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Vol. IV No. 3   · Week of 11 August 2000   

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Negotiating the sky and trees

By David J. Craig

Walking on a rope suspended from trees 40 feet above the forest floor while his hands painstakingly grasped other ropes for guidance and balance provided Robert Salafia with quite a shock this summer.

Sargent Camp


Thiago Lacerda (MET'01), who is studying for a master of science in electronic commerce and multinational commerce, enjoys a bird's-eye view of Sargent Camp during a rope-walking exercise designed to teach lessons in interpersonal trust.
Photo courtest of Sargent Camp


"I felt the fear, but just did it anyway," says Salafia, a job developer at Sargent College's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, who attended BU's Sargent Camp for a six-day graduate course in negotiation theory and practice from June 11 to 16. "Other students on the ground were calling up and shouting encouragement, and that was enabling. I was telling them to keep it up."

Tiptoeing amongst treetops might not seem the most appropriate way to work toward a business degree, but such rigorous physical and mental tests are at the core of learning at Sargent Camp in Peterborough, N.H. They are designed to provide experience in group problem solving and building interpersonal trust - skills necessary for successful negotiation and conflict resolution, according to Robert Rubendall, a MET adjunct assistant professor and director of Sargent Camp since 1995.

"In the business world people need to be able to rely on one another in order to discuss difficult points frankly and without a fear of being undermined," says Rubendall, who cotaught the negotiation course. "We built that sort of interpersonal trust first with very basic exercises, such as having people steer one another blind- folded through the forest. We built up to the rope exercise on the last day.

"In that case, people on the ground were responsible for operating a rock-climbing safety system that catches people if they fall, which actually happens from time to time," he says. "The fact that there is no safety net makes the exercise work. That element of perceived risk gets blown up in people's minds so they think they might die if they slip. They need to mentally work through that, and to rely on their peers."

Sargent Camp was founded in 1912 by Dr. Dudley Sargent and was acquired by BU in 1932. It then served as a training facility for physical education and health majors at Sargent College, which had become part of BU in 1929. The camp covers 850 acres of forest and fields in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire, and features 25 miles of trails for hiking, a 60-acre pond, and basketball and volleyball courts. Although it now is operated by Metropolitan College, it primarily hosts corporate events and conferences and groups of middle school students. Visitors reside in rustic cabins with central heat and hot water and attend classes and eat together in a common building.

BU professors have used the camp's facilities to supplement courses in the past, but before this summer there had never been a BU course taught in collaboration with the camp. Jay Halfond, associate dean of academic affairs at MET, organized the course to give students a more rigorous background in negotiation. Half of the 22 BU students who participated from June 11 to 16 were international students.

Lessons at the camp are based on what staff there call experiential learning, which requires visitors to engage in rigorous interactive exercises, and to discuss and scrutinize their performance afterwards. The exercises teach lessons involving interpersonal trust and group behavior, and are customized to the needs of visiting groups.

During the June MET course, each day began with a classroom lecture taught by Halfond, covering the basic theories of negotiation strategy, such as group problem solving, conflict resolution, and risk taking. Students then went outside for role-playing exercises, many competitive in nature, but requiring teamwork and extensive cooperation in order to solve.

In one exercise the students were split into two groups to compete for a bucket of water positioned beneath a complicated pulley device strung between two trees. The rules of the exercise seemed to dictate that only one of the teams could reach the water by way of the pulley, yet neither team could devise a way to get the water on its own.

"We found that the only way for either group to get the water was to hammer out an agreement so that the winning team would agree to share the prize with the other team," says Salafia. "The solution wasn't apparent and it wasn't easy. There was a lot of arguing about whether we should cooperate with the other team, and it was contentious."

Such an exercise, according to Rubendall, provokes more intense and realistic interactions among students than those that take place in a typical business classroom.

"As close as one would come to this in most classrooms would be to read a case study of negotiations that took place, and to then assume the roles of the players and reenact it," he says. "This takes it a step further because the students negotiate through a situation they've never confronted before, and for which they need to establish trust and reliance on others in order to solve."

Salafia, who is working toward a master's degree in organizational policy at Metropolitan College, agrees. "This class was the capstone course of my degree," he says. "It was very intense, and it put learning into a context where you were able to put what you learned into practice, and to learn from what you actually did in real situations."

The course was bolstered by the relationships that students formed during their week at the camp, according to Halfond. He hopes to encourage other MET faculty members to schedule courses at Sargent Camp next summer. "Too often students at MET are like ships passing in the night," he says, "but these students seemed to develop lasting relationships, which should be a part of the experience of being a student. It showed us what kind of environment makes for the very best learning."


14 August 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations