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Highlights from the February 2019 Board of Trustees Meeting

Sunday, February 10, 2019 7:52 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

The NOLS Board of Trustees, which the NOLS President and Executive Team ultimately report to, meets three times each year.  In February they meet in different US cities, in June they typically travel to a NOLS Campus, and in October they all come to Lander.  This February the meeting was held in Houston, TX and combined with a meeting of the Presidential Search Committee.  Because of this, the BoT meeting that just wrapped up was in a shorter format than usual, with just one Open Committee session in addition to the General Session.  I travelled to Houston to represent NOLS instructors at both the Students, Staff, and Studies Committee meeting and the General Session.  Below are a few of my observations and highlights that Faculty may find useful.  The official Notes are taken by Kathy Dunham.

Students, Staff, and Studies

The trustees on this committee are Jane Fried, Auny Abegglen, David Cohen, Danielle Dignan, Stuart Harris, and Stefan Jackson.  This meeting largely was largely comprised of reports (via conference call) from Liz Tuohy and Scott Robertson, which the Trustees asked clarifying questions about and occasionally offered some pushback on.

The bulk of the meeting was taken up by Liz’s reports on new NOLS courses.  These include “co-branded” courses, as well as Affinity courses.  Recent co-branded courses include the NOLS/Saybrook University Masters in Leadership Program and the Tanzania Research Expedition, which was in partnership with both CWC and the University of Wyoming.  An upcoming co-branded offering will be an Outdoor Educator Semester on which students will also have lined up summer jobs working for Avid4Adventure after their NOLS experience ends.  The first Saybrook cohort was comprised of seven students, the second cohort will be six students.  The Tanzania Research Expedition was half students from CWC, and half open enrollment students, none of whom took this course for College Credit.  The OES/Avid course will run for the first time in the Spring of 2020.

An upcoming Southwest Leaders of Color course currently has 7 students enrolled.  We also heard about an LGBTQ+ Canyons course scheduled for the fall of 2019, which NOLS has made the decision not to start promoting until we have additional, non-binary, gender identity options on our application.  There was significant skepticism on the part of a few Trustees about why it had taken NOLS a full year to implement non-binary gender options.  (Indeed, these options aren’t yet live.)  As an observer, it was interesting to see trustees hold the feet of a few high ranking NOLS administrators to the fire over this issue.

Liz went on to give a short update about Expedition Instructor Training next steps.  These include a review of the Program Supervisor role headed by Anna Haegel, as well as efforts to build a healthier, more open culture of feedback on field iTeams.  Interestingly, one committee member asked “What’s a PSup?”, which I think drives home the remove at which our Trustees work from the day to day reality of NOLS.  I am sure that at times this remove can be both beneficial and harmful.

An HQ employee who also works in the field who was present asked Liz about the power differential that exists between PSups and Instructors, who rarely have meaningful opportunities to provide constructive feedback for the people who write their SPEs.  Liz’s reply was essentially to acknowledge that this is a problem.

Scott Robertson gave an update on the new Harassment policy, which essentially consisted of saying that we have a new policy, it took a long time to come up with, it’s on Iko Wapi, and everyone should read it.  There was some fairly energetic conversation revolving around how to ensure that existing Faculty/Staff read and understand this document.  Here, and at other times in this committee meeting, ideas were floated that would require instructors to perform additional tasks during uncompensated time.  I’d urge NOLS to find space to accommodate additional training demands within briefing time, rather than add to the already significant number of tasks instructors must do to maintain their status (re-certifying their WFR, filling out WRAPs, keeping abreast of school-wide news, etc.) on their own time.

One thing that stood out for me about this committee meeting was that there was no mention of NOLS Wilderness Medicine whatsoever.  Aside from myself and Stuart Harris (a trustee who is also deeply involved in the Med in the Wild program) no one else in the room seemed to have any connection to this Pillar.  Indeed, the Board of Trustees as a whole seems incredibly focused on Expeditions, and the tiny Risk Services pillar was discussed more than either Custom Education of Wilderness Medicine.

General Session

The General Session of the Board of Trustees Meeting consisted of some parliamentary housekeeping (Call to Order, approval of October’s Meeting Notes, etc.), the reports of various committee chairs, and the NIA Report.

The Board committees are: Students, Staff, and Studies; Audit; Risk Management; Advisory Council Update; Development and Alumni; Marketing and Systems; and Finance and Investment. Rather than review these presentations in detail, I’ll confine myself to reporting a few facts that stood out to me or are not readily available elsewhere (e.g. Board Report, Weekly Managers Notes, etc.). 

NOLS Administration is in the early stages of planning the budget for Fiscal year 2020 (September 1st, 2019 - August 31st, 2020).  Gans said that at this point they’re envisioning a 2.5-3% increase in tuition, a 2.5% increase in compensation, and no changes to other benefits.  Inflation is predicted to be 1.9% and average increases in US wages at about 3%.  Gans mentioned briefly that he thinks low national unemployment and upward movement in wages nationally will put upward pressure on NOLS wages, especially if we want to improve in-town retention. However, he also mentioned that in recent years NOLS has at time raised compensation faster than tuition, and that this isn’t sustainable in the long term.  This is certainly true, unless NOLS were to search for efficiencies (i.e. reduce the number of employees) in HQ and in-town hierarchies.  One NOLS administrator present mentioned to me that it always possible the new President will undertake a major restructuring.

I learned that the recently conducted Semester Study cost $300,000, and that $200,000 has been budgeted for the Presidential Search for the current Fiscal Year (ending August 31st, 2019) alone.

NIA Report

Finally, I was recognized to give the NIA Report.  I chose as my two main points the idea that NOLS should commit to a long term goal of a living wage for all employees and that NOLS could increase instructor buy-in in school-wide decision making by returning to having a NIA representative present at every Board of Trustees meeting.  My intent was to prepare the Trustees for the moment, later this year, when we unveil our Position Paper calling for a minimum wage and the moment when we present them with our petition calling for a return to an NIA rep at every BoT meeting.  Both of these ideas were warmly received by several individual Trustees, who approached me individually after the session adjourned and gave some very useful constructive feedback regarding the presentation of the living wage idea in the Position Paper.

Here is the full text of my remarks:

Good afternoon Trustees. 

Since this is my first time here, I’d like to tell you just a little more about my NOLS background.  I took my Instructor Course in 2008 and my Wilderness Medicine Instructor Training Course in 2011.  In 2013, I was elected to the Board of Directors of the NOLS Instructor Association.  Since 2014, I’ve worked full time for NOLS as an AFP Instructor.  On January 1st, I began my term as NIA President, and it’s in that capacity that I came here today.  I feel truly honored to have been chosen by my peers to represent them, and to join in this conversation.

Recently I had the opportunity to read through the new Expeditions Catalog, which is a beautiful document.  I noticed immediately the extent to which it leans on the expertise of our Instructor corps to pitch our expeditions:

Page 2 boasts about “world-class instructors”

On page 4 the instructors are “top-tier”

On page 5 Prospective students are encouraged to “Learn from the best,” and informed that “NOLS sets the standard for instructor excellence.”

On page 6 the line has been clearly drawn in the sand: NOLS has “the best instructors in the industry.”

Now, no one can doubt that our students are the heart and soul of NOLS, and we pride ourselves in being student-centered in everything we do.  But it’s through NOLS’ nearly 1,000 instructors that our students experience our program and have their lives transformed.  Meaningful interaction with competent and compassionate instructors is the foundation of the NOLS experience.  Along with the wilderness itself, professional and dedicated instructors are the sine qua non of the NOLS student experience.  We at the NIA take this fact to be self evident.  While any individual instructor may be replaceable, a corps a deeply experienced, highly proficient educators is not.  I read Emily Leddingham’s rollout of an exit interview process for departing field instructors, on p.117 of the current Board Report, as one validation of this crucial point.

Having worked in the field for 10 years, I’ve seen many fellow instructors move on.  Sometimes these folks are simply burnt out by the myriad demands - physical, emotional, and mental - of the instructor lifestyle, and their decision serves everyone.   More often, it seems that these instructors are still serving our students well, and it’s their frustration with specific aspects of our system that drives them to choose other work.

One recent conversation I had with a highly trained instructor was representative.  As a graduate of the Professional Instructor Course, the Wilderness Medicine ITC, and numerous seminars, this is a person that NOLS has invested a great deal of money training.  Her outcomes are high and she serves her students well.  Yet she told me recently she was stepping back from fieldwork to bake in a commercial kitchen.  Will NOLS be able to carry on without her?  Surely.  Is this a loss for our school and our students?  I think it is.  Does her decision make the many dollars that NOLS used to subsidize her training money poorly spent?  This seems like one possible conclusion. 

Of course, I asked this instructor why she was moving on.  I conducted an exit interview, if you will.  Her answer was unequivocal: “I feel like I traveled nonstop this past year and was pretty run down by it, yet I’m reporting $14k for my taxes.”  She also mentioned feeling like it was time to move on because she had recently turned 30.  This last point speaks volumes.  Our marketing materials make much of our professional instructors, yet many instructors view their often brief tenures with NOLS not as as profession, but rather as something cool to do for a few years in their 20s.

This was driven home for me by another conversation I had a few years ago with another AFP Instructor.  She was hesitating to join the NIA, and when I asked why, she expressed that NOLS felt like an interesting way to spend her time for a few years, but not like a viable career.  When she was no longer satisfied with her situation here, she’d simply move on.  In other words, she wasn’t invested enough in NOLS to try to advocate for change.  

Experienced, invested instructors who aren’t anxious about their financial well-being serve our students best.  My role as NIA president is to advocate on behalf of instructors, but it is also to promote the school’s mission.  NOLS’ mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership.  To be the leading teacher, we need to have the best teachers.  If we want our teachers - our instructors - to continue to rise to meet our constantly evolving professional expectations, we need to treat them as professionals. 

Towards this end, the NIA is hard at work on an in-depth Position Paper that makes the case for adopting living wages as a long term ambitious goal in the next strategic plan.  No one who dedicates a year to working for NOLS should be asked to get by on just $14,000.  Look for your copy of our position paper before the end of 2019.

A living wage for instructors won’t be realized overnight.  There is an equally important step that NOLS can take to retain our best instructors that can happen much sooner and cost little.  This is concrete action to give faculty a meaningful role in school-wide decision making.  There exist senior instructors - I’m one of them - who believe they are already compensated fairly, but wish they could weigh in on the direction of the school in ways that go beyond a scribbled note on the bottom of a program evaluation.

One specific step that the Board of Trustees could take in the near future that would increase the buy-in of all Instructors in school-wide decision making processes would be to invite an NIA representative to all three of these Board meetings each year.  This was standard practice for almost 20 years, from 1995 until 2014.  The additional expense would be relatively minimal, since the October meeting is traditionally held in Lander, where there are numerous NIA Board Members in residence, and the June meeting typically takes place at a NOLS campus, which would allow the NIA representative to combine their travel with their summer season commute. 

This change appears to us to be low hanging fruit.  If nothing else, at a minimum it would serve as a gesture of good faith from the Trustees and Administration to Instructors, and I assure you, this would land well with our faculty.

In reading Anne Magnan’s report on NOLS Custom Education in the current Notebook, I noted her solicitation of “thought partners.”  NOLS Instructors are ready and willing to serve as your thought partners on a more regular basis, if you’ll have us. 

Keeping instructors engaged with NOLS will keep instructors at NOLS, and this will serve both our school’s mission, and our students.

Sincere thanks for your time and consideration.          


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