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Reports to the Board of Trustees

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  • 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.

  • Saturday, October 11, 2014 11:07 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    NIA Report to the Board of Trustees

    Lander, October 11, 2014

    David Kallgren, NIA President

    Welcome to Lander. I hope we have great autumn weather for the meeting, but as I write this a month in advance it is snowing. Between the Rocky Mountain weather and Great Lakes Aviation we recognize that it's not easy for you to get here for meetings and we are very appreciative that you make the effort. This State of the School meeting is one of the best opportunities for staff, administrators and Trustees to get to know each other and celebrate this wonderful organization. With that in mind we would like to invite you to the Annual Unofficial All-Staff Party which will take place Friday night. We'll have more details when you arrive, but there will be no agenda, official or otherwise.  We've all had a great time in the past, so we hope you will join us.

    I will not be sitting at the table nor making a presentation during this meeting. John Gans informed me that there are questions about whether the NIA is truly representative of all staff, so representation is being reconfigured with the NIA at the table for only one meeting per year, another staff representative at one meeting and no staff representative at the October meeting. We at the NIA recognize that  it is absolutely the Board's responsibility to ensure that you are getting accurate representation, but we are concerned that this format will make it harder for us to support NOLS by representing faculty viewpoints on critical issues.

    The NIA was formed as a faculty organization in 1975 when communication between Administration, Faculty, and the Board of Trustees was at a historic low and NOLS was disintegrating. I believe we played a crucial role in the survival of the school by providing a unified voice and focusing on education and students rather than personalities. We are still a faculty organization today, and education and student outcomes remain our primary concern. We are the link between the field experience and the overall management of the school.

    Our primary goal has never been to represent all staff, but throughout the history of NOLS the NIA has been the only group representing any kind of staff. I have mentioned before that in-town positions are very important to our members for a variety of reasons, and so we often do end up speaking for all staff. That tends to push us more towards acting as an employee union, lobbying for pay and benefits. With that in mind, we welcome your interest in better representation for in-town staff.

    A membership organization cannot ignore one of the primary concerns of its members, but the NIA board decided about three years ago to downplay compensation since we had just had a major increase in very challenging times (once again, our thanks and admiration) and in order to focus on other areas. If there is someone else advocating for addressing the results of the Morehead Survey that could help us shift our focus to curriculum and planning. So far all of the Morehead Surveys have substantiated the staff positions we have represented: We love the mission, we love the people, pay has improved but is still marginal for many, and continued focus on communication between departments will pay dividends.

    For the first years of my Presidency at the NIA our focus was on communication and representation. There was a gap, but by working closely with Trustees and Administration we were able to understand each other, find solutions, and make great progress. Actually, I should say that the Trustees and Administrators provided the solutions. The NIA can advocate and facilitate but we cannot make the decisions. I believe we are important and helpful, but credit should go to those responsible for making the final call. We believe the Administration is responsive to staff concerns. If we ask to be involved in broad planning discussions or identify concerns it does not mean we think anyone is doing a bad job, but doing a good job should not prevent us from seeking to do even better.

    More recently the NIA focus has been on participation and membership. While I do believe the surveys show our representation of faculty has been accurate, we do want to get more instructors participating in the discussion in a more substantial way. The main thing holding us back has been the amount of time and effort required; we are after all a volunteer organization run by active NOLS instructors. Our current NIA Board members have been devoting a lot of time , skill, and energy to the cause. WMI instructors are  now eligible for membership, recognizing that while we may teach "catalog" courses, WMI courses or for NOLS Pro, we are all NOLS Instructors. Our new website is coming along nicely, there have been meetings at several locations outside of Lander this summer and they have proven to be the best way to get instructors to join the conversation. We are finding they are eager to be involved. Membership is now close to 200 and our goal is to pass the 300 mark this fall.

    In light of all this new energy at the NIA I have decided to step down as President after our regular election cycle this Fall. There are several NIA Board members who could do an excellent job or perhaps someone else will run and win, but I feel very confident about the future of both the NIA and NOLS. I have enjoyed and learned much from my conversations with all of you on the NOLS Board and I am very appreciative of your consideration. Now, with the NIA flourishing, is a good time for a fresh face and new energy at the table with you.

    I believe this is a critical time for outdoor education. The news is full of commentary about what's wrong with our public education system. When I read these articles I am usually struck that NOLS has developed the answers and that our outdoor, experiential, alternative approach to education is a valuable and perhaps necessary complement to the Academic system. I order to position ourselves to take a lead in this discussion NOLS' administration, trustees and faculty are going to have to work together closely and be very creative. That's what the NIA is here for and that's what we want to talk about.

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