Following is a truth about the America we’re living in: litigation rules the day. On the one hand, the legal system is an important part of our enviable system of checks and balances. On the other, it can cause a paralysis of freedoms in our society. Thus is the case at Penn State University, where a storied outdoor club there was recently forced to cease and desist with any adventures–get this–to any wilderness destinations as such outings were deemed beyond the university’s risk threshold.
“The Penn State Outing Club will no longer be organizing and running outdoor, student-led trips starting next semester,” reads a statement on the club’s website. “This is a result of an assessment of risk management by the University that determined that the types of activities in which PSOC engages are above the University’s threshold of acceptable risk for recognized student organizations.”
It would be comical if it wasn’t so sad. The decision was made about the university’s 100-year-old club by the office of Student Affairs and Risk Management without actually consulting student leadership Richard Waltz told the AP. Waltz, who I reached out to but have yet to hear back, is the Penn State Outing Club president.
During a two-month review, Student Affairs and Risk Management also deemed the activities of the Nittany Grotto Caving Club and the Nittany Divers SCUBA Club too dangerous as well. There is, of course, nuance to the story: I spoke with Alex Pulice, president of the Divers Club, and he says the University is working with these groups to keep them alive, but as unaffiliated entities of the school. Or to organize trips through the faculty-lead Outdoor Adventures program which he did say is good for his group as there will be more trips and less liability for the Divers Club.
And there’s probably more context needed on the legal front, as well. Thanks to its football program, Penn State has been ravaged in the last ten years by controversy following a despicable child molestation scandal. It seems that the scandal and its legal fallout have started to affect the rest of the school, students say. “I can hardly blame Penn State for protecting itself against further litigation after a number of high-profile scandals in the past decade,” Christina Platt, the Outing Club’s incoming president, also told the AP.
Well, you kind of can blame them. We’re officially living in fear. As much as we all love football, many universities (iconic academic institutions like Penn State) have allowed the sport and its money to dominate respective landscapes. The massive scandals–which range from sexual abuse to assault to other criminal activities–around these programs have rocked college campuses all over the country. Litigation and lawsuits have come fast and furious, sucking at the coffers. There hasn’t really been a direct correlation between the scandals and those scandals affecting regular student life until now. Risk management is beginning to dominate us–and subsequently our thirst to get outdoors. Which really sucks for young people.
The Penn State Outing Club has a historic tradition at the school and was a leader in outdoor rec in that part of the country with comments on the club’s Facebook page reflecting the loss of an epic symbol of fun at the school. “This is a huge loss for the University Community,” wrote Charlie Walbridge, an internationally-known river safety expert. “PSOC was at the forefront of whitewater paddling in the 60’s and 70’s.”
Pennsylvania is surprisingly-full of outdoor opportunities, from mountain biking to river-running, hiking, and even skiing. Unfortunately, it sounds as if Penn State students involved in one of its most storied outdoor clubs and communities will have to find another way to enjoy them.