OLLI at AU History

In 1980, there were no lifelong learning programs in Washington, DC. In fact, there were only three in the nation: one in California, one in New York City at The New School, and Duke University’s program for retired executives. Three local soon-to-be retirees put together a proposal and an organizational outline to create a volunteer membership organization with intellectually stimulating, peer-led study groups that also encouraged a sense of community with the opportunity to make new friends.

The proposal was presented to George Washington University, but they could not decide whether the program belonged in Education or Continuing Education. Through a happy coincidence, they were able to make a connection with Dr. Richard Berendzen (then President of American University). Very soon afterward, they were assigned a dean with whom to work, staff, and space in Nebraska Hall. They held focus groups in their homes to assess interest in their plans and contacted friends, faculty members, and professionals who might be interested in teaching a course. They formed a board whose members included Tina Fried Heller, Carolyn Alper, Sylvia and AI Brown, and Katherine Donovan, and they chose a temporary name, The Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR).

ILR started with 11 peer-led study groups and 80 members in the fall of 1982. Over time, ILR grew in both the number of study groups and members. At the same time, AU was growing and, thus, no longer had the space to accommodate ILR. In 1989, ILR became a 501(c)(3) and began leasing space from the Temple Baptist Church (next to the main campus), where it remained for many years. Eventually, classes were added at other locations—AU’s Katzen Arts Center, River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral—to accommodate growth.

In 2001, Bernard Osher, a respected businessman, community leader, and philanthropist, visited the small senior learning program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He was seized with the notion that such a program was what "seasoned learners" (over the age of 50) needed to help keep their brains engaged and agile. He soon began to provide financial support to existing programs and start-ups, with a goal of establishing an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in each of the 50 states. In 2005, the Osher Foundation of San Francisco approached ILR regarding whether the Institute wanted to join the growing network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes around the country.

The fiercely independent and autonomous ILR had a decision to make. Members were concerned about the changes that would be required (including the name change) by affiliating with another program. In 2006, after discussing the issue thoroughly, as well as realizing that their independence would not be jeopardized, ILR officially became the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University (OLLI at AU).

After two years and a $200,000 gift from the Osher Foundation, in 2008, OLLI at AU’s membership passed 500 individuals making it eligible for a $1 million-dollar endowment. Given to American University for OLLI's benefit, OLLI at AU receives a 5% payout each year. When membership passed 1,000 in 2014, OLLI at AU became eligible for a second million-dollar endowment. This gift was contingent on obtaining a long-term lease with AU for "permanent" space on campus. After lengthy negotiations, a 10-year lease was signed in 2016 and the second million dollars was given to AU for OLLI's benefit.

In the summer of 2016, OLLI at AU moved into American University’s Spring Valley Building. OLLI at AU was once again under one roof, in newly renovated, accessible classrooms with current A/V equipment. In 2018 and 2019, OLLI had hearing loops installed in all of its classrooms. This state-of-the-art technology allows members with hearing loss to hear study group leaders and class members clearly, addressing a critical need for many OLLI members.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, OLLI at AU offered 90-plus classes each semester, plus 20 February Shorts (3-, 4-, and 5-day classes), 24 June Minis (once a week for four weeks), and 27 lectures by nationally renowned individuals. More than 1,350 unique members participated in these offerings. In addition to members who serve as Study Group Leaders, faculty from AU’s School of International Service, School of Public Affairs, and College of Arts and Sciences present faculty series. The current 2018-2019 academic year has seen the addition of a book group, publication of our first annual report, the first-ever July Shorts, and continued membership growth, now totaling nearly 1,600 unique members.