The Tucker Leadership Lab: An Investigation

Disclaimer: The author of this article was a Tucker Facilitator between 2020 and 2023. The details in this article have been accumulated from interviews, emails, statements and media coverage.

As I began to set up the new temporary Hilltop Monitor office in the Pryor Learning Commons room 207–the office space previously used by The Tucker Leadership Lab–I encountered several voice messages on the phone. These 15 messages left by 14 different callers were intended to reach the ears of Tucker administrative staff in hopes of scheduling programs with the Lab. 

The messages often included statements such as, “The last several years, we have had [a group] come over and work with you guys. It has been a great experience and we would like to continue that.” Many callers were reaching out to confirm details for programs, a few were scheduled for only a week or two after the message had been sent.

So, what was the Tucker Leadership Lab? Where did it go? Why did these requests go unanswered?

The Tucker Leadership Lab

Two groups cross the Odyssey ropes course and a third attempt a built-low challenge. 

The Tucker Leadership Lab was an experiential learning facility and challenge course that provided leadership growth opportunities to Jewell, Liberty and the Greater Kansas City area.

According to Eric Blair, William Jewell College’s Vice President of Marketing, Enrollment and Student Life, the Tucker Leadership Lab “is a program created from a project through a Pryor Leadership Fellow cohort in the early 2000’s. Its goal and purpose is to create experiential learning opportunities that includes students of William Jewell College.”

A former employee of the Lab described it as: “A safe place for groups [of all ages] middle school and up… to explore concepts such as team building, trust, communication, boundaries, respect, challenge by choice, self-esteem and more, using hands-on activities… The possibilities were endless and the learning opportunities abounded.” 

Al Leone, the former Director for the Tucker Leadership Lab says: “Tucker was an experiential Swiss army knife for team development. We provided a variety of problem-solving activities to clients to help them develop their individual leadership capacity as well as their ability to thrive in a team… We worked with everyone from fifth graders to corporate professionals because our philosophy was that everyone could benefit from learning to be better together. Tucker benefited William Jewell by being a positive, outward-facing arm of the organization… Tucker cultivated a positive connection [between Jewell and the] community.”

A student makes it to the top of the Tucker Tower while a second student plans their next move. 

Where did Tucker go and why were the voice messages never answered?

Effective on June 30, 2023, Leone resigned from her positions at William Jewell College: student success navigator, director for People and Culture Development and director for the Tucker Leadership Lab. Leone’s responsibilities at Tucker included marketing, program design and delivery, budgeting, client payments, staffing, training, and payroll. Leone was also charged with maintaining the Tucker Leadership Lab grounds and courses as well as creating strategic plans for the Lab’s organizational growth. Upon Leone’s departure, these roles needed to be filled quickly to maintain Tucker operations and to deliver the upcoming programs that had been scheduled. 

Several experienced Tucker Facilitators–the Tucker Staff members who were primarily responsible for program delivery–volunteered to temporarily cover the necessary tasks immediately following Leone’s absence. Despite having asked a few of the current facilitators to fill the administrative gap, the Tucker Leadership Lab Director position remained vacant through the following month. In that month, Conner Hazelrigg, the Executive Director of Jewell Unlimited, offered Jewell Unlimited’s support to the President’s Cabinet. In conjunction with her advisors on the cabinet, William Jewell College President Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls arranged for Jewell Unlimited and, ultimately, the program’s Executive Director to take on the administrative functions of the Tucker Leadership Lab. This administrative change was made effective on July 1, 2023.

Hazelrigg sent an email to Tucker Staff on July 3 to inform the team of the administrative change. In this email, Hazelrigg stated “[Jewell Unlimited’s] initial goal is to understand and support [The Tucker Leadership Lab’s] existing processes…Ultimately, the goal will be to take what we’ve learned and create a clear and transparent plan for moving forward.” Blair, who serves on the President’s Cabinet in addition to his other titles at Jewell explained: “Jewell Unlimited was asked to simply provide oversight and review/manage accounts payable. The Department of Business and Leadership was tasked with beginning to re-imagine the organizational structure and programming opportunities for students.”

The next update came to Tucker Staff on July 18 via an email from Hazelrigg. The update was that, effective immediately, the build-low structures, the Tucker Tower and the Odyssey ropes course could no longer be used for events. In an interview with The Hilltop Monitor, Hazelrigg explained that “The College’s insurance company requires that an FTE employed by the College is certified by ACCT.” The ACCT is the Association for Challenge Course Technology, an organization working to enhance the standardization and quality of challenge courses. While Leone held credentials from ACCT, no other William Jewell College employees were required to have one before her resignation and did not acquire one following her departure. The restrictions were stated to extend through the end of the month. Jewell Unlimited promptly began contracting scheduled clients to make necessary program adjustments. Lead Facilitators–Tucker staff typically tasked with client communication regarding programs–were instructed to make no contact with clients. Following the changes in program delivery, several scheduled programs lacked staffing as Facilitators were uncomfortable hosting programs so differently from their design. 

In the week of July 27, 2023, Alpine Towers, the comprehensive challenge course provider responsible for designing and building the Tucker Leadership Lab courses, performed an inspection on the Tucker courses. The College received the report from this inspection in the following week. 

When asked about the report, Hazelrigg stated, “The inspection identified several components of our local operating procedures that were out of compliance…[and] areas of the Tower itself and lower builts that failed the inspection.” However, in a statement sent on September 25 to Jewell staff, faculty and students, Dr. MacLeod Walls described there to be only one element of the course that “failed a safety standard.” The Hilltop Monitor was unable to view the inspection report. While the exact results of the inspection are not clear, Tucker’s 23-year-old course was certainly nearing the expected end of the typical 25-30 year expected life span of such challenge courses. 

Blair describes that even before the administrative transition occurred, the College had been discussing whether or not it was worth it to “reinvest in a physical structure,” considering “innovation and fiscal impact.”

On Aug. 11, 2023, Hazelrigg informed Tucker staff that all components of the Tucker Leadership Lab were to be immediately suspended. Jewell Unlimited promptly canceled all scheduled programs. When interviewed, Blair stated that “The staffing dynamic was a significant contributor to the pause in operations…[Jewell Unlimited] determined it would be in the best interest of clients and the College to pause operations rather than provide inconsistent service.”

In a meeting on the morning of Sept. 12, Jewell Administration communicated to Tucker Staff that the full suspension of Tucker activities was being extended through the calendar year and that all Tucker Facilitator positions were being removed. In a follow-up email to former Tucker Staff, Hazelrigg stated: “We are extending the suspension of all activities through the rest of the calendar year while we re-format the scope of the Lab’s offerings and re-incorporate the management into the Pryor leadership program. This will put it under the Department of Business at William Jewell College. Considering this, we are eliminating all part-time facilitator positions, and your services as a facilitator are no longer required.” Former Tucker staff were shortly thereafter asked to schedule a time to collect any personal belongings they may have been storing with Tucker supplies.

What is next for Tucker?

The good news for the Jewell community is that the Tucker Leadership Lab will be continuing to some degree at Jewell. Although the scope and offerings of this newly designed Tucker Leadership Lab have yet to be determined, Blair states that the Lab “will be re-incorporated into the Pryor Leadership Fellows program…under Dr. Kelli Schutte, chair of the Department of Business and Leadership.”

Some hints at what this modified Tucker might look like are found in the September 25 statement by Dr. MacLeod Walls: “The Tucker experience, which is focused on experiential leadership education, will continue through the Business and Leadership department and the Pryor Leadership Program through Outward Bound and many other elements of our leadership curricula at Jewell.”

Room 103 in Jewell Hall has since been labeled with a sign saying “Pryor Leadership Studies & Tucker Leadership Lab.” Blair explains that the faculty who lead both programs have offices in Jewell Hall, making the building an effective space to run these initiatives. Classes for Pryor Leadership students and programs for Tucker Leadership will still be held in the Pryor Leadership Development Center building.

The new signage for the Tucker Leadership Lab headquarters in Jewell Hall.

Interviews

The following is a series of responses from interviews with several people that were conducted by The Hilltop Monitor. Interviews included are with Blair, Hazelrigg, Leone and two former Tucker Leadership Lab employees who will remain anonymous.

Please describe the reasons for suspending climbing and then, ultimately, all Tucker programs.

Hazelrigg: In short, the College is bound by standards for different practices as a way to decrease our exposure to risk. The College’s insurance company requires that an FTE employed by the College is certified by ACCT, in order to meet the standards. The pause on the lab’s activities was the only way at that time to eliminate the risk from a legal and insurance standpoint. You can read more about this on the ACCT website… It was confirmed that the built lows were considered structures that had to abide by the ACCT standard… The inspection identified several components of our local operating procedures that were out of compliance. Additionally, it identified areas of the Tower itself and lower builts that failed the inspection. The report was not all bad. The inspector spoke highly of many different aspects of the lab. The fact remains, though, there are aspects that need to be updated, changed, and attended to for the current lab to be brought up to appropriate standards.

Blair: The staffing dynamic was a significant contributor to the pause in operations. The exited director left a significant administrative gap, but she also contributed significantly to facilitating on the course. [Jewell Unlimited] determined it would be in the best interest of clients and the College to pause operations rather than provide inconsistent service. JU was asked to simply provide oversight and review/manage accounts payable. The Department of Business and Leadership was tasked with beginning to re-imagine the organizational structure and programming opportunities for students.

What insight can you provide regarding ACCT certifications? 

Leone: The ACCT does not have a specific requirement for staff certification in their standards. Staff should be trained by a qualified and competent individual. However, there is nothing stating that they need to hold a certification from ACCT to provide programming. I can’t speak to the certifications that other Directors held during their tenure at Tucker. However, while I was Tucker’s steward, staff were not generally certified through ACCT. I provided what is called an in-house certification based upon the trainings and documented skills checks that facilitators completed. I was their qualified, competent trainer and they were certified to work at Tucker.

What insight can you provide regarding thoughts on closing the Tucker Leadership Lab before your resignation?

Leone: President MacLeod Walls met with Kevin Shaffstall and Dr. Kelli Schutti in April of 2022 to inform them that Tucker would be closing effective at the end of the month. Many folks at Jewell were working diligently behind the scenes to prevent that for as long as possible… When the President first told Kevin to shut Tucker down, she said that the Lab was not profitable. What she meant was that the Lab did not make a 1.5 [profit over investment] return on budgeted investment each year. Please keep in mind that Kevin Shaffstall and I had never been given that expected revenue until 2022. In fiscal year ’22-’23 we did hit that mark. However, not all line items were placed appropriately in other accounts and so, on paper, it looks like we didn’t. I believe Tucker first moved under Jewell Unlimited because Dr. Schutte did not feel comfortable with it under the Business Department without the supervision of Kevin Shaffstall.

How did the experience of facilitating programs after the suspension of climbing and built-low equipment compare to previous events? 

Former Tucker Staff Member: Having our climbing and built-low equipment empowered the ideal working day. However, we still gave our groups a good experience. We all have had groups off-site or have moved an outdoor program indoors when the weather was poor (lightning, cold, etc.). When the built equipment was suspended, the other facilitators and I transitioned to our portable equipment and continued to provide quality experiences to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, some groups did cancel because they had been to Tucker in previous years and knew that they wanted a climbing experience. This decision did challenge the other facilitators and myself because there was a lack of clarity on the reasoning behind it. We were left unable to fully explain the situation to our clients and that hurt morale, as we felt like we weren’t trusted to do a job that we had been trained to provide and had been providing for many years.

What do you think the Jewell Community should know about the ongoing situation regarding the Tucker Leadership Lab?

Hazelrigg: I think it is important to recognize that [the Tucker Leadership Lab] has been a valuable and beloved part of the Jewell, Northland and Greater Kansas City communities. The decision to pause the lab was not cavalier, not without cause, and certainly not easy. In fact, it was quite hard. Something can be fantastic and memorable, but that doesn’t entitle it to exist forever. Higher education and not-for-profits are not insulated from the economic hardships that for-profit businesses have to overcome. Increased prices of goods, gas, labor, insurance, etc. all make it harder for a business to survive. The simplest way I can put it is that TTLL is a product brand of WJC. It is a valued brand that isn’t going away. In order for that brand, and the good work it represents, to be sustainable, the College is carefully considering what it will look like going forward. The continued pause allows for that consideration to be thoughtful and complete, in hope of a future plan that benefits the College and TTLL alike.

Leone: I hope they know that this wasn’t our choice. Further, I hope they know that everything that my staff did at the Leadership Lab was always in the context of highest safety and highest quality. The staff at Tucker care deeply about their work. Even on the toughest days in extreme weather or with a rough team, they still maintained a positive attitude.  I could not have asked for a more incredible group of people to work with every day and they fought hard to seek understanding and provide clarity to Jewell Unlimited on our scope of work.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that the Tucker Lab was coming due for some big repairs. Everything has a life cycle and a typical challenge course lasts 25-30 years. However, the money for repairs existed in our deferred maintenance account and we continued to bring in surpluses that were supposed to go to this fund. I think what we are looking at isn’t a situation of ‘does the money exist’ but something like, is Tucker a priority for the institution? Based upon the behavior (treatment of myself and the team, representation of the program to community stakeholders, investment of time and resources) of Jewell Unlimited and the President, I don’t think it is. 

Former Tucker Staff member: One of the first things I talk to my groups about is how important integrity and honesty is when working with groups of people.  I feel that has been lacking with this situation.

Former Tucker Staff member: I hope for the Jewell Community to be empowered to make their own decisions, acknowledge emotions as they arise, and seek to be well informed. Jewell Unlimited may have much to offer and seems to be a decent program separate from Tucker Leadership Lab. However, the fact [that] WJC and Jewell Unlimited terminated existing Tucker Facilitators while using the Tucker name to gain clientele, and [then] communicating with the community that Tucker will re-open, feels disrespectful. Not a single facilitator terminated…was given any impression we would be provided the opportunity to be re-hired when Jewell attempts to re-open Tucker in 2024. 

Do you have any further comments, concerns or anything you would like to share? 

Former Tucker Staff member:  I would like to share a few examples of how I have seen time at Tucker impact our participants. These are just a handful and each facilitator has their own stories to share about the power of our work. In past groups: I have had a student that was taken from his home for abuse, and had not spoken the entire time he had been at his school, and he talked that day with his group, telling them it was the best day of his life.  I had an adult that was very sarcastic most of the day and finally asked me if he could change something he had said earlier to his team.  I told him yes, and he shared he had a critically ill child and didn’t know if he would live.  His whole team told him what they would do, so he could have all the time he needed to be with his son. I had a girls’ sports team that would not talk to each other when they started, and at the end of the day, they were hugging and crying and said they learned to talk any issues out, and they wouldn’t ever let it be an issue for them again.  This season [in] 2023, I had a girl that wouldn’t join the group in the beginning of the day, and finally started to participate. She finally shared with me that she was going through a lot of trauma. I emailed the contact, and they were going to get her in touch with her counselor.  I also had a teacher that said her budget had been cut and they hadn’t been able to come the previous year. She said that the students were so much better when they were able to come to Tucker, that she was going to use her own money if they couldn’t come up with the finances to come. This is the difference that we make to participants and I wish it was more valued by Jewell. 

Former Tucker Staff member: It is a shame Jewell Unlimited took over management only to terminate the existing Tucker Team. Originally I was led to believe Facilitators would be included in the change process, and that communication would be transparent, which was not the case. WJC students and Tucker clients deserve better. I saw myself working with Tucker for years to come. Now that opportunity is gone. 

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