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Report to the Board of Trustees, February 2019

Saturday, January 12, 2019 9:04 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

NIA Report

 David Durant

President, NOLS Instructor Association

February 2019

NIA Mission

To communicate and advocate instructor views, and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values.

At the end of 2018 we bid farewell to NIA President Sean Williams, who completed his second term on December 31.  I can confidently state that Sean left the NIA a larger, more professional, and more articulate organization than he found it.  He’ll remain involved as President Emeritus, but his designated leadership will be missed.

It is my great honor to assume the NIA Presidency for the next two years.  I first came to NOLS in 2004 as a student on a mountaineering course in Patagonia.  Three days into my course, I told my mentor that I had decided to pursue a career as a full-time NOLS instructor.  In 2008 I took a Wilderness Upgrade for Medical Professionals and a Spring Instructor Course.  I took my Wilderness Medicine Instructor Training Course in 2011, and in 2014, ten years after my life-changing experience as a student on a NOLS Expedition, I was able to realize my dream to become a full-time instructor when I was accepted into the 50/50 Annual Faculty Program.

What We Hear From Instructors 

It has been my pleasure to serve on the NIA Board of Directors since 2013.  During that time I’ve interacted with hundreds of instructors around the campfire, in the classroom, and in NIA meetings from Driggs to Gabriels, Whitehorse to Tucson.  I am consistently impressed by our faculty.  I have found them to be very nearly universally passionate about education, wilderness, and supporting their students.  All of them could choose to tolerate less adversity, have a better work-life balance, and earn more compensation by working elsewhere, yet they choose NOLS each day.  

In all of my conversations with instructors in my capacity as an NIA representative, two themes stand out overwhelmingly: Instructors worry about their precarious financial positions, and are seeking avenues through which they can participate in school-wide decision making.  These conclusions are borne out by the NIA’s data-driven approach.  In a poll question embedded in our 2017 Ballot, our membership selected “Calling for a stated long term goal of a living wage for all employees and a middle class income for Senior Faculty and Staff” as the most important thing the NIA could advocate for in 2018.  The year before, faculty voted for “Working to ensure that Instructors are represented at all Board of Trustees meetings.”

Sean described this latter desire eloquently in his very first report here in February of 2015, when he wrote, “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.”

The Path Forward

While conversations about compensation run the risk of becoming emotionally charged or divisive, we on the NIA Board are bound by the mission of our organization to pass on what we hear from instructors to the Board of Trustees.  Our intentions are to advise, not to demand; to collaborate, not to antagonize.  We recognize and are deeply grateful for the annual cost-of-living increases that have been made to the Faculty pay scale on a regular basis since I came to the school in 2008.  

With that as our point of departure, we are in the late stages of revising an in-depth Position Paper that calls for NOLS to treat compensation as a long term strategic goal, rather than a year-by-year decision making process.   We believe NOLS should tackle this problem with the same good intentions and strategic foresight that the administration has brought to growing the NOLS endowment and placing the school as a whole on firm financial footing.  Our hope is that this paper, which will be released later in 2019, can be used to inform the next Strategic Plan.  It is our belief that setting an ambitious goal for a living wage will be essential to retaining a professional, well trained, and highly motivated instructor corps for the next 50 years.   

Finally, we believe that an opportunity currently exists for the NOLS administration to build significant goodwill with faculty by addressing their widespread desire for greater representation in school-wide decision making.  From 1975 until 2014, faculty were represented by the NIA each time the Board of Trustees met.  From 2014 until the present, an NIA representative has only been invited to one Trustees meeting each year.  This recent development has not been widely publicized.  When Faculty learn of it, they are typically both surprised and disappointed.  The cost of including a member of the NIA Board - democratically elected by hundreds of their peers - at each Trustees meeting would be far outweighed by the sense of engagement in decision making this would give many Instructors.

Changing of the Guard

The NIA holds an election at the end of each calendar year to select Directors who serve two year terms.  We are particularly proud of this, as it is the only large scale democratic decision making process at NOLS.  

For 2019, we are welcoming Clemencia Caporale and Paul Calver to our Board.  Clemencia, exclusively a Wilderness Medicine Instructor, is the third instructor from outside of the Expeditions pillar to serve on the NIA Board since 2014, when we held a referendum to open membership to all NOLS Instructors.  In addition to her viewpoint as classroom faculty, we’re excited for the geographic diversity that she brings to our Board as an East Coaster, representing some of the many faculty who rarely make the trip to hard-to-reach Lander, Wyoming.  Paul has a deep resume with NOLS Expeditions as well as in administrative positions in Headquarters.  He has already enriched our ongoing internal conversations with his historical perspective.

My sincere thanks for the invitation to attend your February meeting.  I look forward to interacting with all of you there.  Please don’t hesitate to approach me with questions about the instructor experience and instructor priorities. 

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