors). Job security on NOLS’s contract work system is a huge concern for many faculty members, both for new instructors and increasingly for quite senior instructors, and an enormous number of faculty members do not want to work 25-30 weeks in the field a year. Expanding the circle of faculty members who feel that NOLS can reliably commit to providing them a predictable amount of work, even if it is a smaller amount, would certainly increase the sense of support and commitment to them felt by the faculty. We hope to hear more about the future of this idea after the Staffing Office discusses the AFP program in early February.

    Instructors have also been discussing an unfulfilled item from the last Strategic Plan: the eventual creation of a Faculty Chair position. There is an enormous amount of excitement about this idea among the faculty. A rough vision that, based on recent discussion, would enjoy faculty support might look something like this: a senior faculty member who works approximately half time in the field and half in Lander, with a dual role, of representing faculty in planning and decision-making processes at NOLS HQ, and of to providing mentorship for working faculty from a non-interested position.  This last point seems important - mentorship that would be purely for the benefit of the faculty member, and would come purely from the Chair’s experience, rather than partly from the needs and goals of an administrator’s current work portfolio. Such a position could potentially meet several goals that the NIA has been raising for a few years, including Faculty Engagement and Mentorship. It could provide a valuable “Pure Faculty” input at NOLS HQ, and could offer instructors a single, clear source of mentorship and leadership.  One obvious question is, who would supervise this person, and how might they simultaneously retain an independent role as a faculty representative, and fit into the NOLS administrative hierarchy? To faculty, it seems important that they spend a significant portion of their year in the field, and feel independent enough to genuinely advocate on behalf of instructors.  Whatever the difficulties may be, such a person could help provide a sense of connection between faculty members and NOLS HQ, and a sense that the ideas and concerns of working faculty are well represented in the beating heart of the school’s major planning and decision-making.

    Meanwhile, the next major step for the NIA, beyond continuing to consolidate and expand our membership base and keeping our meetings and operations running at or beyond the level of the past two years, is to enter further into the world of Big Data (or maybe just Medium Data). We are very interested in using expanding our use of surveys to provide a quantitative aspect to our already-rich qualitative offering of faculty input and ideas. Beyond Branch Meeting notes, we want numbers. We’ve made some small efforts in this direction with the Travel Survey over the last few years and the International Compensation Survey last year, and we’ve included a survey in each of the last two NIA Board elections, seeking input on what members want from the NIA. By the time we meet in February, we will have launched the “NIA Lifestyle Survey,” whose goal is to gather in-depth information on questions about income, job security, living situation, career goals, and socio-economic background from instructors. We are planning to keep the survey open for a full year, to advertise it heavily, and to incentivize it with a prize drawing, in the hopes of getting enough responses to be statistically significant. Hopefully at the end of 2016 we will have some quantitative information about how NOLS faculty make it all work, balancing NOLS field work with the rest of life. Watch this space.

    Thank you for all that you do for NOLS. Having now been on a Board myself for two years, I know that it is a lot of work, and that it is all done from a deep sense of commitment to what NOLS does. I am looking forward both to hearing your feedback on all these ideas, and to hearing what you all are thinking about and working on to lead the school.

  • Tuesday, December 08, 2015 2:11 PM | Summers Eatmon (Administrator)

    NIA Report

    Summers Eatmon, Secretary, NOLS Instructor Association

    October 2015

    The past few months have been record breaking not only for NOLS as a whole but also for the NOLS Instructor Association (NIA). As of September 14th we stand strong with 350 members, including 35 lifetime members. We upgraded our online payment system over the summer. Sixty-two supporters are now enrolled to have their membership and dues renewed automatically each year. We will also be holding our first membership drive at the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) Staff Meeting this September 17-18th. NIA Board Members and WMI Instructors, Tim Dorsey and Dave Durant, together with Allie Maloney the NIA Visibility Director will be attending the event and educating WMI instructors on the mission of the NIA.

    Branch meetings were conducted at nearly every location that operated during the Boreal Summer months. The total number of people who attended NIA branch meetings exceeded 220 this fiscal year. The process for branch representatives has been streamlined by creating a standardized system for recording notes. These notes are then distributed via the NIA website. Instructors and staff have reported utilizing this resource to learn about our meeting discussions and the rest of the NOLS community. Recently administrative and in-town staff have been participating in the dialog at many meetings. These interactions are a benefit to instructors whose questions can be answered promptly and it allows faculty and staff to hear about school issues from the other side of the desk.

    The NIA has been focusing the majority of our efforts this past year on what we are calling “The Big Three of 2015.” Travel reimbursements, mentorship and faculty engagement in decision-making. These topics are consistent themes of concern within the instructor pool.

    We are gathering information from both faculty and staff to increase knowledge of the legalities of travel reimbursements. We also want to have a better understanding of how travel compensation affects instructors. We know that instructors often have to make major decisions about when and where they work for NOLS. Sometimes these decisions are based off the costs of traveling to work. The NIA wants to encourage NOLS to look into developing an electronic travel reimbursement system. This could reduce stress upon staff and instructors and decrease delayed payments. I was asked by the NOLS Pro Finance Manager to collaborate and help streamline the NOLS Pro Travel Expense Journal system. Changes made help to clarify the forms and expectations for faculty wishing to receive travel reimbursement for NOLS Pro contracts.

    The NIA Mentorship Program was officially launched in May. Anyone can view and contact the available mentors at nolsinstructorassociation.org. A representative from the staffing office informed Instructor Course graduates this year about the mentorship program. The spectrum of expertise of mentors spans from senior instructors and branch staff to people who have found success working outside of NOLS while still remaining a part-time instructor. The program is run on a volunteer basis to offer guidance not just for new instructors but also for people looking to move in other directions at the school or for help incorporating new career paths into their lives as a NOLS instructor.

    Staffing Director Marco Johnson invited the NIA to assemble a panel of ten instructors, member or non-members, to discuss the Morehead Survey on May 20th. Ten instructors were able to partake in the discussion of three main agenda items that did not overlap directly with any other Morehead Committees. Instructor job security, faculty representation and engagement in school wide decision-making, and the travel plan were considered.

    Job security is a concern that seems to have no easy answers. Most instructors have to wait multiple years before receiving enough NOLS work to support themselves year-round. The discrepancy of need varies year round, the peak this summer was about 348 people in the field on a single day versus the predicted 150 that will be in the field during the fall season peak in late October. An idea discussed related to this was the creation of a Semi-Annual Faculty position, with less guaranteed field weeks and less or no benefits compared to the full Annual Faculty position.  

    Marco asked if we would support capping the number of courses that run mid-summer, in order to create a more even distribution of work throughout the year, or at least to arrest the growing inequality between summer and off-season. We did not reach consensus on this question. We discussed utilizing new course types and running more short courses that are becoming available on a regular basis. This can help more people get a single contract, but does not necessarily increase any one instructor’s job security. Running college-age courses during winter and spring breaks might help to increase contracts available in the off-season.

    We discussed career development and progression from Patrol Leader to Course Leader. The standards seem to be inconsistent from branch to branch and between program supervisors. We would like to see more program supervisors who have had ample training to help facilitate course planning and career development. The NIA feels strongly that program supervisors can contribute a lot to the success of a course. The frequent turnover of these positions, potentially related to wages, and a lack of continuity can be a detriment for instructor teams. Having a well-run briefing can mean the difference between low and exceptional student outcomes.

    It was also mentioned that there is a precedent set that instructors can be paid for time spent working on advisory committees much like the Morehead panel held by Marco. This occurred during the Bear Protocols Committee after the 2011 bear incident. Increasing instructor ability to be involved in the conversation goes a long way in helping instructors feel appreciated and devoted to better outcomes, growth and the overall stability of the school.

    The panel participants agreed that the required number of field weeks needed to qualify for a travel reimbursement for the Faculty Summit should be eliminated or lowered.  The consensus was that the current policy discourages attendance. Newer instructors often do not qualify for reimbursement. While these instructors stand to benefit the most from attending.

    We would like to express appreciation for the increase in the maximum travel reimbursement amount that began as of September 1, 2015. During the panel discussion in May it was proposed that one way to increase funding for travel was by diverting funds used for the gain share. We could use these funds to establish an endowment out of which future travel expenses could be paid. Sean Williams and John Gans met in August and discussed the possibility of doing more research on this alternative. Thus far there are no set plans to move forward on a research project.

    I would like to personally thank you for serving on the Board of Trustees.  I look forward to introducing myself to you at this month’s meeting and to celebrating the 50th Anniversary of NOLS. The school has held a place in my family’s history for nearly 45 years. I am the daughter of a Wind River Wilderness course graduate from 1971, in total three members of my family have graduated from six different courses. I came to the school first as a student in 2004 and have since worked and visited branches around the globe. NOLS continues to be an amazing place to work and grow personally and professionally. I look forward to continuing my work at the NIA and engaging with the Board of Trustees and Executive Director team to create even greater success for NOLS and its instructors.

  • Thursday, June 11, 2015 12:14 AM | Summers Eatmon (Administrator)


    NIA Report to the Board of Trustees

    June 10-11, Jackson, Wyoming

    Sean Williams

        The past five months have been a busy time at the NIA.  The day before this report is due (May 17), we hit 300 members, including 33 lifetime members, with a strong increase in membership coming after the Faculty Summit (not to mention 517 Facebook members).  Branch meetings are continuing at the same high pace, including spring meetings at the Teton Valley, Mexico, India, Southwest, and New Zealand branches, as well as the Rocky Mountain River twig in Vernal.  We held our Annual Meeting in Lander on May 3rd, with 48 attendees, who offered a range of ideas, concerns, enthusiasms, and feedback for the NIA and for NOLS as a whole.  In general there is a high level of excitement and enthusiasm among faculty about the NIA, and a high level of willingness to get involved.

        Aside from membership successes, our most exciting news concerns our goal of increasing faculty engagement in the school’s decision-making processes.  Emphasizing the NIA’s strength and unique position as a communication pathway between 800+ instructors and the school’s leadership seems to have born fruit, as we have been invited to participate in two major information gathering processes, the Systems and Services Optimization Audit and the Morehead Survey Committee.  For the Audit, we created an innovative and inclusive process for answering the questions posed, in which the NIA Board formulated provisional answers, posted them on the NIA website in a forum where members could comment, then reformulated the final answers based on members’ comments.  In addition to providing input for the Audit from by far the largest “work group” at NOLS (field faculty), this relatively public communication process spurred several branch administrators to contact us to discuss the concerns raised by faculty in the forum.  The issues receiving the most input from members, and the most concern from branch administrators who contacted us, involved the Staff Performance Evaluation process, its impact on faculty members’ job security and re-hiring, and a high level of fear and uncertainty about how to get consistent work and what information or impressions influence the decisions of the Staffing Office.  Faculty expressed serious reservations about the accuracy and quality of SPE’s, given their increasing importance in faculty supervision and staffing decisions.  Meanwhile, the program supervisor community hopes to improve the SPE process and to use it as an effective tool to prioritize high performing instructors over those with consistent serious problems.  This is a question that might be resolved over years, not months, as the SPE and staffing processes evolve.

        The NIA was also asked by Field Staffing Director Marco Johnson to provide ten faculty members for a faculty-specific committee that will discuss the results of the Morehead Survey, on May 20.  This represents significant progress in faculty engagement, as last year’s Morehead Survey Committee included only one person whose primary role at NOLS was in the field.  Although it was challenging to produce ten people who could spend a full day in Lander, unpaid, to contribute to this committee, we were able to gather a group thanks to Marco’s flexibility in including a few members by phone conference.   As you probably know, the Morehead Survey is considered a very important tool in evaluating NOLS’ ongoing success and future improvement at providing a high quality workplace with engaged and satisfied staff, so we are happy to support this process by providing working faculty members to discuss and interpret the survey’s results.  The agenda items for the meeting are: budget-neutral ways to improve the travel system, mentorship and skill-based gatherings and training, creative ways to get year-round work, and faculty engagement in school decision-making.

        A major success for the NIA and for Indian, Chilean, and Brazilian faculty members was the Compensation Task Force’s announcement of planned changes to international pay scales.  The new system, of pay scales based on a conversion to local currency from the US pay scale, to be set yearly based on the previous year’s exchange-rate average (with the maintenance of higher pay scales in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and Canada for legal and competitiveness reasons) is virtually identical to the solution overwhelmingly supported by the international faculty affected.  We worked hard to educate international faculty about the complex decision-making undertaken by the CTF and to mobilize faculty to offer consistent, well-reasoned ideas for a solution.  Although we don’t know exactly what role the NIA’s or faculty members’ input played in the CTF’s decision-making process, we applaud their willingness to respond to faculty members’ desires and to trust our ability to support this system over the long-term.  Much of the administrative skepticism regarding this solution was based on the fact that NOLS abandoned a similar system in the past, when inflation caused instructors’ local income, at that time simply converted from US dollars, to drop dramatically.  Responding to the CTF’s concern that non-US faculty will simply complain again in the future when their local income goes down as the dollar weakens, the NIA has committed to continue working with international faculty to educate them on the eventual ups-and-downs of the new system, so that they are prepared and not surprised at this eventuality, and are aware of the history behind the new pay scale strategy.  

        As I mentioned to you all when we met in January, one of our goals at the NIA is to support NOLS as a whole by using the strength of faculty to fill gaps or play roles that for one reason or another are underserved by the NOLS organizational structure.  Our biggest recent move in this area, and the one I am personally most excited about, is the NIA’s creation of a Faculty Mentor program.  Noting a commonly perceived “mentorship gap” at NOLS, in which newer faculty receive short-term guidance from their co-instructors, and some long-term oversight from Staffing and Program departments, but lack long-term, personalized mentor relationships as they build their careers, we have gathered a select group of senior faculty who are willing to be available, on a volunteer basis, to fill this gap.  The Staffing Office is going to advertise this service to Instructor Course graduates and to others who have only worked a few courses.  We hope that these new faculty will call or meet in person with our Faculty Mentors, at minimum for advice in the moment, but hopefully to build long-term relationships with someone who has the experience and perspective to guide and support their career over time.  We hope to see this process begin in earnest as ICs come out of the field, around the time of the Board of Trustees meeting.

    Finally, and unsurprisingly, there is great sadness among Brazilian instructors, and those of other nationalities who worked in Brazil, about the closure of NOLS Amazon.  There is also some confusion about the decision-making process that led to the closure.  I received a long, thoughtful, and well-argued letter, signed by 20+ Brazilian and other faculty members and circulated to the EDT and several other members of NOLS HQ, articulating a long list of financial, strategic, ethical, and legacy-oriented reasons to keep NOLS Amazon open.  I have no informed opinion on the closure, and I don’t know of any consistent opinion among non-Brazilian faculty.  Leaving aside the merits of the decision, and recognizing that it is permanent and that the closure is already in process, this letter struck me as a great example of a large and committed group of faculty members working to contribute to a major school decision in an informed, thoughtful, balanced, respectful, and in this case unsolicited way.  However, it came too late.  I can only guess that the faculty members who signed the letter were surprised by the decision, but hoped that their ideas might turn it around at the last minute.  This left me wondering how, again without remarking on the merits of this decision in particular, faculty input of this quality can be invited and cultivated on school decisions, especially those that are momentous and often emotional, in a timely and inclusive manner.  Regardless of the outcome of any decision, faculty will feel more engaged, more supported, and eventually more supportive of the NOLS mission as a whole when they feel their ideas on any issue have been invited, considered, and included.  


    I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it to Jackson, I will be wandering around on some glacier in Alaska, or crashing through the bushes to get to it, at the time of your meeting.  If you need anything from me, I am available by phone and email until I go into the field.  I look forward to seeing you all at the 50th Anniversary celebration in October.

    Sean Williams

    President, NOLS Instructor Association

  • Sunday, February 01, 2015 8:54 PM | Sean Williams

    This report is longer than I’d like, but a lot goes on in 24 hours here, so you should read it.  I’ve tried to focus on things that are relevant to faculty, as well as on the input I provided, so that you can give me feedback on it.  It includes notes on what happened, and my responses to a few topics.  Feel free to get in touch with me (sean_williams@nols.edu) if you want more details on anything, because this stuff is fascinating.

    First of all, the Trustees are incredibly intelligent, articulate, quick-thinking, and committed to NOLS, and are also just very nice.  I felt very welcomed, and they seemed equally interested in hearing about the life of a field instructor and in soliciting my input on issues they were dealing with.  As a group they seem very well-balanced in terms of skills in different areas that are of use to NOLS.  They had an impressive grasp of what a NOLS course in the field is really about and what our impact on students is.  I think we are very lucky to have these people in this leadership position.

    The first day of the meeting was broken up into two sessions with three committees each, so I had to choose which committees to attend.  I went to “Students and Studies” and “Staff”.  The Students and Studies Committee took a lot of its time giving feedback on a Strategic Plan initiative, led by Scott Robertson, on aligning course descriptions, evaluations, and real learning outcomes across the school.  Part of this was an attempt to decide whether the core of a NOLS course, including WMI courses, is made of three things: Leadership, Outdoor Skills, and Environmental Studies, or whether Risk Management or Wilderness Medicine should also be included as separate and equal cores, rather than subsumed under one of the other three.  This might seem a bit semantic, but I was impressed with the committee members’ grasp of what it is we do in the field, and of how the ways we frame and talk about what we do might produce changes, intentional or unintentional, in the future.  I was happy to be able to contribute a field perspective on this question. 

    They also discussed the new Director of Education position, which is to be a single, over-arching point person for all educational questions at the school, on a par with Drew Leemon for risk management.  Apparently the drive for this has come from surveys of faculty and branch staff, who have asked for a single person to go to with all their questions.  The idea is to have someone very much like Drew, who won’t decide themselves about every educational aspect of a course, but will provide a sort of clearinghouse, oversee other hand-picked individuals for certain topics, and work on consistency between courses, all while supporting and cultivating instructor judgment, natural differences between course types, and change over time.  Sounds like a hard job.  The smartest thing I heard about this position is that the person chosen should “help us deliver on what we already know works well.”

    My next move was to the Staff Committee, where we dived head-first into the old NIA favorite, compensation.  First of all we heard from Deborah Nunnink about the progress of the International Compensation Committee, which I am going to write about in a separate email to NIA members, because it has been such a major topic for the NIA and for instructors in Brazil, India, and Chile, and I really want them to take the time to read about it.  After that, we heard about plans to prioritize rises in in-town compensation, which is in-line with feedback given by the NIA and by many faculty for some time, as field instructors have benefited from much bigger increases in the past seven or eight years, and in-town turnover is very high.  We also heard about a new in-town merit pay system, as well as more details on the end of the part-time health insurance reimbursement due to the Affordable Care Act.  I was able to report that this change has affected faculty very unevenly, since some people’s insurance has risen while others has decreased, and that while we appreciate re-directing these funds to travel in order to help all instructors, the impact of the change has been uneven throughout the instructor pool.  It appears that part-time, contract-based employees cannot legally be included under a group health-plan, since the laws are written for more traditional hiring systems.  I did get the impression that Human Resources has worked very hard to solve this problem on our behalf, even though they weren’t successful in the end.  They seemed very discouraged about it.

    Two Trustees on the Committee were very concerned about our continued small compensation increases, which have been near or slightly above inflation for five years or so.  They were specifically concerned about this in combination with our slow tuition increases, planned for 2% this year.  David Cohen was concerned with “pricing ourselves out of our market,” while Morgan Dixon was worried about the impact of our high tuition on student diversity.  I was struck by the ease with which Trustees can think of compensation as a simple labor cost, to be compared with other operational costs like buying buildings.  In this case, it led to thinking of faculty and students as competing for money (either we raise tuition and impact students, or keep compensation low and impact faculty).  Given that we, as faculty, live and work with students, often on a very real emotional and interpersonal level, I think we don’t want to present ourselves as hoping to gain, in any way, from students’ loss, for instance from transferring higher tuition costs to compensation increases.  I think we should show our support, however we can, for addressing the tuition problem through scholarships, and the compensation problem through other efficiencies at the school, or, eventually, the endowment.  Plus, I like students and I want more diverse students to benefit from NOLS, so I don’t want to compete with them.

    On this note, most of the committee members were very surprised to learn that 60% of NOLS’ compensation costs go to headquarters and branch staff, while only 40% go to faculty.  Morgan Dixon described this as outrageous in comparison with traditional schools, but the EDT members present made the good point that we enjoy a very high level of complex support systems, which are both required to get our courses into the field, and also help make them better.  Nevertheless the committee’s reaction was pretty notable, and gave me the confidence to think that we as faculty should continue to try to understand where the money goes at NOLS, and should expect convincing clarification on the various costs and value of Headquarters staff, branch staff, and faculty. 

    Scott reported on NOLS’ clear surpassing of Outward Bound in terms of compensation.  I was able to make the point that Outward Bound, and most of outdoor education in the U.S., is not a good comparable for NOLS payscales, since NOLS staff usually do not leave NOLS to go to these places.  The Board members were interested in this question, and seemed amenable to the idea that NOLS should be looking to guide services or non-outdoor careers as comparables when considering faculty payscales.  I raised the question of how low pay and job insecurity impacts the socio-economic diversity of NOLS staff, and of how this affects NOLS’ diversity goals and the student experience.  All the Board members present seemed responsive and concerned about this.

    The Board Meeting itself, which included all the Board Members, John Gans and the EDT, Drew Leemon, Kathy Dunham, and me, consisted of short presentations by the committees followed by questions from other Board members, and a Blue Sky session in which anyone could bring up anything they wanted to.  Again, my input was solicited on several questions, and everyone seemed interested and glad to have a faculty perspective.  Among many other things, we discussed a small budget NOLS has for ‘innovation’, for which there is as of yet no clear purpose.  Some Board members were excited to get the money out and begin working on creative and risky projects, while others, including several staff, were more keen to stress innovation in all parts of NOLS and to avoid having a specific department or person responsible for it.  The most likely suggestion was to make fund from which individuals could apply for grants to carry out specific projects, like new course area or course type exploration, research on enrollment or staff retention, new curriculum research, or, the simplest suggestion, vastly increasing the IDF budget.  The Board seems to really like the IDF, and the broader idea of faculty developing ourselves outside of our course work.

    There was another discussion of rising tuition costs, its effect on diversity, and our inability as of yet to make up for this with increased scholarship funding.  The Board seemed very concerned about this, and were asking some big-picture questions about our identity as a school and what populations we wish to serve.  The consensus is that it is the middle-class that is price sensitive – the very rich can afford whatever price we set, while lower income groups need big scholarship support and see NOLS tuition as totally out of reach.  It is unclear at what income our scholarship support cuts off.  There was some preliminary discussion of whether changing our scholarship model would allow us to raise tuition in order to benefit from wealthier students, while supporting more students with bigger scholarships in order to maintain or improve our diversity situation.  There was also preliminary discussion of some kind of time-variable pricing to help fill courses, but this met with the concern that we need to price courses on an education model, in which the advertised tuition is fixed, not like airline tickets, which change as the planes fill.

    I made a short presentation on the NIA and faculty representation to the Board, making the case that the NIA’s role should be serving as a two-way communication channel between faculty and the rest of NOLS, to funnel ideas in to our hardworking and budget-constrained administration, and to funnel facts and plans out to our globe-trotting, passionate, and opinionated faculty.  Board members seemed very excited about this prospect.  They recognized that with the NIA’s vastly increased membership numbers and frequent meetings, we are better positioned to represent faculty than we were before.  They hope we can continue to raise membership even more (80% was suggested as a goal; now we are at 40%, or 30% including newly-eligible WMI instructors).  Duncan Dayton, the new Chairman of the Board, asked if I thought NOLS was a truly transparent organization, where average faculty were able to easily pass their ideas on to decision-makers.  I responded that in general NOLS is, that input is solicited through debriefs, program evals, surveys, etc., but like many things at NOLS a good thing could be even better.  Size and complexity are a barrier, and many faculty feel threatened by their lack of job security, and thus hesitate to say what they really think.  My impression is that faculty would offer vastly different answers to this question, varying with their seniority, years at the school, and depth of connection to individual branches or to Lander, so I tried to give an appropriately broad answer. 

    I intentionally avoided, at this point in time, making clear demands about faculty’s need for a better living and for more sustainable careers.  I know we talk about this all the time, and these are huge questions that impact our lives every day.  They are also more about the direction of the school than about this year’s budget.  My goal was to get a sense for how the Board talks and thinks and to give them a chance to get to know me a little bit, as well as to show them how faculty and NIA participation in the Board meetings can be about more than just compensation.  The last thing faculty need is to be thought of by the school’s leadership as primarily a labor problem.  I left the meeting with two main impressions on this issue.  First, the Board and the EDT still feel very concerned and pressured about low enrollment, rising tuition, and rising costs of any kind on a yearly basis.  They are very proud, and we should all be proud of them, for leading NOLS to a position of financial stability, with a big reserve of cash and a rapidly growing endowment, over the last twelve years.  They do not feel that we are so firmly and solidly established that we can make major, game-changing, industry-leading moves, such as a compensation change that would really shift what a career in outdoor education looks like.  They are like very good NOLS students who have done their homework, learned fast, had a few good days of ISGT in challenging terrain, but do not feel ready for, say, a 10-day ISGE in Patagonia with their instructors hundreds of kilometers away.  Or maybe like an I-team who are ready to go for high outcomes in a known course area, but not to push a new route across the Southern Icefield.  

    However – the Board has an amazing ability to think as a group, creatively and aggressively, about wild ideas and huge changes.  I was extremely impressed with their willingness to think out of the box about very big changes, and to build on each other's ideas quickly and creatively in discussion.  In that way they are just like instructors.  This, combined with their intelligence and grounding in the school’s operational and financial reality and prospects, gives me great hope that when the time is ripe they will support big changes.  These aren’t business-as-usual type of people. But they are methodical and responsible, and have an appropriate sense of the NOLS mission and their role in keeping it moving forward.

    So, I have a very good impression of our leadership.  Please drop me a line, go to a Branch meeting, join the NIA or renew, and bring these topics up, in conversation or in the NOLS feedback cycle.  Above all, please stay positive and try to understand what the Board of Trustees is thinking and why they say and decide what they do.  They are smart and talented, and we are lucky that they lend us their intelligence and their time.

  • Friday, January 09, 2015 8:08 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    NIA Report to the Board of Trustees

    San Francisco, January 30-31, 2015

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    I’d like to say, first of all, thanks to everyone here for your service to NOLS and for your leadership of the school.  NOLS has had an enormous influence on my life ever since I was a student in 1999.  It has taken me places and given me relationships that I never could have imagined, and made me a part of the best community that I know.  I am honored and humbled to be able to start giving back to the organization as a whole, and that is essentially why I am here today as NIA President.  I’ll take a little space to introduce myself and the new NIA Board, and then share some information about the NIA’s changes, successes, and challenges in 2014, and my hopes for the future.

    I came to NOLS in 1999, at the age of 19, as a student on an Alaska Backpacking course, and was a student again on a Winter Outdoor Educator course in 2000. That month in Alaska changed my life, and led me to spend all the time I could above tree-line, with a pack on my back, for years afterwards.  I gained enough experience (if not maturity; just ask my instructors) to take an Instructor Course in 2003, and began working in the field in 2004.  I worked part-time through 2010, then full-time from 2011 to 2014.  My NOLS home is Alaska, where I have worked every summer for ten years.  I’ve also worked several seasons in New Zealand, as well as at the Patagonia, Rocky Mountain, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, and India branches.  I work in the mountaineering, sea kayaking, and hiking programs.

    From 2001 to 2010 I also led a double life in academia, taking an M.A. in Environmental Studies and a PhD in philosophy, both from the University of Oregon.  After my doctorate, I faced the decision of a career in academic philosophy or a career at NOLS.  In terms of rewarding relationships with students, living in beautiful places that I cared about, and being part of a caring and genuine community, there was really no choice.  Today I live in Portland, Oregon, and am building a small business as a freelance translator, working to balance a part-time NOLS career with a sustainable income and lifestyle.  So far it’s going well.

    I joined the NIA Board of Directors in 2013, at the encouragement of Dave Kallgren.  The new cohort of Board Members at that time was quite motivated and organized, and 2014 was a busy and important year for the NIA from our very first conference call.  I believe that today we have a very different NIA than we’ve ever had before.  The current Board includes David Durant, Allie Maloney, Drew Seitz, Daren Opeka, and Abbie Wehner (all through 2016), and Tim Dorsey, Summers Eatmon, Andy Clifford, Fabio Oliveira, Jon Kempsey, and Aaron Divine (all through 2015).  We now have 246 paying members, of which 138 are new in the past year, 23 are Lifetime members, and 8 are Associate Members, a new non-voting category for faculty who have not worked in the past 3 years and IC graduates who have not yet worked.  Much of this 127 percent increase in membership came from a new website (www.nolsinstructorassociation.org), developed by Board member Daren Opeka, with the professional help of William Roth, and from a consistent membership drive, beginning at the 2014 Faculty Summit and carrying through to IC graduations and Branch meetings throughout the year.  

    We hosted 12 meetings, including one general meeting at the Faculty Summit and eleven Branch meetings: three at the Rocky Mountain Branch, two each in New Zealand, Patagonia, and the Teton Valley, and one each in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  Each meeting hosted 15-30 attendees, and 50 or more at the general meeting.  We rolled out a formal Branch Representative program, led by Board member Dave Durant, with an official Rep at each Branch each year and consistent guidance and instruction in running meetings, keeping minutes, and helping faculty throughout the season.  This greatly increased number of Branch meetings has provided a consistent forum for the NIA to gather ideas and keep a pulse on current faculty discussions, as well as an opportunity for Branch Reps, Board members, and attending administration members to educate faculty on matters both NIA and NOLS.  Branch meetings are open to all employees, and are consistently attended by member and non-member faculty, in-town staff, and usually Branch or Program Directors.  Everyone is given whatever attention and time on the floor they ask for, regardless of their NIA membership status.  Our goal is at least one Branch Meeting at each branch in every season in which it operates, and for a Branch Rep or Board member to meet every new IC grad.  I’d be happy to share some of the notable and consistent themes and ideas from these meetings and from the website and Facebook discussions if you like.

    The new website also includes a series of “Platforms,” which are the NIA’s statement on particular questions or issues, long-standing or current.  These are drafted by one or a few members, with input solicited at Branch meetings, on the Facebook page, or informally, then edited and reviewed by at least four Board members before they are posted on the site.  Current active Platforms are Faculty Engagement, Brazilian Instructor Pay, Branch Reps, and Field Instructor Pay. Other features of the website include a Forum in which Members can post ideas and discussions, articles on current issues and curriculum ideas, news on Branch meetings and old meeting minutes, an NIA history section, and a link to the ever-popular NIA Facebook page, which now has 443 members.  Our hope is that the website becomes a go-to resource for faculty and staff for the purposes of discussion and access to essential information, which will help them navigate NOLS as employees and as faculty.

    The website also features a membership management system with an automatic renewal reminder system when memberships expire.  This should help to alleviate the NIA’s long-standing problem of faculty forgetting to renew their memberships, which has always reduced our numbers.   We held a general referendum, which passed, on making membership available to WMI faculty who do not work as field instructors, and now have a non-field WMI instructor, Tim Dorsey, on the Board.  Our hope is that with consistently increasing membership, membership available to all faculty, and participation at meetings and on the web open to all NOLS employees, the ability of the NIA to represent both faculty and other NOLS employees will be clear and compelling.  The Board discussed opening membership to everyone who works at NOLS, but decided that it was more important to maintain our identity as a faculty organization, rather than anything approximating an all-employee union.  As faculty we believe that we can and do understand the ideas and interests of non-faculty employees, and we hope to serve the organization as a whole.

    Overall, 2014 was a year of organization and consolidation, focused on expanding membership and streamlining how the NIA is run.  In my opinion this has been an overwhelming success, and while it will take consistent investment by myself and by the Board to keep making improvements and to carry through what we’ve started, I believe the new structure is now firmly in place and can be replied upon. I hope that 2015 can see the expansion of some changes and improvements in how the NIA works with the rest of the school, and in how faculty are involved.  

    My hope for the NIA is that it can function primarily as a communication conduit between faculty who work primarily in the field, and program and administrative staff who make the decisions that run the school.  I believe the NIA is very different from any other system that NOLS has for this, that faculty engagement outside of contracted courses is essential for the health of the school, and that the NIA can contribute much more in this role than it has in the past.  I believe this will take time, commitment, and work from faculty, to understand the complex decisions and operations on which we already often have quick and sometimes uninformed opinions, and also some time and openness on the part of the NOLS administration to seek out and nurture more faculty participation.  You will notice, I hope, that this is somewhat different from a vision of the NIA as an organization that primarily advocates for faculty needs before an administration that is expected to do all the work of meeting those needs.  It is true that at times we will need to advocate for ourselves and to make our needs clear, and our members and non-members consistently expect this.  Overall, however, I would like participation to be the NIA’s primary role.  One of the most consistent ideas to come up in Branch meetings, and one which elicits the most excitement, is that of playing a larger role in decision-making at NOLS, of participating on committees and working groups, beyond simply answering surveys, filling out program evaluations, or having informal conversations with well-connected individuals.  Faculty want to work to help make major decisions, and well-chosen representatives would be willing to put in the time to do so, especially in discussions around compensation, curriculum, and faculty evaluation.  “Compensation” and “Increased faculty participation in school-wide decisions” were by far the biggest responses to a poll, included with the recent Board elections, about potential focus areas for the NIA.

    We received great volumes of positive feedback at branch meetings, from members and non-members, for our consistent emphasis on positive communication and solution-making in 2014.  In practice, this is often a matter of responding to negative comments or frustrations from faculty, both at meetings and informally, by turning them into positive ideas and opportunities for education and motivation for action.  The NIA often finds itself in the middle, especially on the long-term, slow-changing issues of compensation and travel, between faculty with hard lives and big ideas, and administrators with real budgets and hard choices.  I would ask for your help and patience in supporting us as we try to play this role gracefully and with integrity.

    Thanks again for all that you do for NOLS, and for the continued commitment to direct instructor representation at these meetings.  The fact that a working faculty member sits down with the Board of Trustees and presents the ideas of his peers plays a great role in the faculty’s confidence in the leadership of our school.  I look forward to working with you over the next two years of my term.

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