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Memories of SSU

Les Adler

Dean of Extended Education, 2000-2008
Professor of History, The Hutchins School, 1970-2000

Les Adler and Ed Stolman

Les Adler (left) and Ed Stolman

Lifelong Learning at SSU

Shortly after taking over as Dean of Extended Education in the summer of 2000, I learned about a fascinating, 25 year-old program for older adults at the University of San Francisco known as “The Fromm Institute.” It was already on my “check-out soon” list when President Armiñana recommended that I contact an influential local community member, a retired businessman and donor to SSU, Ed Stolman, who had, coincidentally, been attending Fromm and had recently asked the President why couldn’t we have a similar program at SSU. Ed and I met at USF to attend a class together and discuss the Institute with its director, Dr. Robert Fordham.

That first visit was the inception of the single most successful and influential community-based program ever created by Sonoma State University. Today more than 1000 adult learners annually enroll in three sessions of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) 8-week, non-credit classes on campus. Another 500 attend classes at a second site at Oakmont, plus 200 more at a newly opened site in Sonoma. That visit also played a key role in the subsequent creation of what has now become a nationwide network of OLLI programs serving more than 68,000 individuals on 116 campuses in 48 states.

Part of what distinguished the Fromm Institute was its insistence of offering university-quality courses, often drawing older faculty from in the Bay Area, providing them with strong support and paying them appropriately for their efforts. Courses and instructors were carefully selected and evaluated. The courses ranged across the disciplines and were designed to educate and challenge, as well as fascinate and entertain, the participants.

With more than 600 members enrolling in our Lifelong Learning Institute during its first year and word spreading throughout the region, our efforts had clearly been successful. Sixty-five percent of our enrollees already held baccalaureate degrees; 45 percent held Master’s Degrees, JDs, MDs or other advanced credentials. The average age of LLI members was 68, two-thirds of whom were women. These basic figures have remained largely constant through the first seven years of the program’s existence. Instead of eight classes per term, as of 2008 we offer eleven, the sizes of which range from the high 30s to more than 200, with average course enrollment approximately 80. While many of the original instructors continue to teach in the program, new faculty and subject matter are regularly added, extending the range of offerings enormously. 

It also became evident as the program moved into its second year that it needed its own executive director, a role I had filled during its initial phase while also serving as Dean of Extended Education. Dr. Lou Miller, a retired faculty member from the Hutchins School, took over the position on a half-time basis in 2002 and has made major contributions to every phase of the program’s subsequent development. He also initiated the single most significant structural change in the program, the recent opening of a second site in the Oakmont community east of Santa Rosa. Started as a pilot project in 2007 because of repeated requests from Oakmont residents who were not able to attend classes on the SSU campus, the highly successful Oakmont program is now enrolling more than 500 students per session in the three classes being offered each term to community members.

No history of what is now known as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SSU would be complete without a record of the remarkable contribution to lifelong learning made by the San Francisco philanthropist, Bernard Osher, and the Bernard Osher Foundation. It was Ed Stolman who brought our newly created Institute to the attention of his friend, Bernie Osher, in early 2001. The Foundation invited us to submit a proposal, which we did in March 2001. In May 2001 we learned that our request had been funded, guaranteeing us $100,000 a year for three years in order to establish our LLI on a solid financial basis, with the promise of a $1,000,000 endowment if we successfully met our enrollment goals. Coupled with our student membership fees of $150 per term and generous donations from our own Board members and Institute participants, we were able to reach our three-stage funding target. Our rapid success interested the Foundation in the possibility of developing similar institutes elsewhere.

As of 2008, Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes now exist on 116 different university and college campuses across the United States serving a population of more than 68,000 individuals. The meaning of lifelong learning, however, cannot be measured in enrollment or endowment numbers alone. Its real meaning is in the educational and personal value such programs have for a generation of individuals reaching that “third age” of life in which continued learning has a deeper meaning than preparing for a job or a new career. The gratitude expressed by the ‘students’ at SSU’s OLLI remind us daily of its central importance in their lives. A great number now make significant financial contributions to the program on an annual basis; many have brought friends and relatives into the courses; several have become instructors and three members have now joined the OLLI governing board. The Lifelong Learning Institute has brought SSU not only the lasting friendship and support of thousands of individuals in the North Bay region but a new and influential alumni base which recognizes the value, beauty, and excellence of our campus.