Guest Column - September 2006
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Are Collegiate Recreational Sports Directors in the Fitness or Education Business?

Association Guest Column: National Intramural-Recreation Sports Association

By Katherine Otten

ith all the challenges that come from running any kind of recreation facility or program, directors of campus recreational sports programs have a unique added responsibility. After they build their facilities and programs, after they hire and train their staff, after they get people in the door, after they oversee a thousand details related to the success of their operation, can they rest easy knowing that the largely student population they serve is having fun after class, getting into shape, working off stress and maybe even building healthy lifestyle habits?

More and more, the answer is no. The added responsibility for recreational sports directors on a college or university campus is to further the goals of higher education, and in particular, those of their host institution. It works the other way, too: The most successful higher education administrators make a point of reaching out to campus professionals engaged in all aspects of student learning environments, including recreational sports directors and other student-affairs-related personnel.

Students are people first and students second. They undoubtedly gain valuable knowledge from the classroom, and recent studies show that, as one would expect, the quality of academic programs, facilities and professors rank at the top of what students look for when considering a school. But if you attended college, think back to those years for a moment. In the picture in your mind's eye, are you seated at a desk? More likely than not, you visualize yourself doing something that embodies what that period of transition felt like—navigating the campus, figuring out a class schedule, pulling an all-nighter, rushing to your job, scoping out romantic possibilities. If experience is the greatest teacher, then anyone involved in providing an experience to a college student is an educator, whether they consider themselves to be one or not. Getting all these educators to rethink traditional approaches to learning, and to talk to each other, is key.

The National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) is a member of the Student Affairs in Higher Education Consortium (SAHEC), a subgroup of the Council of Higher Education Management Associations (CHEMA) of which NIRSA is also a member. SAHEC promotes the understanding of learning and development as intertwined, inseparable elements of the college student experience. The new book Learning Reconsidered 2 (LR2), published collaboratively by members of the consortium, shows how to get educators from all parts of a campus working together to benefit students. NIRSA supports the ideas presented in this book so strongly that we sent a free copy to the director of recreational sports at each of our member institutions.

The basic idea presented by LR2 is that the most meaningful learning takes place "in the active context of students' lives." No one building or group of people on a college campus has a monopoly on education.

So where and how do recreational sports fit in? A research report commissioned by NIRSA entitled "The Value of Recreational Sports in Higher Education" (2004) revealed that in addition to improving students' emotional well-being, reducing stress and improving happiness, recreational sports programs build self-confidence and character, promote diversity, teach team-building, and improve leadership skills. And these benefits and learning outcomes are correlative to the level of participation. The more that students participate in recreational sports, the more likely they are to agree that recreational sports are an important part of their overall learning experience at college.

Our efforts are gaining momentum. A LR2 panel discussion was one of the best attended and highly rated sessions of the NIRSA 2006 Annual Conference in Louisville, Ky., and NIRSA members contributed many case studies for a new LR2 Web site. NIRSA will host the May 2007 SAHEC meeting at its offices in Corvallis, Ore., bringing together the chief staff officers of each member organization.

NIRSA has also been working to forge connections across higher education in many other ways:

In August, NIRSA sent all members a free copy of an article entitled "Sweat Equity" in Business Officer (July/August 2006, pp. 28-33), the magazine of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and a July 2006 report from the Council of Higher Education Management Associations titled "The Future of Higher Education: A View from CHEMA." The Business Officer article discusses how investments for recreation and fitness-related facilities yields results in terms of value for students and recruitment and retention rates for the university. The CHEMA report examines how university administrators and officials anticipate that higher education will change over the next 10 years, the drivers of change, and the degree of preparedness to manage change. The report was jointly sponsored by NIRSA and 21 other CHEMA member associations.

NIRSA is a member of the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS), which promotes standards for quality enhancement of programs and services in higher education through self-assessment. NIRSA Executive Director Dr. Kent Blumenthal and several other NIRSA members will be attending the CAS National Symposium on Standards, Self-Assessment, and Student Learning Outcomes in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. in November. The goal of the symposium is to arm institutions with the skills and knowledge to conduct assessments in order to improve student learning.

NIRSA recently joined the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC), which is committed to advancing sustainability both within its collective memberships and within the system of higher education itself. HEASC seeks to help higher education be a leader in making education, research and practice for a sustainable society a reality.

In July NIRSA joined 13 other CHEMA organizations in presenting a poster session at The Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds conference in Honolulu. The conference was a first-of-its-kind collaborative event conducted by three leading associations that serve higher education: The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers (APPA), NACUBO, and the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). The conference enabled access to high-quality, joint educational programming and encouraged opportunities to build synergy across the higher education community.

NIRSA is currently creating a National Registry for Recreational Sports Professionals, a credentialing initiative that will identify, encourage, guide and recognize purposeful professional development. Continuing education for recreational sports professionals is an important requirement of the program.

So while it's true that campus recreational sports directors are in the business of providing fitness and recreation opportunities to most of the 17 million college students in the United States, they are more importantly in the education business. Their role as educators will continue to grow along with the larger effort to design and implement campus programs and facilities that support the education of the whole student with forethought and intent.


Katherine Otten is assistant director of marketing for the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). For more information on how to bridge campus recreational programs and student learning or to take advantage of many training and networking opportunities, visit Upcoming professional development events include the National Recreation Facilities Institute, Oct. 11 to 14 in Columbus, Ohio; the National Marketing Institute, Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 in San Antonio, Texas; and the NIRSA Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Exposition, April 18 to 21, 2007, in Minneapolis.