Feeding the Risk Gap

September 15, 2014

Feeding the Risk Gap
…. and getting buy-in from Risk Management

Mark Oldmixon
Director of Recreation, Adventure and Wellness
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Campus recreation programs struggle to find the balance between providing students with programs/sports/activities that are often perceived as ‘high-risk’ while avoiding administrative concerns for major liability. The advantage campus recreation programs have is the statistical research reflecting a generation who is exposed to risk-taking behavior at all times and are therefore going to engage in other risk taking behaviors which often lead to poor academic success. By providing the programs and opportunities for students to engage in more physical and social activities, the likelihood that they will engage in drinking, drugs, and other reckless behavior decreases.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ risk story has a large asterisk associated: *takes place in Fairbanks, Alaska.

  1. Residents of Alaska are naturally accepting of everyday risks and comfortable living with in environments not suitable to most in the lower 48 states.
  2. Temperatures in winter regularly dip below -30F.
  3. Children play at recess until -20F. Fairbanks’ shortest day sees a little more than 3 hours of sunlight.
  4. It is a notable day when it doesn’t snow in the winter.
  5. School is only cancelled in winter when temps climb too high and things melt.
  6. Over 5% of Fairbanks’ population doesn’t have running water, showers or toilets.

And these are just the urban risks! Risk increases significantly as soon as you leave the city boundaries and ultimately you must rely on self-rescue techniques.

As a result, it takes an extra level of excitement to satisfy an 18-year male’s desire to push his limits and feel a rush of adrenaline. This appetite is increased with readily available pictures and videos of professionals pushing the limits in exotic places.

While the winters in Fairbanks are harsh and the residents are resilient, every degree towards a southern latitude provides milder winters and easier living. Thus, UAF tour guides are often asked the question by non-locals, “What do you do in the winter up here?”

UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers and Vice Chancellor for Student Services Mike Sfraga realized this question posed a three-component problem; recruitment, retention and ultimately success.

First, get the right pieces in place

Providing recreational opportunities to students was disjointed prior to Chancellor Rogers’ appointment.

  • The Student Recreation Center (SRC) reported to Athletics.
  • The climbing wall inside the SRC was managed by a student club.
  • The Outdoor Adventure program was growing and was housed in the student union.
  • The pool and ice were treated as facilities, not programming spaces.

Over the course of two years UAF combined all these facilities and program areas into a single department, the Department of Recreation, Adventure, and Wellness (DRAW). It fit perfectly, we wanted to DRAW students to UAF and DRAW them out of the dorms and their comfort zones!

The Outdoor Adventures had already proven to be a tremendous success with climbing programs and classes. Capitalizing on that obvious student interest and our northern climate, we built a 30’ outdoor ice climbing wall right next to the Student Recreation Center and campus entrance.

Thankfully, when this idea was brainstormed the response from upper level administration was “Why not?” and “How?” versus “What are you? Crazy?”

The next year, we opened a ski and snowboard terrain park which, to our advantage was located right on campus between the dorms and classrooms. Additionally, the location obtained high visibility as it was at the entrance to campus. Furthermore, it boasts three large jumps and 12 rail features, and both the ice wall and terrain park utilize a yurt to host guests, equipment, paperwork, etc.

We worked hard to satisfy the needs of risk management, General Counsel and master planning. While they did not shoot us down from the beginning, we had to earn their support every step of the way. Additionally, we had to fund these crazy ideas in a way that would not impact University relations as State dollars were not available.

In order to calm concerns of the various stakeholders, our staff worked closely with them to ensure everyone had the same vision before making presentations. We worked at length on a Standard Operations and Procedures manual which served to provide a clear vision of how we intended to operate each facility.

Concerns included: fencing, staffing (including training and expectations), safety inspections (daily or monthly?), and emergency response procedures. We went into the meetings prepared to answer almost any question or possible scenario, and still allowed administration and others to make changes as needed.

Each project was also associated with a recognized industry group. This allowed us to defer our ideas to “industry accepted best practices.” Our climbing tower was certified by the Association of Challenge Course Technology and each belayer holds a Climbing Wall Instructor credential from the Professional Climbing Instructor Association. As a result, these high-standards certifications gave us legitimacy in the eyes of the approving authorities.

Likewise, the terrain park has been approved as a ‘licensed ski area’ by the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources and certified by the US Terrain Park Council. Obtaining these certifications substantially reduced concerns about million dollar law suits for each broken wrist.

While both projects were under the microscope from everyone from public to park services, we charged forward to find funding. Both projects generated great interest from students, and in response the student government supported each project financially.

From there, we gained funding from community dollars and in-kind donations. For example, the Rotarians raised enough money for us to buy a full-sized snow groomer and a local shipping company shipped the vehicle for free.

The naming rights to the terrain park were purchased by a local family looking to be supportive of youth activities in town in hopes of losing less youth to Lower 48. Thanks to these generous supporters, the “Hulbert Nanook Terrain Park” will be around for many ski seasons come. As an added benefit and show of gratitude, members of the community are welcome to use the park and climbing tower.

DRAW has existed for three years now, and continues to look towards the future to find ways to use our natural landscape and existing structures to meet the needs of a changing student demographic. Due to extremely high energy costs in Alaska and limited funding, we need to embrace our outdoor environment, current facilities and capitalize on untapped potential.

Recently, we have taken on projects such as a 27-hole disc golf, developed a man-made outdoor skating pond, and are in the process of rehabilitating our fields with the hopes of holding more dog mushing events on campus.

Furthermore, we have broken down barriers for students by providing peer personal training opportunities and free group fitness classes. Intramurals continue to the break the mold each year with various styles of dodgeball (including on ice) and the popular battleship.

Looking ahead, our next goal is to build an indoor challenge course suspended over the courts; including zip-lines, giant’s ladder, bridges, and cargo nets with a projected timeline for completion in approximately 12-months.

Research data has shown students who are active on campus feel a stronger connection to the school and as a result, show stronger academic performance. Students who have a physical fitness outlet on-campus do even better. Many students are satisfied with the standard gym and intramural offerings, however, to attract and satisfy a greater percentage of students, more has to be offered.

They have an appetite and DRAW feeds them.

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