LLI Spotlight: Susan Hoffman, Director, OLLI, University of California, Berkeley 

By Peter Spiers

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, was founded twice. Funded initially by the Osher Foundation in 2003, the OLLI’s first life lasted until 2005, when the University suspended operations to consider more thoroughly which lifelong learning model was best aligned with university objectives and principles, and how it could take a leadership role in lifelong learning. The two-year hiatus involved deliberations at the highest levels of university leadership and, as a result of this process, when relaunched in 2007 the OLLI had both a solid plan and the emotional investment of the University Academic Senate, the body that represents faculty in University governance. Membership grew to 600 in the first year of renewed operations, and has since grown to 2,000. Susan Hoffman has been OLLI at Berkeley’s director since 2007.

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at OLLI?

My principal responsibility is to ensure that OLLI@Berkeley is aligned with the university’s purposes as a public institution serving the public good in all its dimensions. I have to insure that our courses are of the highest quality, appealing to our broad community of lifelong learners and drawing on the resources of the university’s faculty. Then, I am responsible for developing the on-going relationships with our remarkable OLLI students, who have a driving interest in public affairs, the arts and literature, and in participating fully in OLLI’s programming and organization.

Aligning OLLI with the university’s purpose has also allowed us to connect our members with the larger academic community in a variety of ways. Members can choose to be active in research, exploring the connection between learning and longevity, or going right into the labs of young scientists and entrepreneurs, for example, to test video games designed to foster neuroplasticity and bolster attention. This fall, OLLI members caring for loved ones with dementia were invited to small group meetings to provide input on the development of home monitoring systems with a team from the engineering, public health, and business schools.

Having strong connections with and the support of the faculty allows us to develop programming quickly in response to what’s in the news. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, we were able to put together a six-week course offering a variety of faculty perspectives on both legal and political fronts. Similarly, we have been able to coordinate courses with both film and art openings at the Berkeley Art Museum, and bring public intellectuals into the programming.
In the end, my job is to develop the relationships with which a quality program flourishes. OLLI@Berkeley is a community of highly educated older adults who are involved in the world, who work as citizens and mentors. They see OLLI as a terrific opportunity to engage the university on multiple fronts, and my job is to facilitate that engagement.

What did you do before you came to OLLI?

Before I came to Berkeley, I was director of the OLLI at San Francisco State University. My background is in the arts and politics. For 10 years, I was executive director of the California Confederation of the Arts, representing California’s artists and arts organizations in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. I also completed the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, and have directed short films and published essays and poetry.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Our most popular courses run the full gamut, from popular culture, the classics in literature, to current affairs and politics. We’ve offered a number of courses on contemporary political issues, the Middle East, and climate change. I mentioned the Citizens United program, and now we’re developing a series around the theme of incarceration in American society and another on climate change. The climate change course will be taught by Dan Kammen, a real star in the field of renewable energy who has worked at the State Department and is in Paris now at the COP 21 climate talks.

One of our most popular instructors is Peter Elman, a teacher and writer who has worked in the rock music field for more than 50 years as a musician and a producer. He has taught several courses on the history of rock music, blending music history — including California and Bay Area history — theory and performance, and has a course in the upcoming semester called “The Fab Four and the Stones, 1962-1970: A Study in Contrasts.” What I’ve seen happen in these courses is startling, as students get really animated and start to identify with their younger selves, to talk about where they came from and what impact the music had on their lives.

More broadly, we look for courses that engage the senses, both emotionally and intellectually. So we have film courses, art and literature, writing, and art making.

What developments do you see in the future for OLLI Berkeley or the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?

We have several initiatives looking to broaden our base, reaching out to a wider diversity of communities. We have a faculty advisory group to look into issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. We’ve been analyzing our courses and speakers to measure how broad our perspective is, and we’re wrestling with how location affects participation. We’re launching a new program site in downtown Oakland where we have access to a network of senior centers and retired living communities. We’re also looking carefully at accessibility and have a continuing initiative on hearing to make sure hearing deficits don’t inhibit participation.

More broadly, the Lifelong Learning Movement has grown significantly across the country. There are 120 OLLI institutes now. More university leaders see a new role in reaching out to older adults, providing much more than the “edutainment” too often associated with programs in the past. Berkeley is leading the way, we believe, in demonstrating how intellectual and artistic work of the first order can define programming for older adults, and how a great research university has the capacity to help us understand the impact of learning on longevity itself.

Tell me about a member or members who has or have made a significant contribution to the OLLI’s success?

About 250 OLLI members are active volunteers, many in governance roles. We have six standing committees with 9-12 members on each committee, and the co-chairs of each committee form our coordinating council of advisors, a body that meets twice a year and serves to keep the whole organization focused on a longer time horizon and to understand how we need to be responsive to the University’s larger aims. Our members also make significant financial contributions to our annual fund, without which we couldn’t be successful. In both cases —engagement and contributions — it’s the OLLI community that makes the program thrive.

Here are several examples of members. K. Patricia Cross is a fully engaged member of OLLI, as a volunteer on our Advisory Research and Evaluation Team, a participant in our Fourth Age Salon (a monthly forum for our members who are over 80 years old) and a donor who has helped OLLI be proactive in the implementation of assistive listening technologies in our classroom venues. Toni Iharu and Jake Warner, who co-founded Nolo Press, are an exceptional couple. They travel a lot and yet are fully engaged with OLLI’s learning community and classes. They are leaders on how to imagine ways for people to give back to UC Berkeley and OLLI. They started OLLI’s Legacy Giving Program and Toni spearheaded a 50th anniversary fundraising effort for Study Abroad.

Is there another OLLI you admire and have learned something from?

When I go to the OLLI annual conference I see all sorts of interesting programming. Northwestern has an innovative program on civic engagement. And Wichian Rojanawon at the OLLI at U. Mass.-Boston and their Stonewall at OLLI special interest group have helped me see what we might do better to reach out to the LGBTQ communities. Other OLLI programs are developing mentoring and intergenerational programming, which we have also begun to introduce.

Tell me about OLLI Berkeley’s travel program?

Our surveys tell us that somewhere from a quarter to a half of our membership is interested in traveling with other OLLI members, and we have had wonderful trips to Berlin, Cuba, and Spain. We offer about one program a year, but we won’t be expanding it over the next year, as we’ve discovered how labor-intensive it is to do a travel program well. We’ll be looking in the future at how a travel program can fit into our overall strategy.

Is there a book you’ve read for pleasure recently that you would recommend to others?

I’ve just finished reading the “Story of the Lost Child,” the fourth of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels.” Ferrante is a remarkable writer and I believe the impact of what she has written will be profound for future writers. Ferrante’s real identity is a secret and this raises a lot of interesting questions. Is the author a man or a woman? Is it a novel or a memoir? If it’s a memoir it’s a very different kind of memoir—the protagonist (who may or may not be the author) is as hard on herself as she is on the other characters. Whatever the answers are to those questions, it’s an extremely intimate look at the nature of friendship, what it means to be from somewhere, and what we lose when we lose a sense of place. These issues seem very contemporary and relevant.

Photo Courtesy of University of California, Berkely