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Interview with Kent Blumenthal, Executive Director of NIRSA

Interview with Kent Blumenthal, Executive Director of NIRSA

Q: We’re about [two months] removed from the NIRSA Conference and Expo in Austin, TX. Give me a little feedback about how things went.

A: I’m the last one that would be able to tell you. I’m kind of bouncing from meeting to meeting. The feedback we received from our online evaluations was just outstanding, both in our educational program delivery and in our networking and social events. Our expo received very high ratings. On the whole, it sounds like it was a great event. I’m blessed to work with some 20 outstanding individuals. We actually very much enjoy working with each other. That makes it all the more better.

Q: A few months ago, the Harvard recreation center accommodated Muslim women for certain periods of time. In an Associated Press story, you were quoted as saying, “It seems in some ways contrary to the purpose of campus recreation programs, which is all about access.” Can you expound on your view on that topic?

A: With Harvard, they have three campus facilities for student recreational sports programs. One of those facilities was carved out in response to six women of Muslim faith who are Harvard students. They had petitioned the university to have a private fitness area for them because of their religious beliefs. They did not want to work out among men. The university, on a pilot basis, chose to close to the general student body faculty and staff during otherwise regular business hours one of those facilities that they deemed would be the most remote or least used for the purpose of having it women only, not just for the Muslim students. To my knowledge, I did not know of any other university who had done the same by closing an entire facility that was otherwise open to the public or the university community. I do know it was highly controversial, even among all Harvard students, even the women’s groups at Harvard, that they did not like that segregation.

I firmly believe that every institution is different. They take the pulse of the student needs and interests and demographics. They come to their own conclusions as to what’s needed for that particular campus. A core value of NIRSA and our members is to take all interests and needs into the best of our ability we accommodate. In speaking to colleagues in how they have dealt with similar types of situations, whether it’s individuals with disabilities or perhaps others with certain cultural values that they bring into the fitness place, that they bend over backwards to accommodate and not put a majority or most of students at a disadvantage. It could be after general business hours that’s it’s open to the students, perhaps in some cases on an at-cost basis. If a swimming pool is needed, and it’s for women only, they will hire women lifeguards and even women custodial workers during the time that it’s a women-only use and not charge that group any more than they would have to pay out of their pocket in order to employ that lifeguard for that hour or two or whatever it is. That is the occurrence in virtually all situations with NIRSA-member institutions.

Q: We reported [last year] about the climate commitment that university presidents have signed. Last fall, there were 400 signatures. Can you give us an update about the climate commitment from university presidents in making rec centers more green, more energy-efficient buildings over the next two years?

A: That number is up to 540 college and university presidents that have signed onto that. That’s pretty special. All 50 states are now represented. That’s pretty darn good. I was there at the signing in Washington, DC, last year. The best that can come of this is a heightened awareness, a heightened understanding of how every college community can contribute towards making the world a safer, sustainable place to be. We all have certain responsibilities, and it’s not necessarily acknowledged. Every individual has a role to play. If enough individuals hung together, they can make a huge difference.

When it comes to the colleges and universities, these presidents wield tremendous power through their positions in coaching their various administrators and academic departments to educate and understand what they can do to make an impression on their student bodies. Nationally, there are some 13 million college students. How more important a setting can there be for folks to delve into and understand sustainable practices? What it means to us at NIRSA is how do we best communicate and teach and provide tools to our nearly 700-member institutions where they then have the tools to contribute on a campus basis, that they then can even take a leadership role in implementing the president’s directive to bring that particular campus up to a certain level to be a benchmark for sustainable green practice.

Q: Besides going green, what are some of the other trends with the building of student recreation centers around the country, and with the lagging economy, how has that hindered some of the progress of construction of student rec centers?

A: On the whole, the capital improvement projects that are ongoing are continuing unabated, and that’s largely because of the groundwork that has been done in advance by way of how they’re going to be financed and where the money is coming from. The capital projects are very different from other projects of , say, fee-based or tuition and the like.

The other thing that’s happening is that these colleges and universities have turned to campus recreation and facilities and activities as a recruitment and then a retention element for their schools. It almost seems as though that there’s tremendous competition to keep up with the Joneses when one school invests in their campus recreation facilities to find that the neighbor next door is trying to build one a little bigger, a little better. We don’t see that changing given the ebbs and flows of the economy.

What we do have is a higher enlightened understanding of the sustainable practices that are being applied, and the expectation is that the planners and architects are going to be bringing those to the table. We see more and more opportunities for people to learn about what’s worked and what hasn’t. In our last study—and we do this every two years—in December 2007, over $3 billion in new construction and rehabilitation is scheduled over that following five years, so through 2012. We actually think that that’s going to increase. That aggregate number will be above $3 billion as our estimate.

Q: A lot of students help fund those projects through student fees. However, they may be juniors and seniors and won’t see the fruit of their labor. What do you say to students who have a little issue with paying for student rec centers that they won’t work out in or will have graduated without getting a chance to work out there?

A: The proof is in the pudding that these students who understand the importance of it, that perhaps wish they had had improved facilities when they were on campus, by far stand behind supporting the universities taking on these new projects and developing them for future generations of students. It is not always the case, but in most cases, universities are compelled to have student referendums on certain aspects of capital development that would affect student fees. The vast majority of student referenda dealing with the expenditure of millions of dollars over time or the selling of bonds in order to finance these new facilities are passing, with huge majority.

I was up in Portland, OR. The state’s largest enrollment university is actually Portland State University. It’s an urban campus downtown. Big signage on a new construction project [read], “Thank you, students, for supporting the new campus recreation facility.” They’re the ones that voted it in. And every one of them that voted will not be there as an undergraduate student when that comes on line in the next few years.

Q: The NIRSA Health and Wellness Passport Program in which faculty and staff at NIRSA-member institutions, if they’re on the road and visit other NIRSA-member institutions, get to work out at those campus facilities free of charge. Tell me more about that program.

A: It’s a program whose time had come, and it makes perfect sense because all of us are in the health and wellness industry. What was at issue was, if somebody is paying their faculty staff fees at one university and they’re members of NIRSA, how about when they travel and there are other member institutions in the area? Could they work out there at no charge? It’s really taken off. We have just shy of 100 universities who have signed up in just about eight months to participate. All that’s required is that you offer the same opportunity to other guests who come to your campus that you want offered to you when you go to another campus. You have to show your university I.D. That’s pretty much it. You go online, you get a voucher off of our Web site and boom, you get to work out, and you get to try out new places.

One of the benefits of this is that it will encourage a building on your own campus a great public relations initiative where your faculty and staff, whether or not they take advantage of the opportunity, are offered the opportunity. It’s being viewed as a value added to their campus membership or fees they’re paying to work out there. That’s a huge plus because it builds not just adherence but proponents of that campus program and expands the interest in the faculty and staff in participating. They sign up for your campus, then they know they have access should they need it, kind of like your AAA membership card. So we’re really excited about it.

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