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Cornell University

COE History

Climbers on Snowy Mountaintop

COE History

In 1972, Cornell’s New Student Orientation Committee (led by Assistant Dean of Students, David Henderson) created a wilderness-based pre-orientation program. The idea was to get incoming students together out in the wilderness and allow them to form friendships and connections before they had to tackle the complexities of their first semester at Cornell. The program utilized student and faculty trip leaders instead of professionals so that the incoming students would have access to peers who could give them realistic answers to their questions and concerns. The fact that those student leaders would work for relatively little was just a coincidental bonus, really.

That first August, the program fielded 9 trips. The trips received national press recognition, and Henderson received many letters of inquiry from other universities, several of which now have their own wilderness orientation programs. Later that fall, Kenneth Kelly proposed a thesis on "The Value of Wilderness Reflections Experience in Enhancing Self-Actualization and Facilitating Adjustment of New Students at Cornell." For years the legend was that this thesis was the rationale for continued WR support and funding from the University. However, the thesis proposal appears to have been rejected and thus it was never written. (One of the committee members was Dal Hedlund, a former chair of the Education Department!).

In 1975 the wilderness orientation program left the Dean of Students office and became an entirely student run organization. Somewhere along there, it became known as Wilderness Reflections. Many student leaders kept WR alive and active. One of these leaders, a recent alumnus, was David Moriah ‘73, who became the first head of what was to become COE. At this time, Wilderness Reflections was under the auspices of the Office of Student Unions, based in Willard Straight Hall. For a few years, before WR got an office on the fifth floor of that building, David Moriah literally carried the program around in his knapsack. Despite this low-level of administrative support, WR flourished, running trips in August and January in locations as far away as the Caribbean. 

The WR-PE Program and Cornell Outdoor Education

In 1976 Dave approached the Athletics and Physical Education Department about the idea of teaching some basic outdoor skills and leadership classes as PE courses. This move would provide opportunities for potential WR student guides to improve their skills and provide excellent programs for the Cornell Community. It would also expand the available classes that fulfilled Cornell’s undergraduate physical education requirement. Al Gantert, Physical Education Director, accepted the proposal and the WR-PE program was born, with David Moriah as its first Director.

In those early days very little distinction was made between the WR and the outdoor education PE courses. The same group of instructors taught most offerings from both areas.

In 1984, after 11 years fulfilling his dream of creating "the finest college outdoor program in the free world," David Moriah moved on to Minnesota to pursue other goals (one of those included starting one of Outward Bound’s first ever urban programs). Athletics and Physical Education hired Dan Tillemans to oversee the WR-PE program and provided office space by converting a windowless storage room on the second floor of Teagle Hall. At the same time, Unions and Activities hired Dan to oversee WR, as its "faculty advisor." Dan had worked for years at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and had a significant background in outdoor leadership and program administration, as well as experiential education and natural history training from Prescott College, including a 100-day solo wilderness trek across Arizona as a thesis project. He had vision and drive and came in with a lot of ideas about how to further expand and enhance the program. Dan Tillemans introduced the name Cornell Outdoor Education to replace the WR-PE name, for identity and marketing purposes, while Wilderness Reflections continued to be used for new student orientation programs. The nickname COE was adopted.

In the early years, COE had little money to work with, as the only source of revenue was course fees, and we did not want to raise the fees. There was almost no equipment, so we purchased used gear from NOLS. (Backpacks for $15 each!) Equipment was stored in a closet under the stairs near Campus Police in Barton Hall, Room G1A. The closet was very narrow and very tall, necessitating towering shelves made from used lumber from retired baseball bleachers. Wet tarps were hung in the limited walkway by a complex ropes and pulley system for drying after rainy weekends. For issue and de-issue gear was spread along the hallways in front of the Campus Police station, while vans were parked out front at the curb.

To reach the equipment room instructors and staff would call the pay phone in the hallway 25 yards outside of Room G1A, and let it ring for a long time!  There was not enough money in the budget to afford a university phone line, and cell phones did not yet exist. The administration consisted of Dan Tillemans, Assistant Director Alex Gayek, who was provided with a second windowless storage room, and a 10-hour per week student equipment manager.  

The mid to late ‘80s - Growing Pains

COE slowly and consistently grew in the 1980s. The 21-day Wind River Mountains Student Leadership Expedition, outfitted at NOLS in Lander, Wyoming, was introduced to enhance student instructor training, and Dan led this expedition every June for the next 13 years.  Shawangunks Rock Climbing was added, followed by kayaking and canoeing and cross-country skiing programs.

In 1988, the spaghetti noodles hit the fan. The equipment closet in Barton Hall was actually on loan from ROTC. The commanding officer called the Athletics and Physical Education Director and kicked us out. Rumors suggest that some COE instructor or WR guide used the janitor’s closet for clean-up and left spaghetti noodles in the mop pail. There was no immediate back-up plan, despite the fact that COE had outgrown the Barton closet.

The COE equipment room was banished to the leaky, smelly (and condemned) Oxley Polo Arena that used to stand across from the Cornell Heating Plant.  The roof leaked and the horse manure was still there. It stunk. We cordoned off a section of the building with a concrete floor where the spectator stands once stood. Climbers stapled construction plastic to the rafters to channel water into large trash cans that were emptied each time it rained. COE courses issued and prepared for departure at "Old Oxley". Outdoor equipment was rented to the community. Far from ideal, but it worked.

At about this time COE hired 7 part time students to manage equipment outfitting and 2 more for the growing van fleet. The salary for a full time equipment manager was completely out of reach. These student equipment managers were closet socialist-anarchists, liked to manage themselves collectively, and called themselves "The Wizard." Although today’s equipment managers tend to refer to themselves as individual "Wizards," they maintain the tradition of a progressive, relatively non-hierarchical workplace.

 Offices remained in Teagle Hall, where we added another 6 ft wide office carved out of a hallway, for the director, using the larger original storage room space for registration and the new office manager. With instructor and student commitment growing stronger, part time coordinators were hired to supervise the numerous student leaders who taught the expanding program offerings.

One of the best things about Oxley was COE’s Very First Climbing Wall. Some inspired, creative climbing instructors set up some scavenged plywood sheets and used highway epoxy to glue rocks to them. It was vertical. It was crimpy. It gave splinters. It was smelly. But, it was ours!

And actually, there was a better plan. We were trying to get an Outdoor Center built on Beebe Lake. The facility was to house COE, WR, and the Cornell Outing Club. At one point, the plan went as far as University Planning Department schematic drawings, and was approved, with a separate Outdoor Center building on Beebe Lake, along with a new Admission Center, but that is getting ahead of the story…

Hitting the Big Time

In the 1989-90 academic year COE served less than 1000 students, in a few dozen classes. By the end of the 90’s, the program was serving 3000 students, in hundreds of classes, with over 100 student leaders. How did the program grow from such a tiny program to become one of the preeminent collegiate outdoor programs in the country? Something happened during the 1989 January Break…

A group of COE student instructors traveled to Ecuador led by COE/NOLS instructors P. J. Clark, a PhD student of Carl Sagan's, and Dan Tillemans to enhance leadership and mountaineering skills, and to summit the country’s two highest peaks, Cotopaxi (19,348 ft.) and Chimborazo (20,703 ft.). This high altitude mountaineering expedition was demanding, stressful, empowering, and successful. And big news back at Cornell. Cornell University spread the word nationwide on the AP wire, distributing the summit picture with that enormous CORNELL UNIVERSITY red flag, that once flew over Day Hall.  (It was quite heavy to carry up there!) COE got a lot of positive press and Dan Tillemans managed to parlay that attention into financial support. 

The Lindseth Climbing Wall

As a partial result of that positive press, Jon Lindseth, a graduate from the Class of ’56, and a Cornell University Trustee, stepped forward with a large donation to fund an indoor climbing wall that COE had proposed for the upcoming fieldhouse. Jon is a life-long adventurer and mountaineer, with a passion for the outdoors, who believes strongly in supporting COE’s mission, and made his decision within minutes of being asked. The Lindseth Climbing Wall, completed in 1990, was a critical addition to Cornell Outdoor Education. This wall was the largest in North America and received a lot of press, including Time Magazine and the New York Times, and live coverage on CBS national television.

The Lindseth Climbing Wall allowed COE to add a full array of climbing programs. It was a huge "concrete" embodiment of the program, featured on walking tours of campus and seen at every registration. Perhaps more fundamentally, this climbing wall brought the COE "classroom" into full view for the Cornell community in a way that outdoor trips were not conducive to.

COE Advisory Board

Up until 1990, COE and WR were primarily supported by student program fees, receiving little University financial support, and zero alumni donations.

To address this fundamental challenge to secure more financial resources, Dan Tillemans formulated the idea of a COE Advisory Board. During the Cornell University Trustee Council Annual Meeting of October, 1989, Dan recruited Jon Lindseth '56, Bill Phillips ’51, and 4 other Cornell University Council members to begin the COE Advisory Board. Bill Phillips, a Cornell University Trustee, and Chairman of International Outward Bound, was selected as the first chair of the COE Advisory Board.

COE created a one-acre forest in Barton Hall, complete with pine trees, wood chips, bird songs, campsites, canoes, brochures and video loops at the annual trustee/council banquet, to promote our up-and-coming program with 500 of the most influential people at the University.  About 75 volunteers were involved in the project from COE, WR, and the Cornell Outing Club.

In 1991, ten members of this newly formed COE Advisory Board embarked on a 9-day wilderness mountaineering expedition to hike, climb, fish, (and gather edible plants for salads), in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, led by Dan Tillemans. Plans were laid to create the Phillips Outdoor Program Center, as well as on-going strategic and financial support for COE. 

Later Dan led Advisory Board trips to climb Half Dome and the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite with Jon Lindseth and others, to ski the crest of the Alps along the Haute Route from Zermatt to Chamonix, sea kayak in Baja Mexico and Prince William Sound in Alaska, rock climb at the Shawangunks, and more. These outdoor expeditions engaged our Advisory Board Members in a deep and meaningful way, helped to form bonding relationships, and fostered a passionate commitment to further support the mission and goals of COE, empowered by firsthand experience.

With the Lindseth Climbing Wall and the growing support of the COE Advisory Board, the program continued to expand course offerings into new skill areas and new geographic locations. We started running Spring Break courses in the Southwest and Baja Mexico and developed our Caving and High Adventure courses.

Strategic Plan

Around 1990, it became clear that we needed a better way to articulate our mission and vision to a broader Cornell audience, and we needed to create a written strategic plan for the future. Rod Chu '71 MBA, a COE Advisory Board Member, and an expert in the strategic planning field, volunteered to assist at no cost. A group of COE full time staff, and others, disappeared to the Mohonk Mountain House at the Gunks for a weekend, where Rod Chu guided us through a series of important steps.  The following mission statement emerged and was printed inside of course brochures for many years to follow, and with minor modifications remains in use today:

  • To teach safe outdoor skills as a means to lifelong fitness, personal challenge and recreation.
  • To develop student leadership, teamwork, and effective group interaction skills.
  • To develop student initiative, self-reliance, ethical standards, and compassion for others.
  • To promote awareness of the environment and responsibility to care for it.

It was at this meeting where the motto, "Teamwork, Leadership and Growth Through Outdoor Experience" was created.

Phillips Outdoor Program Center

The dream of a new Outdoor Program Center/Lodge on Beebe Lake was still alive, but due to department and university financial and political realities, it wasn’t to be. Changing course out of necessity, with the help of Bill Phillips’ generous leading gift COE was able to create the Phillips Outdoor Program Center in the lower level of the Bartels Fieldhouse in 1993. For the first time, all of COE and WR would be under one roof. Not only was there a lot of room for equipment storage, but the POPC provided administrative space, a reception and registration area, a rental counter, course issue and deissue lockers, a classroom, and a resource library. At 5000 square feet the Center was one of the largest and most impressive facilities of its kind in the country. Jon Lindseth also provided a $50,000 "start-up" gift at this time to purchase an array of outdoor equipment to support expanding COE courses, and to provide equipment rentals to the community.

Up until this time WR and COE were separate organizations, in separate University departments, and separate buildings, despite the fact that many COE instructors guided for WR and many WR participants (trippers) and guides took COE courses. After the completion of the outdoor program center WR moved to Bartels Hall and oversight was transferred to the Department of Athletics and Physical Education, and COE.  Thirty years after its founding, WR continued to run safe, effective orientation trips, selected and trained all of the guides, and maintained its spirit and identity as a student-run organization, but now in a new location.


In 1995 COE hosted the International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education. 319 outdoor educators from programs all over the United States and around the world participated. Free tent camping was arranged on Alumni Fields. The following description is taken from the Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE) website: "Cornell University hosted the conference and decorated the Alberding Field House with live pine trees. Rising above the Alberding forest was the Lindseth Climbing Wall, which was available throughout the conference for climbing. Presenting at the conference were some of the distinguished founders of the modern outdoor education movement including Paul Petzoldt, NOLS, Josh Miner, Outward Bound, and Royal Robbins. (At Bailey Hall Royal Robbins presented impressive images of his first ascents of big wall rock climbs in Yosemite.) Note: Bartels Hall was originally named the Alberding Fieldhouse but the name was changed later due to some funding issues.

Hoffman Challenge Course

In 1980 WR-PE had designed and built the area’s first challenge course at the Cayuga Nature Center with an agreement for free WR-PE use in perpetuity. However, the course there was limited in size and it really was not ours. In 1997, through a generous donation from COE Advisory Board member Bob Hoffman ’58, COE was able to build our own course on the top of Mt. Pleasant. The Hoffman Challenge Course, with a 60-foot replica of the Cornell Clock Tower, 21 high elements, 30 low elements, and two yurts, is one of the largest courses in the Northeast and among the largest of any college courses in the country. One of the primary objectives from the start was to provide programming for a more diverse population of Cornell University students.

Following completion of the Hoffman Challenge Course, COE’s Teambuilding program really took off, with Karl Johnson ‘89, as the first COE Teambuilding Director. (It was Karl Johnson's idea to create a clock tower as central part of the high elements.) In his first full year as Teambuilding Director, he ran 14 programs, serving 500 participants. These days Cornell Teambuilding, now called the Cornell Team & Leadership Center runs about 250 programs a year with about 5000 participants. In addition to greatly enhancing enrollment numbers, CTLC programs serve a more diverse population than other outdoor programs.

Between 1984 and 1999 annual enrollment in COE programs was increased by 10 fold, from 300 students to 3000 students.  With no increase in appropriated university funds, six new full time staff positions had been added, including a Land/Ski Programs Manager, Climbing/Paddling Programs Manager, Business Manager, Outfitting Manager, Office Manager, and Teambuilding Director. 

In 1998, Jon Lindseth '56 and Ginny Lindseth '56, created the Lindseth Endowment for the Director of Cornell Outdoor Education. Interest from this very generous endowment provides the salary for the COE Director, forever. This endowed position is the first and only endowed position of an outdoor education director in the world, as far as we know.

Touch Every Student

By the close of the century, we had grown large and complex enough to support 10 full-time and several half-time positions running over 300 teambuilding and outdoor skills courses a year. We had a very active and influential advisory board, which helped raise money and set strategic direction. As we grew, we focused on improving instructor training, safety, and community outreach. Managing the growth itself took energy, as we strove to maintain a close community feeling and keep communication channels open.

We also worked to expand our impact on how Cornell University teaches and forms community. Our initiatives included fostering greater integration with academic programs and having more impact on the new student experience at Cornell. In 1999, COE hired just its third Director in over a quarter century, Todd Miner, to spearhead academic and university integration. This set of initiatives brought us full circle, back to that Orientation Committee of the early 1970s that wanted to see if it could build community to make life a little bit more comfortable and interesting for new Cornell students.

 In 1999, Robin Mills '69, MBA a long time COE Advisory Board member, was chosen as the new chair of the Advisory Board. Under Robin’s strong leadership the program’s second endowed position, the Dan Tillemans Director of Teambuilding, was established. Long time staff member and future co-director, Dr. Mark Holton, was the first occupant of the special programs coordinator position that was created at this time.

Kristen Rupert, a long time board member, took over as chair of the advisory board. The advisory board championed the idea of every student having some contact with the program. For the next few years we expanded all our programs with the intent to “touch every student”.

As part of integration into all of Cornell, we sought to be a part of the solution to some campus-wide problems. A spate of suicides brought attention to high levels of student stress, gorge safety, and misconduct in the Greek system. In response, CTLC began the Greek Academy, a leadership program for students in positions of influence in the Greek system. We also began to offer free “stress buster” programs at the climbing wall.  COE volunteered to administer the Gorge Steward program, where COE staff would patrol the hazard areas to monitor misuse and also educate visitors on the geology and history of the area. COE PE offerings were expanded with more sections. An entirely new program offering, Tree Climbing, proved to be very popular, and soon expanded to include expeditions to Costa Rica and California. In 2009 Wilderness Reflections changed its name to Outdoor Odyssey.

During all of the growth and change outlined above, it was – and continues to be – the field instructors and facilitators who create excellent courses, teach brilliant presentations, and make connections with students and share of themselves.

By the time Todd Miner retired COE had become the largest most comprehensive outdoor program in the nation. But the growth was not without its stresses. The hours were long and full time staff turnover was high.

Becoming a Great Place to Work

In the fall of 2013, Marc Magnus-Sharpe joined COE as only its fourth director. 2014 marked Cornell University’s sesquicentennial. COE expanded in many areas: Outdoor Odyssey led its largest class ever, CTLC  expanded Greek Leadership Academy to include 45 chapters, Cornell Tree Climbing Institute celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and Stand Up Paddle-boarding was added to the list of program activities. COE enrolled over 20,000 participants that year. In academic arenas, CTLC hired their first Academic and Long Term Programs Coordinator position. Internationally, COE led a trek in Nepal in November 2014, a Cornell Tree Climbing exploration to Madagascar in December 2015, and a trek to Costa Rica in the spring of 2016. Soon afterward, Karel Hilversum joined CTLC from his home in Puerto Rico, where he had created the leading experience-based teamwork and leadership development program on the island. Following Amy Kohut’s departure, Karel became the new Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center.

In the fall of 2016 Advisory Board Co-Chairs, Scott Sklar and Ellen Tohn, led the effort to modernize our indoor climbing facilities. The Lindseth Climbing Wall, although innovative at the time of its creation, had been left behind by the modern climbing wall industry. After considering many possible locations, our best option seemed to be building the new wall on top of the old one. But there was a catch. In order to build the new wall, we would need to expand the climbing wall footprint into the Ramin Room, a multi-purpose indoor space used by many sports teams. Marc Magnus-Sharpe convinced Director of Athletics and Physical Education, Andy Noel, to provide additional space in the Ramin Room to be used for the larger climbing wall footprint, and the project was begun. With lead donations from Jon Lindseth and Scott Sklar, a new state of the art climbing wall was constructed over the old wall. The new wall features bolt-on holds, tope rope and lead climbing, and a dedicated bouldering area. Participation at the climbing wall tripled, and pushed the overall number of program days to 60,000.