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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.