Cancellation of program sparks outcry from students, alumni
From the depths of the Grand Canyon to raging rivers in Arkansas, the UNI Outdoors Adventure Trips Program offered students, faculty and community members guided access to America’s backcountry.
However, to the dismay of many UNI students and alumni, the Adventure Trips Program was cut in May 2022.
“The goal was to get students out to these locations so that they could really experience the world and have these awesome times and meet a really wonderful community,” Current UNI Outdoors graduate assistant Andrew Abrams said. “It was also a really special program because it was a chance for students, faculty, and community members to gather together which doesn’t happen as much.”
For former UNI Outdoors graduate assistant Maycie Stanbro, the news was devastating.
“The Adventure Trips have changed my life. The whole course of my life I thought I was going to do theater performance, and UNI Outdoors, especially the Adventure Trips Program, really changed my whole trajectory.”
Stanbro continued, “I don’t think we could have done anything better. We did not cancel a single trip from low enrollment. We had just had one of the best years that UNI Outdoors had had, so it was just very confusing for us and very demoralizing. We had put our hearts and souls into this program.”
For 2004 alumni Jeremiah Rausch, the UNI Outdoors Adventure Trips also changed his trajectory after he went backpacking through the Grand Canyon with the program. “Once I came back I immediately changed my major to Outdoor Recreation. The Adventure Program literally changed my degree and it is a huge loss to students this program was terminated.”
Abrams expressed frustration regarding clear communication from administration to students explaining why the program was canceled.
“Exact numbers were not really provided, at least not to students,” Abrams said. “We control our pricing, so it would make sense for us to be informed so we could have made up for that price difference. If it was a risk management issue, we would have appreciated the chance to adjust our risk management so that we could continue to operate.”
Director of Recreation Services Christopher Denison explained the Adventure Trip Program was canceled due to an internal review conducted by departmental leadership and staff.
“Based on trend utilization data, UNI modified the outdoor program to assure efficiency while maintaining a high-level of service to students,” Denison said. “A review of University of Northern Iowa Recreation Services has led to a change in programming, specifically in the area of Outdoor Recreation.”
Denison emphasized there is not a single point of data UNI focuses on but rather, “trends in the industry with peers and program utilization in all areas of the Recreation Services department.” Shelley O’Connell, the Assistant Vice President & Executive Director of Student Health and Well-being, reiterated Denison’s reasoning for why the program was terminated.
UNI Outdoors will continue to manage the climbing wall and outdoor gear rental program, as well as various on-campus special events. Four local outings will also be offered this fall which can be found at UNI’s Outdoors Recreation website.
“The UNI campus offers hiking in the West Trail and Hillside Trail Complexes,” Denison said. “Additionally, the North Pond will also continue to be accessible for water activities, including kayaking, canoeing, stand up paddle boarding and fishing.”
O’Connell added, “Although we are not able to continue the adventure trips, Outdoor Recreation will provide programs for students using the North Pond, hiking the West Trail and Hillside Trails. The Cedar Valley has successfully created activity-friendly communities that are safe and convenient places for people to be physically active.”
Even though UNI Outdoors will still continue to operate in some capacity, Stanbro asserts it is not enough.
“Without the Adventure Trips Program operating at full capacity, we are not providing the highest quality experience for students.” Stanbro said.
Former UNI student and volunteer Trip Coordinator Jacob Kurt reflects Stanbro’s sentiments.
“The North Pond is great but you cannot compare it to the Grand Canyon.”
When it was announced the Adventure Programs Program would be terminated, Kurt decided to email several different UNI administrators to try and find a clear reason why the program was terminated.
“Everyone was giving us the runaround so I decided I was going to do some digging,” Kurt said. “Originally we weren’t given a specific reason, it was just a lot of speculation. And then we were told it was a funding issue, but we are self-sustaining and have people pay for trips so we break even.”
UNI Outdoors required students who participated in their Adventure Trips programs to pay a certain amount for travel and equipment expenses. This was a concern expressed by O’Connell.
“By focusing on local outdoor recreation offerings, we are reducing financial barriers associated with adventure trips that can negatively impact a student’s participation,” O’Connell said. “We are committed to providing inclusive opportunities and help students start to see there are options available for them to incorporate into their health and well-being goals.”
Abrams acknowledged students had to pay money for the Adventure Trips, but insisted coordinators tried to make the trips as accessible as possible.
“We tried to run our trips as cheap as possible while still running in the green, so that money wasn’t an issue,” Abrams said. “Those without money really struggle to get into the backcountry so we tried to eliminate that barrier as much as possible.”
“You are not going to find a cheaper option to go to the Grand Canyon,” Kurt adds. “If financial difficulties were truly an issue, we wouldn’t have people on wait lists to go on our trips.”
Stanbro also commented, “They got rid of the thing that actually made revenue. It’s like they are setting the program up to fail.”
Another concern expressed by O’Connell during Kurt’s questioning was that professional staff members were needed to manage the trips, and all students who led trips would need to be paid. Many student leaders in the UNI Outdoors Adventure Trips Program were volunteers.
“Shelley (O’Connell) is manufacturing two problems that don’t exist,” Kurt said. “The first one is that we need pro staff to go on trips. You cannot find a single college that requires that. They have students that are trained in first aid and go camping all the time. So why is that suddenly a requirement? We don’t know because when we asked that question it was dodged.”
Kurt continued by insisting he as a volunteer does not need to be paid.
“Paying all students is another manufactured issue,” Kurt said. “I don’t need to be paid, I can volunteer. I enjoy going out on these trips and providing these experiences for students. And even if that was a Fair Labor Standards Act issue, there are regulations that allow you to not be paid.”
Rausch, who has worked in higher education throughout his career, suggests the program can be run by Graduate Assistants and not professional staff.
“The program can still exist with a GA overseeing it and student supervisors,” Rausch said. “Really give students the responsibilities that reflect their roles. It is possible to run the program that way.”
As a last resort to figure out why the program was canceled, Kurt decided to file a public records request regarding the termination of UNI Outdoors Adventure Trips Programs. UNI is a public entity, and the public can request records under Iowa law. He submitted a request May 9 and received a response May 11 which partially read, “The estimated cost to gather the information for your request is 91 hours at $30 per hour. The total invoice would be $2,730.”
Kurt inquired as to why he was required to pay this amount to receive the information he requested, and it was estimated the time to locate, retrieve and review the requested documentation would take 91 work hours to complete.
“I didn’t reply,” Kurt said. “I was just like, this has to be a joke. There was no effort to identify a solution or find a happy medium. (The Adventure Trips Program) is gone and we have to deal with it.”
There was also speculation that the UNI Outdoors Adventure Trips may have been terminated due to safety concerns, but Kurt heavily emphasized safety as a top priority for UNI Outdoors Trips, himself being a certified EMT.
“We go through a lot of risk management before our trips. We have numbers of highway patrol, local hospitals, we have a first aid kit, we ask about medical history so those who are trained at the responder level can give aid.”
Abrams also reiterated the importance of safety within the program.
“All of our trip coordinators had wilderness first aid certification, which is the industry standard for certification for guides,” Abrams said. “We held ourselves to a high level of discipline in how we acted in the back country and outdoors.”
Stanbro also noted the importance of safety on trips, and the danger of continuing to rent out equipment to students who are not familiar or trained properly.
“When you send someone with no experience with the correct gear and a handful of notes, it puts students at risk,” Stanbro said. “Too much of that knowledge is gained practically. It’s simply not safe to say, ‘Here’s a backpack, here’s a stove, and here’s some gas, go hike 20 miles into the middle of nowhere and purify your own water.’ That is something we would have to teach a class on for an entire semester before I would even feel comfortable sending somebody out into the backcountry.”
Stanbro continued, “From higher positions there is ignorance regarding how difficult it is to gain the knowledge and practical skills to do what we do on trips.”
Sydney Welte, UNI Outdoors’ current office manager adds, “I don’t think the administration or the people who decided to do this realized how much of an impact it made on students. This was their escape. School gets extremely stressful and this was their way to meet new people and experience amazing places.”
The decision to terminate this program has even caused a few students to continue their education elsewhere.
“It’s very disheartening and has frankly put a bad taste in my mouth about UNI,” Stanbro said. “Obviously I did not stay to finish my degree which was really hard. I understand it is a trend that these programs are disappearing, but if they needed to cut back from outdoor rec, I think there were other ways they could have done that.”
Kurt also left UNI, and is now working full time as an EMT.
“I’m not going to go and spend a lot of time volunteering for an organization that doesn’t support me,” Kurt said. “I’m not going to stay and get a degree in parks and rec if I can’t practice parks and rec.”
Abrams decided to stay at UNI as a graduate student to finish his degree, but the termination of the Adventure Trips has disheartened him.
“Cutting the program obviously hurt for me and a lot of other people here, but what hurt us a little bit more was how we were treated by the university as far as they didn’t really want to answer our questions and they didn’t want to own up to that decision,” Abrams said. “I came into this position really proud to be a Panther and here at UNI, and I’ll be finishing up after this year kind of looking back very disappointed in this university and the choices and actions of some of the administrators here.”
Several alumni, like Rausch, have conveyed frustration with the university’s decision to cut back the Adventures Trips Program, with an online petition on change.org to save the program receiving 875 out of a goal of 1,000 signatures. Several commenters expressed how the Adventure Trips were a fundamental part of their experience at UNI.
Welte encourages UNI administrators to reach out to UNI Outdoors students who are still confused about the decision to terminate the Adventure Trips.
“It would be a really good idea for the people who canceled this program to try and get in contact with a lot of the leadership team members in UNI Outdoors, and some participants to just explain why,” Welte said. “That’s really all we want. We just want to understand why and how this happened.”