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Notes from the February 2017 Board of Trustees meeting

Saturday, March 04, 2017 10:21 AM | Sean Williams

Notes from the February, 2017 Board of Trustees meeting

Sean Williams, NIA President

            The following notes are highlights and notes from the meetings that your NIA representative attended, from an NIA perspective, rather than a comprehensive summary of the entire board meeting.  Minutes will be published with the June Board of Trustees report, edited by Kathy Dunham.

            The February 2017 Board of Trustees meeting was a success in terms of progress and awareness on issues and ideas that are dear to the hearts of many NOLS staff and to the NIA.  Read on for highlights and details to get a glimpse of how the Trustees and EDT work together and how they respond to the faculty’s input.

            The response from the Trustees and EDT to the results and analysis of the NIA’s lifestyle survey (http://www.nolsinstructorassociation.org/bot/4513183) was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. The NIA received appreciations both in private and in public for our efforts gathering this data and presenting it in a useful way, as well as offers of advice and assistance on future research efforts. The Trustees and EDT seemed to really appreciate a more nuanced, data-driven, and numbers-focused presentation of the facts presented by the survey. With more data in the future, perhaps on different questions, and with continued emphasis by the NIA on presenting facts and possible solutions, rather than just making demands, I believe we can expect that these issues around income, job security, and career feasibility will become even greater priorities within NOLS’s leadership as time goes on.

            I attended the “Staff, Students, and Studies” Committee meeting as well as the General Meeting. The Staff, Students, and Studies meeting was large, with around half of the Trustees as well as Deborah Nunnink and Scott Robertson attending, and much of the discussion revolved around compensation and difficulties in hiring for various positions. Turnover of in-town staff was 26% in FY16, the highest in ten years (it was 33% in 2007). Several positions, including NOLS Custom account managers, the Alaska Director, and international program staff have been difficult to hire for. Field staff turnover is not as high, but there is widespread recognition that underemployment is a problem for field staff. Trustee Jane Fried asked about the philosophy behind choosing who to give contracts to in an underemployment situation; Scott explained the combination of seniority, performance as documented on SPEs, skill types, and availability that drives Staffing decisions. Scott also clarified that NOLS cannot operate with full employment of field staff, because it needs some flexibility (i.e. instructors willing to take last-minute contracts) as enrollment and other instructors’ schedules change, but acknowledged that the current level of underemployment is hard for many instructors. One Trustee asked if “low pay grade turnover” is a strategy at NOLS, and expressed his relief when Scott explained that this is not an intentional strategy, but that it does have an effect on overall compensation costs as both field and in-town staff leave the school before advancing very far up the payscales. Scott reported that we had 255 applicants for 100 IC spots, and that their quality in his opinion was very high.

            As seems to happen every meeting, several Trustees expressed concern that compensation continues to rise faster than tuition, and pointed out that this is financially unsustainable unless NOLS has significant other sources of income . This conversation started in the committee meeting and continued in the general meeting. Jane Fried emphasized that NOLS needs a better grasp of its “budget levers,” i.e., where exactly will the money for an increase in one expense come from, if not from an equal increase in revenue? In the General Meeting, John Gans explained that NOLS has released money from the Endowment to Operations for several years ($1.1 million in 2016), and that this significant non-tuition revenue helps to offset increased expenses, such as compensation (which is 55% of NOLS’s overall expenses).

            In this context, the subject of the gain share came up several times. There is some skepticism among the Trustees about whether paying out a gain share at the end of the fiscal year really creates much sense of reward or appreciation among employees. I told them that while an unexpected check is always appreciated, it does not improve the feeling that every other paycheck seems small and that the job feels insecure, and that allocating this money to compensation would probably affect employees in a more positive way since they could then plan on a slightly higher income. The idea of using that money towards scholarships, in the hopes that this would increase enrollment, and thus decrease underemployment, was also raised, but it was not clear if the money could be targeted toward scholarships in a way that would be guaranteed to improve the underemployment situation. There was no clear resolution about the gain share (which is dependent on the school meeting its budget and ending the year with extra money), just discussion.

            In terms of the tuition increase, most of it will occur on summer courses, and there will be no increase on fall and spring semesters - this is to encourage more growth in the off-season, and should help with employment for instructors. Admissions is also experimenting with differential tuition - for example, early and late WRWs will cost slightly less than mid-summer WRWs, to reduce the need for so many instructors at the peak of summer.

            In the Blue Sky session, where Trustees share off-the-wall ideas for discussion later, the idea of a “staff buddy” for Trustees was brought up, in which Trustees would be paired with a NOLS employee to stay in touch and learn more about one aspect of the school. Another idea was offering lessons or seminars in cultural competency for the Trustees, so that they stay up-to-speed with this area of significant change at NOLS. There was a shout-out for the general success of NOLS with fundraising in general: it basically just started 10 years ago, and we now have a $35 million endowment which we are expecting to double in the next big fundraising campaign. In the near to medium future, this will begin to be enough money to significantly affect the school’s operations and finances.

            As usual, the passion and commitment of the Trustees and the EDT to NOLS was on full display at this meeting. Many, many other topics were discussed, and the minutes from each meeting are a good way to get a sense for the whole discussion. The Trustees’ ability to quickly wrap their heads around complex issues at the school, offer solutions, and provide informed critique of decisions is truly impressive. The EDT’s depth of knowledge and the complexity of the decisions they have to make is equally impressive. We are lucky we have these groups looking out for us, and making sure that NOLS is humming away in the background so that we can go out and run great courses.  

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