Crevasses in Collegiate Outdoor Programming: Penn State and Managing Versus Overlooking Risk

Penn State recently made the headlines by banning the student-led outdoor program from running programs outdoors. Conservative press had a field-day, decrying it as the latest example of academia's ongoing attempt to shelter “snowflakes” from the realities of life. Others pointed out that Penn State still has university-sanctioned adventure programs offered through its student activities office, so it's all much ado about nothing.

I've been thinking a lot about this issue and many of my thoughts center on “the world as it should be.” In most cases, it is more productive to consider the world as it is. Looking at the world as it is, and for the sake of (some) brevity—but with it taking on the risk that any simplification of statements produces—here's where I've landed...

There is a spectrum of roughly four choices for university programs:

  1. Hire professionals that are highly trained and certified and have them run all the programming. This is the safest option, but leaves the least opportunity for student leadership development.

  2. Hire a staff member that has baseline outdoor training to run a program and have them attempt to effectively train and lead students across a broad spectrum of outdoor activities, each with it's particular skills set (rock climbing, paddling, canyoneering, mountaineering, etc). This diminishes safety, but adds some development opportunities.

  3. Hire professionals that have baseline training and those people seek out and hire highly trained and certified professionals to deliver student leadership training and, in cases, direct student programming. This increases the safety and maximizes development opportunities, with students learning from skilled leaders in that particular technical skills area.

  4. Have students run the whole show, nominally supervised by a Student Activities office that has no idea what the students are doing and led by a faculty advisor whose professional skill and primary interest is in something like Medieval History. This option offers maximal risk. And, in the spirit of experiential educator John Dewey who discussed the idea “miseducative experiences” being those that close down opportunities for future learning, this option may appear to provide the most leadership learning opportunities, but in fact often shuts down participants' interest in further learning due to a bad initial experience.

There is a seeming Option#5, which would be hiring full-time professional staff, each of which are highly trained and certified in each of the relevant skills areas (climbing, paddling, etc) and have them run all of the student leadership training and perhaps some of the direct programming. This would be a very costly option, available or justifiable only at schools with some combination of avid outdoor interest and/or a large endowment. While it would be great if all schools could go this route, as mentioned at the outset, my focus here is on the world as it is, not as it might ideally be.

If I had to rank order my preferences in terms of program Options#1-4, I'd probably go with: 3, 4, 1, 2. University personnel prioritize financial risk higher than other types of loss (emotional, intellectual, etc) that I would prioritize, so they probably would rank order the options as follows: 1, 3, 2, 4. The big problem—and here we get to the crux of the matter—is that Penn State probably thinks it has achieved Scenario #1, when in fact that is, based on my (admittedly not investigative journalism quality) research, sadly not the case. Based on that research, they have achieved Scenario #3. So, they think they have achieved their first preference in terms of risk management, but they've actually achieved their third preference. So their goals in terms of risk management have gotten off course and they've wound up woefully short of the mark.

Looking at the information available online, the person in charge of the “professional” adventure program offerings at Penn State holds the following professional certifications: 1) a BS in Adv Ed, 2) LNT Master Educator, 3) ACA Whitewater Instructor, and 4) WFR. So, you have a person with credentials slightly above what you would expect from a recent college graduate in an adventure program now running an adventure program at a college. Importantly and unfortunately, this isn't unique to Penn State, and it's indicative of a larger issue in adventure programming. Would a university ever hire a freshly graduated BS in business adminstration to run its business administration office? A freshly graduated BS in facilities management to run its facilities? A biochem undergraduate to teach in the Biochemistry Dept? But it happens all the time in adventure programming: People with only the baseline of education, training, and experience are hired to  the program and to educate and train the future leaders in those programs.

And, though what I'm about to say may not be greeted happily by some in collegiate outdoor programming, I can say the following with a resume that includes three years as the director of a university outdoor program housed in student activities, five years as a faculty member in an academic college outdoor program, and a decade of working with various colleges in both student enrichment and academic instructional contexts: The real uncomfortable reality of these situations is this—even though, as noted above, the bar is quite low in terms of university outdoor program staffing, that bar often (and there are many exceptions I want to be clear) only gets lower as time goes on. What happens is that the program leaders who were hired with minimal resumes go on to develop other, very laudable, interests in life, namely partnering and raising families. These become their priorities in life and staying current in the outdoors skills (and fitness) realms becomes less important. Meanwhile, those who manage them in the student activities sphere have no idea what should be considered the professional standard in outdoor recreation/education and, so, let it pass. And, meanwhile as life goes along, the leader of the program becomes increasingly bored with leading, say, the annual spring break backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains. So, they decide that the next spring break trip will be a backpacking climb up Mt. Whitney. That goes off without a hitch and they decide the following year to climb the Mexican volcanoes, then Peru, and so on. All of this is totally understandable. Balancing family, work, and professional development while still maintaining engagement in one's work is tough. But the reality of that challenging confluence is that these leaders then are guiding students in contexts and environments in which they have sparse experience, and operating in terrain in which they have paltry training, equipped with a skills set that they often have little formal training with and little to no certification in, and even that skills set has been gradually perishing over time.  This may appear safer on paper to university administrators, but in reality, it is perhaps only nominally safer than a wholly student-led program.

Bear in mind that all of what I said in the previous paragraph refers to general trends I've seen in the university adventure education sphere and I've also seen many wonderful exceptions. And if you feel threatened by any of what I've laid out above, perhaps you ought to consider why you feel threatened. And if you feel threatened, and find my position valid, you should take appropriate action to amend the situation. And if you feel threatened, and feel that my position is unfounded, I would welcome your response.

I've tried to keep the above to the point while still traveling a fair bit of rough terrain. My bottom line is this: It doesn't have to be an either/or in terms of a wholly university-run, administratively moribund program that offers no real opportunity for student involvment and leadership development or on the flip side—a loose-cannon student organized affair that puts other students at risk. Universities can and should either hire appropriately trained/credentialed/paid staff, and then coach, support, and demand their continued development or retain similar consultants that work with the students to make sure that the student leadership of such trips are, in turn, appropriately trained/credentialed for leadership in the terrain they organize trips within. Penn State is both making a mistake in cancelling the programming of their student-led outdoor club and in thinking that the programming of their sanctioned staff programming is discernably safer. Considering the mountain environment, I've always taught that, “The only thing more dangerous than a crevasse you can see is a crevasse you can't see.” Aside from the fact that I think that the pursuit of safety in the absolute leads to absolute failure to grow, I think that the only thing more potentially hazardous than courting risk is falsely thinking that you have managed it. In taking student leadership of outdoor programs away and ceding it to a staff with only the most minimal training and experience in the range of outdoor skills students seek to participate in, that is what Penn State appears to have done.

If you have additional insight into this situation that I'm missing, or a well-formulated opinion contrary to the one I've expressed, I welcome your response.