New campus recreation director adjusts programs for COVID-19, runs risk assessment
Updated: Apr 29
Willamette announced that they had hired [Tony Stafford as the new director of campus recreation on August 17]. Stafford said over email that he began work on August 3. In an interview, Stafford said that so far, he has focused on ensuring his department is in line with WU COVID-19 safety procedures, reassessing the department’s budget and continuing a risk assessment begun by Tom Kirch, spring’s interim campus recreation director.
The previous campus recreation director, Kosti Efstathiou, resigned on October 28 last year after inexplicably disappearing from campus for nearly three weeks. Kirch, a previous campus recreation director at Oregon State University, came out of retirement to help fill the vacant position. Kirch worked part-time from December through spring semester, supported by Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Activities Lisa Holliday, while Willamette’s hiring committee searched for a permanent and full-time replacement. The search concluded with the hiring of Stafford.
Since Stafford is new to Willamette, he has been gathering as much information as he can about campus life, on everything from student life to budgets and policies. However, his first priority is ensuring that campus recreation follows COVID-19 safety procedures. He has been communicating with several other schools and gathering information on their procedures, and then comparing that material to Willamette guidelines and seeing what areas of his department can reopen under those parameters.
One of his main directives from WU’s administration was to get Sparks Fitness Center up and running. Stafford hopes that Sparks will reopen during the first week of September, but much depends on how fast this year’s staff can be trained and how soon the proper cleaning supplies can be obtained. “We need to make sure that our staff is mature and ready enough to take on cleaning and [WU protocol] enforcement duties,” Stafford said.
All WU programs are required to submit an organization proposal to the reopening committee for approval before resuming activities. Each proposal must detail how the individual organization plans to follow Willamette’s safety protocols. Campus recreation programs are not exempt from this rule—the Outdoor Program, WU dance groups and intramural and club sports are all required to submit an organization proposal.
While some groups have yet to fill out a proposal, the Outdoor Program has already been approved to resume activities. However, all trips have to be within walking distance of campus. Stafford has encouraged the Outdoor Program’s leaders to get creative with their trip offerings, suggesting activities such as berry picking, lessons on edible plants and inflatable tubing down the Willamette river. Conversations are ongoing as to how the Montag desk will be staffed and how gear will be rented from the Outdoor Program’s stock safely this semester.
Neither intramural nor club sports will be allowed to travel for games. Additionally, many team sports will no longer be allowed to meet due to social distancing guidelines. Some teams will still be able to meet and run practices, as long as they submit a proposal illustrating how they will do so safely.
“We [campus recreation] will still run some stuff this fall, but we won’t be running on all cylinders until this spring. Everybody needs to be patient because we need to make sure we do a good job keeping everybody safe,” Stafford said.
Another focus of Stafford’s is continuing Kirch’s risk assessment of the department. Kirch and Stafford spent 10 hours over the summer virtually going over Kirch’s risk assessment. When Stafford arrived on campus, they spent an additional 30 to 40 hours together. Stafford said: “When I talked to him virtually he was referencing buildings and people, and when I got here we went through it all again in person to put context to his risk assessment. Both of us had a lot of the same questions and had a lot of moments where we agreed, ‘yeah, that just shouldn't have been implemented that way.’” Even though Kirch has now left Willamette, Stafford is still in contact with him.
Stafford clarified that this risk assessment did not mean that people had been getting hurt, but rather that the university had been in a poor place to handle situations from a liability standpoint. As part of this assessment, Stafford is making sure Outdoor Program leaders are CPR/AED certified and possess the needed technical skills, that the Outdoor Program has a supply of wilderness medicine and that fitness trainers are certified. “There are things that need to be done at an industry standard—I just took what Tom had done and built on it,” Stafford said.
He continued: “Lisa [Holliday] and I are on the same page: we [campus recreation] are going to offer some things, but we also need to analyze how things were run the last three years and reassess.” According to Stafford, the campus recreation director before Efstathiou ran the department well, but he doesn’t know if what the department’s current student leaders have learned “is the most accurate.”
Technical training is planned for student leaders across the department. Stafford has organized a campus recreation leadership retreat for Labor Day weekend. “It’s going to be a slow, methodical process [to get everyone trained]. The silver lining with COVID-19 is that we [campus recreation] can take more time with this process—there’s less pressure to open immediately,” Stafford said. He added that even in a world without COVID-19, campus recreation’s offerings this semester would have likely been limited.
Campus recreation has been without a permanent leader since Efstathiou departed last October. Unlike larger schools, Willamette does not have assistant recreation directors. Since Efstathiou’s resignation, the department’s student leaders have largely been on their own, with support from Holliday and Kirch. Stafford intends to “make sure student voices are being heard,” but he said that many changes in protocol are needed across the department and that he anticipates some pushback.
According to Stafford, certifications and trainings are the key. “We just need to elevate the level of professionalism across all campus recreation areas,” he said.
Stafford has also been reassessing campus recreation’s budget due to COVID-19. A big challenge for him has been figuring out how to financially manage campus recreation’s programs since all are revenue-driven. Now, neither the pool nor gym space is being rented out, and no visitors are allowed on campus.
Stafford has been examining the Outdoor Program’s budget in particular. Almost all of the program’s trips do not make a profit, or even break even. “If you are paid to lead anybody in the outdoors, you are a guide service, so you need a permit to access any land, which is typically outrageously expensive. We can't charge students the amount of money it costs to run the trip. This is an issue many schools are dealing with,” Stafford said. He said that several schools no longer offer trips due to this issue. A previous institution he worked at, Bucknell University, circumvented this by considering all trip leaders volunteers and not paying them. Outdoor Program trip leaders are considered volunteers and are not paid by the hour, but currently receive some money through the university’s leadership award system.
These permits differ from the standard-fare campsite or visitor permits. “We can get the permits to say we can camp but they [the park] anticipate us being fine [safe], and we would need the resources if anything happened. As a guide service, we need different resources and permits. A lot of questions remain to be answered for proper safe trip protocol,” Stafford said.
For the fitness center, Stafford has been comparing the cost of having a few fitness trainers trained in multiple techniques to having several fitness trainers specialize in one technique.
Stafford described his vision for the department as a whole, “We need to create a unified campus recreation department.” According to Stafford, each of the department’s programs doesn’t know much about the others and rarely interact with one another. He wants it so that a student leader of any campus recreation program can answer questions about the other programs. His planned Labor Day weekend leadership summit will be the first of many meetings geared towards this purpose.
He used the campus recreation desk in Montag, which is currently run solely by Outdoor Program staff, as an example of poor unity within the department. “It'd be nice to create a recreation marketing crew that runs the front desk and customer service in the Montag recreation area,” Stafford said. This is a longer-term plan of his, since he still has several other tasks on his plate.
Stafford continued: “Next year, we’ll be doing some strategic planning about the overall vision of campus rec and have each area [program] set their own goals and make sure each area is meeting the [department’s] holistic goal. We need to continue to assess what’s the learning experience, what leadership experience are people gaining, what is the customer service doing, how is it [all] going. It goes back to perspective—we just need to guide students.”
Stafford also wanted students to be aware of a new partnership Willamette has made with [an app called F45 Training]. Willamette students can use the app for free if they connect to Willamette when they create an account. The app offers 45 minute workouts that can be done with no equipment. The workouts can be done outside or in one’s own room. “People can still stay healthy and well without being in the fitness center,” Stafford said.
When asked if he had a message for the Willamette community, Stafford said: “Recreation is going to happen, health and wellness is our and your responsibilities. This fall will be a slow roll out [of activities in order] to follow protocol. Please be patient and connect with me if you want to learn more.”
Note: Noah Dantes is a former trip leader for and staff member of the Outdoor Program. Brackets will now surround links in all Collegian articles to create breaks in audio for those listening rather than reading.