On April 10th, the Pennsylvania State Outing Club (PSOC) announced that it would cease to organize student-led trips for the student body in an official disbanding imposed by University administration. The decision, enforced by Campus Recreation, the Office of Student Activities, and the Office of Risk Management, came as a shock to PSOC members and leaders. The story has made national and international headlines in the weeks since the announcement, but much remains to be seen as the club vies with University authorities for its right to get outside.
At College Outside, we are firm believers in the value of outdoor communities on college and university campuses. We are committed not only to sharing PSOC’s story from a collegiate perspective, but to standing up for students’ right to get outside. We present a detailed account of PSOC’s journey thus far, lessons from the club’s inspiring leaders, and an action plan to defend access to outdoor recreation for students everywhere.
Founded in 1920, PSOC is one of the longest-running outing clubs in the country. The club traces by a rich history and a legacy of influence for outdoor recreation in the Northeast. Over the years, the club worked alongside various organizations to envision and build the popular Allegheny Front Trail and the Mid State Trail, which runs 323 miles across Pennsylvania from the Maryland border to the New York border. PSOC members put up first ascents in the Adirondacks and beyond, and were hugely influential in the whitewater paddling community. The first American team to compete in an international canoe slalom competition in 1963 was comprised entirely of PSOC paddlers. More recently, the club took first place at ACA Collegiate Canoe and Kayak Downriver Nationals in 2015 and 2016. In addition to being accomplished competition canoe and kayakers, PSOC members made the first descents of many rivers across the mid-Atlantic.
The club has also been an impetus for a handful of other campus organizations, including Ski Patrol and Penn State Outdoor Adventures, a separate organization that leads guided trips for the university community. Beyond that, PSOC has introduced thousands of students to outdoor recreation and fostered a strong outdoors community over a decade of inclusive trips.
PSOC has continuously run trips (mostly weekend backpacking, hiking, and paddling) over the 98 years of its existence. In recent years, the club fell under the jurisdiction of Club Sports. Under this authority, leaders were required to develop Emergency Action Plans, submit detailed itineraries to Club Sports personnel, and have a Safety Officer (a leader certified in First Aid and CPR) on each trip. In the spring of 2017, the club was moved from the Club Sports division and re-designated as an organization under the jurisdiction of Campus Recreation. The move came with enforced oversight from the Outdoor Adventures office, which imposed a set of new policies on trip planning. Amongst other new policies, PSOC leaders, who previously required little training, had to be approved by the Campus Recreation office before they could lead trips. Additionally, the office required that a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder certified leader be present on every outing.
PSOC leaders complied with the new restrictions enforced by Campus Recreation, and met frequently with faculty in the department to discuss the changes. As far as the PSOC officers could tell, things were going well under the new direction. “We were following all the rules that they had put in place,” said graduate student Timothy Hackett, PSOC’s Treasurer. But, on April 2nd, the administration threw them a curveball.
“On April 2, 2018, the Penn State Outing Club was called into an ‘organizational review’ where representatives of Campus Recreation and the Office of Student Activities were present. The club was informed that a review from the perspective of University risk management policies had been conducted,” wrote the PSOC officers in a statement released on April 26th. “The result of this review was that [PSOC’s] activities exceed the University’s acceptable risk level for both Campus Recreation Club Sports and Student Activities Student Organizations, and the club would be dissolved at the end of the semester.”
The decision to shut down the club was not preceded by any incidents or injuries on PSOC trips. Despite urgings from students and advocates outside of the Penn State community, the administration has refused to publish the risk assessment report that led to the shutdown, or even to reveal any motivations for instigating the assessment. The Nittany Grotto Caving Club and the Nittany Divers SCUBA Club were also disbanded as a result of the evaluation.
Penn State’s Outdoor Adventures program, separate from the Outing Club, was unaffected by the risk assessment, and continues to run climbing, caving, paddling, backpacking trips and more for the student population. These trips are led by trained student guides, but are planned by the Office of Campus Recreation. According to PSOC leaders, Outdoor Adventures trips are far more expensive than PSOC trips, and many students can’t afford to participate. Further, Outdoor Adventures offers fewer opportunities for students to develop leadership skills of their own.
PSOC officers announced the dissolution at a club meeting on Monday, April 10th, and followed up with public announcements on Facebook and their website the next day. The reaction from the student body and alumni community was immediate—people were incensed.
Natalie McCollum, ’19 and incoming PSOC Vice President, was on the phone with her mom soon after she heard the news. “I told her, ‘man, I just really want this to be the headline of a news story. We need the support,’ and then it actually happened!” she said. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reached out to the club via Facebook, and then the story blew up.
The news of PSOC’s situation has been picked up by dozens of national and even international publications, including National Public Radio, the New York Times, Fox News, and BBC. The club’s dozen officers have spent hours each day fielding calls from reporters and coordinating interviews and meetings on spreadsheets. Members officer board (comprised of both incoming and outgoing leaders), have kept meticulous track of every email and communication that’s been exchanged with media regarding the shutdown. “It’s like 11 or 12 people just having a full-time job of coordinating [with the press],” McCollum said, despite being full-time students with final exams looming.
Hackett said they’ve received correspondence from folks in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Greece, Canada. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for this,” he said. “None of us are Public Relations people, but it’s been a wild ride. The biggest credit we have to give is to our club advisor. She’s been advising us all along the way, supporting us and helping us keep it professional.”
The result of such immense media attention has, on the whole, been an overwhelming outpouring of support for the club. Well-known members of the outdoors community, such as Conrad Anker, have shown their support on social media, and hundreds of students from other schools have advocated for PSOC’s right to lead trips. “I think it makes sense how much attention it’s gotten, because those who are invested in the outdoors care about that availability for everyone. This is such a regressive move for the community,” said McCollum.
The officer board has been quick to take action to oppose the Student Activities Office’s decision. While they are still forbidden to go on trips, PSOC applied for and was approved to become a Special Interest Organization on campus. While the new designation doesn’t change the prohibition on trips, it allows the group to meet formally, maintain a community of outdoor-enthusiasts on campus, and retain their funding. For Hackett, the most important part of maintaining status as a university-recognized group is the preservation of club history. Trips or no trips, PSOC will enter it’s 99th year as a formal organization next fall.
The officers continue to work tirelessly with the hopes of regaining the right to lead trips by next fall. Students have circulated an online petition in support of saving the club that received over 5,000 signatures within the first week of circulation. The club has also solicited advice from outing clubs at other universities while they brainstorm restructuring and considering new methods of risk mitigation.
What’s an Outing Club without Outings?
The media attention PSOC has received is justified—getting outside matters. In the college bubble, it can be hard to recognize the impact that student organizations have on broader communities. But the testimonials and reactions that supporters of PSOC have expressed speak to the power of student groups to make a difference. “What we do matters. It’s important to go outside,” said Lindsey Fritz, a sophomore member of PSOC and former officer of the club.
Amongst other positive impacts, PSOC was successful in introducing thousands of beginners to the outdoors over the years. “I feel mostly worried for the incoming students who think the only way to get involved on campus is through Greek Life,” said Fritz. In February of 2017, Penn State Greek Life made international headlines when freshman Timothy Piazza died as a result of hazing during fraternity pledging. Fritz saw PSOC as an escape from party culture, and a safe space for all students. “We were welcoming and open to everyone,” she said.
Fritz echoed the bewilderment over the University’s risk assessment that many club members and supporters share. “The most dangerous part of backpacking is the drive to the trail,” she said. Commenters online have cited Greek Life, football, and boxing among dozens of activities that the University enables that may be considered “riskier” than hiking. While McCollum hesitates to compare the risks of PSOC trips to activities of other groups on campus, she wants to know, “what are the risks of keeping people inside and barring that mode of entry to so many people? [Outdoor recreation] not only has the potential for physical health but also mental health and a sense of community which is vital to any person, college student or otherwise.”
“When you go to a big school like Penn State, it’s hard to find a place without partying. That’s such a ubiquitous college culture, and for someone who wants to deviate from that and find people who like what they like, an outing club is such a positive experience. I am a firm believer that people in the outdoors are some of the most accepting people I’ve ever met. The outdoors doesn’t discriminate. It’s a diverse group of people, and that’s so beneficial. Not only do you learn about yourself when you expedition outside, but you learn so much about others, and there’s this intimacy that’s spread by camping and hiking with people that you may not have met otherwise. And that’s extremely valuable,” McCollum said.
In the aftermath of the shutdown, McCollum has spoked to a handful of PSOC alumni who cite their involvement in the club amongst their most influential life experiences. There are some things you just can’t learn in a classroom, she explains. We’ve all experienced the wonders of spending time outside, especially in our college years: there’s inherent value in the growth that comes with facing challenges, escaping from the stress of school work, learning self-sufficiency and empathy, growing as leaders and mentors, developing lifelong passions and lifelong friendships, and so much more.
“Our club really provided a safe place for students and really allowed people to grow. It’s a shame the University is so disconnected from how much good we were doing,” said Fritz.
We Care. Let’s Do Something About It.
You can get involved with supporting PSOC on their quest to regain permission to go outside. Read the full press release from PSOC here, and stay up to date on their Facebook page. Show your support by signing the online petition in defense of the club’s right to go outside.
At College Outside, we believe in the power of student groups to positively influence the college careers of participants, especially through time spent together in nature. This belief is the foundation of who we are and what we do. Thus, in addition to offering our support to PSOC, we have committed to producing a series of articles on all things outdoors club related. The How to Run an Outdoors Club series shares wisdom on how to establish an outdoor program if your school does not have one already and how to improve an existing organization. We as a community of young outdoor enthusiasts are growing. College Outside alone has supported dozens of new clubs this year. With this series, we hope to offset the loss of one club by stimulating and supporting the ongoing growth of college outdoor clubs across the country. Check out the series here.