Cornell Tree Climbing Institute




A history of Cornell Outdoor Education at 30 years 

Karl E. Johnson '89, MS '00

In the mid-1970's, a dozen students and an instructor staged a sit-in in the Athletics and Physical Education office, demanding the use of a van that they had reserved. The students were enrolled in one of the first classes offered for Physical Education credit through a new student organization that ran wilderness trips with a small pile of gear and an even small   budget. Twenty-five years later, President Rawlings regularly refers to Cornell Outdoor Education as the finest program of its kind in the country.

An Oasis of Madness (1972-1984) The origins of COE lie in a graduate thesis on wilderness orientation trips for incoming college students. Although the truth is that such a thesis was proposed in 1972 and rejected. That same year, however, the New Student Orientation Committee did create Wilderness Reflections (WR)—a wilderness-based pre-orientation program. Along with a few faculty members, the program relied heavily on student leaders rather than professional guides in order to further integrate new students into the Cornell community. That first August, Cornell fielded nine trips, including canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters, backpacking in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains, and bicycling on Cape Cod. The AP wire picked up on the experiment, and stories ran in the New York Times, Phoenix Gazette, Des Moines Tribune, and other major papers. Within a week, Asst. Dean of Students David Henderson received letters of inquiry from deans and directors at Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and other universities, many of which now have their own similar programs. Wilderness Reflections would also later serve as the model for the Cornell Public Service Center's Pre-Orientation Service Trips (POST).

In the years that followed, David Morrissey Moriah '72, became a prominent member of the program. In 1976, Moriah arranged for the first outdoor adventure-based class to be offered for Physical Education credit. What originally had been just a freshmen orientation program soon expanded to include Physical Education credit classes in hiking, biking, climbing, and paddling, offered throughout the year. The classes were well received and Moriah soon had a full time job. Despite the recent success, Moriah had no office, but ran the program from his knapsack.

When Moriah left in 1984, Cornell hired Dan Tillemans to replace him. Building on Moriah's foundation of personal growth through wilderness experience, Tillemans added an emphasis on technical skill instruction, which he brought from the well-respected National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming. Serendipitously, the Cornell program has been almost equally influenced by the two most established outdoor adventure schools in the world.

"I would found an oasis of madness amidst a pompous academic institution that takes itself far too seriously."

David Morrissey Moriah, Class of 1972

A mover and a shaker, Tillemans renamed the program Cornell Outdoor Education (COE), and increased enrollment through aggressive marketing. In 1988, Tillemans created a one-acre forest in Barton Hall during Trustee/Council Weekend, complete with pine trees, wood chips, and bird songs, and he successfully recruited several alumni to serve on an advisory board. That same year, Tillemans led the first of two highly publicized Cornell expeditions that carried a Cornell flag to the summits of Chimborazo and Cotapaxi, the highest volcanoes in Ecuador. What had been a high quality but small outdoor program primarily for outdoor enthusiasts was suddenly getting a lot of press and attention.

Between 1991 and 1997, Tillemans oversaw the construction of the finest facilities of any university-based outdoor program in the nation, including the Phillips Outdoor Program Center, the Lindseth Climbing Wall, and the Hoffman Challenge Course—all premier facilities of their kind. In addition, Tillemans led alumni expeditions to Yosemite, Switzerland, and other exotic destinations, and implored the board and staff to develop an ambitious and detailed strategic plan and mission statement. The Oasis of Madness—still alive—had received a makeover.

When Tillemans stepped down in 1999, COE was a nationally-recognized organization with an endowed directorship, and a thick catalogue of course offerings that included not only hiking and biking, but caving, telemark skiing, ice climbing, and backcountry medicine. The next frontier was "academic integration."

Dr. Todd Miner, former director of Alaska Wilderness Studies, and Dean of Experiential Education at Keuka College, was selected from a pool of talented applicants to become the Lindseth Executive Director of Outdoor Education. Part mountaineer and part academician, Miner, who holds a doctorate in education from Boston University, strongly believes that the essence of outdoor education—"experiential learning"—can happen anywhere. And now it does.

Many of the recent initiatives occur in the Teambuilding Program Area, the directorship of which was endowed by the advisory board in 2001 in honor of Tillemans. For example, COE now provides "experience-based training and development" programs not only to university staff departments on campus, but also to JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, and other corporations off campus.

When alumni return to campus, COE's colossal climbing wall, corporate contracts, glossy catalogue, and fleet of vans may render the program unrecognizable. Miner, however, would point out certain continuities in the COE program, including an emphasis on student leadership development, mutual respect, and clear communication among instructors and participants, and physical adventures such as rapelling out of Schoellkopf Stadium and running the rapids of Fall Creek, which offer the same intense experiences as they did in the 70's, 80's and 90's.

The Oasis of Madness lives. And it continues to grow today.