Outdoor Recreation Programs: Contract Out or Keep in House?

July 14, 2011

Jim Fitzsimmons
Director of Campus Recreation
University of Nevada, Reno

With just over 20 years in the outdoors industry in both the private sector and college/university setting I have experienced both sides of this equation. The request to research this topic came at the same time my university was making a significant change concerning its outdoor recreation program. The two dovetailed nicely and while many readers may disagree with the findings and the eventual outcome, it is an example to learn from.

For the past decade, the program at UNR was ‘home-grown’ and operated exclusively in-house. Everything from instructors to equipment, permits and transportation was owned and operated by the program. We held commercial permits for rafting, kayaking and climbing. Class offerings included white water guide school, wilderness skills, sea and white water kayaking, rock climbing, mountaineering, nordic and alpine skiing, snow boarding, fly fishing, wilderness first aid, swift water rescue, rafting and level one avalanche certification. All instructors were certified though national organizations and we followed accepted industry standards for all programs. While all courses were offered both for credit and on a non-credit basis, the University did not offer a degree in the discipline of Outdoor Recreation or anything remotely related. Depending upon the semester and course offerings, participation swung between a peak of 1,200 students and a low of 300. In an average year, the program would offer field trips about 25 weekends per year.

In ten years of operations the program experienced one accident (a broken finger) requiring a trip to the emergency room. The program evaluations were stellar and the students who did participate had life changing experiences and some of them, a decade after graduating, still mark their outdoor experience as the highlight of their college career.

Financially the program was neither a winner nor loser. Year to year it showed a small profit allowing it to continue to expand and grow at an acceptable rate. Some of the less profitable programs were subsidized by the more profitable courses which allowed us to maintain a good balance of opportunities for students at a reasonable cost.

Someone finally asked the question. “If we do not offer a degree in this why do we do it? Why do we commit the human and financial resources to an endeavor in which we do not offer a degree when the chance of a significant loss exists?” Our response was as follows: “It’s part of a well rounded recreation program and it’s what students expect at a university located in our geographic region. Recruitment, retention, student satisfaction. It gives students opportunities to experience the natural environment and learn a new skill set. It teaches students lifetime activities.”

We were listened to, and the administration clearly understood and agreed with the value of the program, but were still uncomfortable with the liability exposure. The questions then turned to “How can we offer the same experience while decreasing the institutions liability exposure? Can we do this by contracting the service and shifting the exposure to the contractor?”

For our program the bottom line was this: we did not offer a degree. Relative to student population and other recreation programs, participation in the outdoors program was low. The cost of purchasing and maintaining equipment was high. The cost of maintaining permits and additional insurance riders was high. Instructor training and maintenance was high. The universities perception of the liability exposure was extreme and there was existing case law that supported this perception.

When we sat down and really picked things apart, the primary areas of concern were as follows: Barbara: add the highlighted words below to the above

  1. Transportation — Statistically, students were at the greatest risk for injury or fatality while on the road. We had a good transportation policy in place, well maintained 12 passenger vans driven by paid staff who had all participated in a defensive driving course. Regardless, the probability of a catastrophic accident while on the road existed and loomed large in the minds of our Campus Recreation council and the folks in Risk Management. While more expensive up front, contracting with a commercial provider , was much more palatable and was viewed as an investment in loss prevention.
  2. Property and Premises Liability — This is tied to the outdoor gear maintenance audits, use logs, replacement cycles, storage, correct use etc. While we were absolutely on the ball with this area, there was a fear that if there was a personnel change the next person might not be as diligent and then where would we be?
  3. Interstate Travel — Our university is situated only 12 miles East of the California state line and as such, much of our programming took place in California. Despite the fact that our trips originated outside the state of California, existing case law dictates that an accident occurring in California is subject to California state law. This was seen as a significant financial threat and liability exposure.

Contracting with outfitters and commercial transportation companies would in theory shift a vast majority of the liability to someone else. Many will rightfully argue that: “your institution is inevitably going to be named in any litigation that arises from a contracted trip.” This is correct. However the University’s ability to distance and extricate itself from the case is much improved when it is simply contracting for services, provided the University practiced reasonable due diligence is selecting a contractor.

Ultimately we were forced to look at the reality that our university was not in the business of providing outdoor recreation programming, it did not offer a degree in the discipline, and the program did not generate sufficient revenue or reputation to justify the risk.

The final decision to move to contacting for service was painful but obvious and we are now reorganizing to offer the more popular programs on a contract basis. Some may view this as a loss for the program but I prefer to view it not in terms of wins and losses but rather as finding a way to keep offering outdoor programs in a manner that is acceptable to the institution and in its best interests.

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