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A small study abroad provider, Living Routes, plans to shut down after the sudden suspension of its affiliation agreement with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst forced it to cancel its programs this spring.
A nonprofit organization formed in 1999, Living Routes runs programs in conjunction with ecovillages – intentional communities built around environmental ideals – in Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Scotland, and the United States. Critical to its success has been an affiliation agreement with UMass Amherst through which students can receive academic credit for Living Routes programs.
UMass Amherst suspended that agreement on Dec. 27, however, due to concerns about Living Routes’ handling of an unspecified, "potentially life threatening" health and safety-related incident on its fall program in Monteverde, Costa Rica. In a slightly redacted letter articulating the reasons for suspending the agreement, Jack Ahern, UMass Amherst’s vice provost for international programs, alleged that Living Routes had deliberately withheld critical information about the incident, which occurred “on or about” Dec. 1 and which Living Routes learned about on Dec. 2. UMass Amherst learned of it on Dec. 18 when a resident of Monteverde emailed university faculty members with concerns about the handling of the incident and the student’s treatment.
Despite multiple requests by the university for information about the identity of the student, Ahern wrote that it wasn’t until Dec. 22 – “20 days after learning the [i]ncident took place” -- that Living Routes provided the requested information to UMass Amherst.
“Living Routes’ response to the incident is inconsistent with UMA’s education mission and purpose,” Ahern wrote. “Further, Living Routes’ deliberate withholding of critical information is unacceptable in multiple respects. UMA has grave concerns regarding Living Routes’ ability to fulfill its contractual obligations to be responsible for all health, risk and safety issues that may arise during a program’s term, to communicate with UMA, and to provide equal access to the [p]rogram’s resources. These concerns leave UMA with no choice but to suspend its [a]ffiliation [a]greement with Living Routes,” effective immediately.
The affiliation agreement between Living Routes and UMass Amherst states that Living Routes “will be responsible for all health, risk and safety issues as may arise in connection with the [p]rogram,” and does not specify any requirements for notification of UMass Amherst regarding health and safety issues. However, a statement provided by the university's public relations office said that Ahern believes several contractual clauses address the relevant issues, including clause H.25 which states, in part, that Living Routes is "responsible for promotion, coordination and communication with UMass-Amherst." The affiliation agreement also requires that Living Routes develop health and safety standards in line with those promulgated by the Forum on Education Abroad, which among other things prompt program providers to assess their protocols for reporting incidents to the home campus and program partners.
Living Routes has been in the news in the past in regard to health and safety issues. Although the incident was not cited by UMass officials, a student died on a Living Routes program in 2008 in India in what local police ruled a suicide; as Massachusetts media have reported, concerns that foul play was involved in Katie Sherman's death prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open an inquiry, which ended inconclusively due to a lack of evidence.
Following UMass Amherst’s late December decision to suspend the affiliation agreement -- and thereby cease awarding credit to students enrolled on Living Routes programs -- the organization had to cancel its spring semester offerings and help the 28 affected students find spots on programs offered by other providers. Without the income from spring program tuition, and without significant cash reserves, the Living Routes board determined there was no choice but to close down. The Amherst office is scheduled to be closed at the end of the month and the nonprofit will legally dissolve by March 31.
Officials at Living Routes declined interview requests. However, Susan Jane Gentile, the executive director of Living Routes, wrote in the organization's January newsletter that UMass Amherst suspended the affiliation agreement without seeking all the relevant information.
“As you know, we have always maintained the highest academic, programmatic and health and safety standards on all of our programs,” Gentile wrote. “Despite this record of excellence, the University of Massachusetts Amherst notified us on December 27, 2013 that it would be suspending its affiliation agreement with LR and would therefore not grant academic credit for the courses in our spring 2014 programs. The university cited concerns about LR's response to a health and safety situation that occurred during a fall 2013 program but did not seek all relevant information from our executive staff (despite our offers to provide) nor from our partner organization in the host country before making its decision.” (The executive director of Living Routes’ partner organization in Costa Rica, the Monteverde Institute, did not respond to an interview request.)
"I trust that this was not a light decision for Living Routes not to share [information] and I think they did it with their best sense of integrity," said Daniel Greenberg, the organization's former, and founding, executive director, who stepped down in 2012. He said it's his understanding that the student requested confidentiality in this case, putting Living Routes in a bind.
"My supposition is that UMass had been wary of its relationship with third-party providers, or at least with Living Routes, not being under its direct control for years, and that this incident catalyzed things," Greenberg said.
Living Routes is known in the study abroad field largely through the efforts of Greenberg, who was active in promoting sustainability in study abroad, among other things chairing a NAFSA: Association of International Educators task force on the topic. Rodney Vargas, a colleague who worked with Greenberg on the NAFSA task force, said he was familiar with Living Routes programs and was impressed by their emphases on minimizing the carbon footprint and integrating with local communities. “I was looking at those programs as one of the models out there, and I am disappointed to hear that they had to close down,” said Vargas, the Latin America, Africa and Middle East programs director in the study abroad office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I know that they attract a lot of students in many universities across the U.S. that are looking specifically for those kinds of programs."
"I’m very proud of Living Routes," said Greenberg, who added that he was deeply sorry that the organization was having to close with its "tail between the legs," so to speak. “That’s not what it was about. It was about changing people’s lives, and I think they did everything they could from day one until the last day to do that."
“Among our accomplishments,” Gentile, the current executive director, wrote in the final Living Routes newsletter, “are: 1) providing 1,485 students with the skills, knowledge, experience and wisdom needed to become social, cultural and environmental change leaders on local, national and global levels; 2) supporting the growth and development of sustainable communities worldwide that serve as models for a more just and sustainable way of living with and on the planet; and 3) leading the way for other organizations and institutions to offer more dynamic and sustainable alternatives within the study abroad field.”