For those who don’t know, the Outback is the five acres of land nestled quietly behind the Fairhaven dorms, reserved for eco-sustainability causes, student communal gardening and the occasional full moon club meeting. However, controversy has historically followed this place, with rumored threats from the supposed land hungry administration forever looming in the not-so-far-off distance. Currently the AS board is considering a proposal to engulf the Outback within the AS body, creating a new distinct program that could perhaps stabilize the Outback, for now anyway.
Started in the 60s and 70s as a communal garden and meeting place, the Outback remains one of the most unique, if not somewhat unusual, aspects of Western’s campus. Governed communally, the Outback serves as a multi functioning resource, providing free garden plots to community and campus members, offering an eco-sustainability learning environment, and even providing an outdoor amphitheater. However, perhaps because of the Outback’s instinctively laid back and communal nature, the Outback has frequently become the victim of disorganization. To ensure the sustainability of the Outback itself and to preserve this unique resource of our campus, ideas have been brewing within the AS for the last three years to add the Outback as an AS program. In fact, a proposal was started three years ago calling for the Outback’s inclusion within the AS, but was voted down by the AS board several times. Still, Stefan Kalb, VP of Business and Operations, dusted off the proposal this summer, and has been revising it for the past three months, bringing it back to the board once again to be voted on.
The proposal focuses on the Outback as an “Outdoor Experiential Learning Site (OELS) with an academic mission.” According to the proposal the fundamentals of the program would include “organic and ecological land-use practices, sustainable design and technologies, experiential education, community outreach and evens, and consensus based group decision-making.” Pushing for the Outback to become its own AS program, the proposal also calls for one student employee acting as coordinator of the Outback, responsible for carrying out the fundamental objectives while bringing some order, leadership and initiative to the Outback. The coordinator’s office would be located within the Environmental Center, but the Outback program itself would remain a distinct program.
Kalb explains, “The main job [of the coordinator] is to coordinate the gardens… and to coordinate between student and academics, because academics has a lot of interest in the space. Also, to coordinate work parties to maintain the space, and also run the day to day operations.”
Kalb sees adding the Outback to the AS as an opportunity to “bring the AS and academics together,” bridging the gap between the traditionally isolated academic and student aspects of the university setting.
Kalb has struggled over the summer tenuously revising the proposal in an attempt to smooth over the more troublesome issues of the initial proposals.
“The reason it’s so complicated is because of the land,” said Kalb. “Are we completely in charge of this land is the big question. And that’s what we’ve had to clarify in this proposal. At first the proposal suggested we were in control of this land, but that’s not it at all. The dean of Fairhaven is in control of the land. We’re all about the program. We don’t oversee the land, we oversee the program—and that’s pretty much the biggest change I’ve seen in the proposal.”
Also at issue is the funding, which is why Kalb cut the initial proposal’s call for two employees down to one employee coordinator. Overall, the Outback program would be fairly inexpensive for the AS to implement. The only financial responsibility the AS would have toward the program would be providing the coordinator’s salary (about $6000.00 annually) and $900.00 annually for supplies. The Outback OELS is granted the rest of the money through the Dean of Fairhaven whom receives a $5000.00 grant from the Provost annually, which is specifically allocated for the Outback.
Revised over twelve times since the summer with the help of Roger Gilman, Dean of Fairhaven, Dr. Eileen Coughlin, VP of Student Affairs, and members of the Outback community, Kalb finally presented the proposal to the board Wednesday, October 4. The final vote deciding if the Outback will take place during a later board meeting. If passed, Kalb will open the coordinator position, a four-quarter commitment, for hiring immediately.
However, at the board meeting on Wednesday, Kalb met with some, though little, resistance. The issue of funding was challenged, as some board members felt skeptical about the possible financial strain the program could pose on the AS. Also, a potential weakness in the program is the Outback’s complete reliance on volunteer cooperation. Most of the coordinator’s job relies on volunteer help. From allocating gardening plots and overseeing maintenance work parties to consensus decision making, a substantial and committed volunteer population will be necessary. And though Kalb stresses his commitment to the communal aspect of the Outback which has been the bedrock of its entire history, some Outback community members that have grown used to the free flowing nature of the Outback may meet an authoritative position such as a coordinator with some opposition.
Still Kalb enthusiastically stresses the importance of the addition of the Outback to the AS. “It extends the scope of the AS. For instance, we have an outdoor center and we have a radio station—and that’s a huge scope covering such different areas. And here we have a different area that students can have more opportunities in. I really saw that opportunity was, like, wow. That’s an amazing opportunity.”