Most staff and observers agree that the school over-extended itself, diluting "a lot of their core effectiveness," says Shawn Tierney, a former OB staffer and the director of the Association of Experiential Education, which certifies experiential education programs. "It was not clear who they were serving." The school's identity had become murky, obscured by the variety of experiences it offered. "The brand name Outward Bound is out there, but I think the public has a problem identifying what (it) is," says Aram Attarian, a North Carolina Outward Bound School board member and professor of outdoor education at North Carolina State University.
Duba has another theory, though. OB's message -- that challenge brings resilience, and teamwork helps people achieve more -- had become a hard sell. "We're up against a culture that celebrates individuality," he says. "The things that OB talks about are elusive. What do you mean, 'build character'? What do you mean, 'teamwork'? It just doesn't lend itself as well to a sound bite."
In the 2000s, John Read, Outward Bound USA's new executive director, led a wave of consolidations. A Harvard Business School grad who ran a Cummins diesel engine plant for 11 years, Read thought putting one national school, instead of many independent ones, in charge of marketing, programming and fundraising would decrease administrative costs and inter-school competition, while increasing enrollment and income. But the recession, which came on the heels of the final merger into one national organization, complicated things. Donations fell, partially because people who had supported local schools for years felt alienated from the new national one. In an effort to "re-localize," Read proposed basing the entire organization at city centers. "It was very clear that donors wanted to give locally, and I was passionate about seeing kids in the cities taken out of their comfort zone for five-to-seven-day courses," which "had the same powerful effect that three-week courses for kids with money always had." But as OB founded new urban centers in Denver, San Francisco and Portland, the internal tension worsened. "People were wondering, is this going to shift entirely to (urban) centers and wilderness is going to be left out in the cold?" says Crane.
Meanwhile, administrators at the wilderness-based schools were struggling with the national organization's bureaucracy. Formerly simple tasks, like buying new gear and invoicing vendors, were suddenly complex. Crane describes the final merger as dysfunctional and disheartening, a sentiment shared by Mike Armstrong, a 19-year OB veteran and administrator at the Northwest Outward Bound School in Redmond, Ore. "The whole national thing created a bit of an 'us and them,' " he says. He wondered what happened to the money made on Northwestern courses. "I looked at it as: I would take a suitcase of $400,000 bucks to (OB USA headquarters in) Golden, Colo., and they would lose it."
In 2010, Read, convinced that few people shared his vision for a unified OB based in urban areas, decided to step down. The organization lost $1.3 million that year -- less than the nearly $4 million lost in 2008, but still too much. Nine months later, in October 2011, administrators got unexpected news: Come the New Year, all 13 schools would be on their own financially. Even though Armstrong feared he might lose his job, he says, "The other feelings were of relief, like things are going to change for the better."
On Jan. 1, 2012, Colorado Outward Bound School administrator Crane awoke in Leadville, to a world of uncertainty. There was a course in the field: Did the satellite phones still work? The Colorado school had no credit card, no vendor accounts and no guarantee staff would get paid. "It was a little like Y2K. Is everything going to hit the fan on Jan. 1?" recalls associate program director Adam Steel. But over the next few months, the team began re-building the school and re-thinking the future. In February, Crane asked a group of instructors why the school should exist. They scribbled answers on scraps of paper and taped them to whiteboards. The responses varied wildly, from saving the environment to running urban-based programs for kids. "Everyone was so certain that their answer was right," she says. "(That was) how foggy, how obstructed our vision of what we do is."
Soon, the school closed its Denver center, primarily for financial reasons, but also because of the confusion created by the urban programming. Peter O'Neil, the executive director of Colorado Outward Bound School as of May, says the school plans to refocus on its wilderness heritage, the three- and four-week backpacking, river-running and climbing courses that he says are "the real deal." He uses the phrase so much that people around the office have started calling him "Real Deal O'Neil." Colorado Outward Bound still serves under-privileged youth, but in the wilderness rather than in Denver. Other schools are making similar choices. North Carolina Outward Bound School gets just under half of its students from day programs at its Atlanta center, but executive director Whitney Montgomery said the school's wilderness courses are its focus. "That's what we think (the school) does best," he says. "The longer courses in the wilderness do provide many more options for personal growth and self-discovery than a series of day programs."
Other schools are also rallying around their strengths. Even if Colorado doesn't run an urban center or work with at-risk youth, the New York City and Ely, Minn.-based Voyageurs Outward Bound schools remain committed to those needs. "There's a place in the world for both (wilderness and urban)," says Peter Steinhauser, head of a team that does marketing for all the independent OB schools. "No matter who you are, or where you're from, there's an OB course at an OB school that's right for you."
Colorado Outward Bound instructor Francisco Tharp, who has worked through many stages of the school's consolidation, says his coworkers are excited about the changes. "It reinvigorated a lot of people who had been disenchanted," he says. His boss, Nancy Crane, no longer leaves work frustrated and demoralized. "The banging my head against the wall? No longer applicable," she says. "Since we deconsolidated, it feels like we can be functional again."
For many Outward Bounders, coming together to save the school felt like an OB course. "Everyone was looking for themselves to rise from the ashes, but also looking at how can we help each other do that," Crane says. O'Neil agrees. The school had its share of difficult years, he says, "but you know what? We're about putting our students in situations where they struggle, too. You can learn from struggle. … If you're not struggling, I would argue as an educator, then we aren't doing our job."