LLI Spotlight:  Rosemary Reinhardt, Executive Director, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho

By Peter Spiers

Background:  The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Boise State University was founded 15 years ago by a small group of curious intellectuals committed to establishing a learning organization like those they’d seen at their alma maters back East and elsewhere.  The organization, originally called the Renaissance Institute, began with the support of then dean of the Division of Extended Studies Joyce Harvey Morgan. Classes were initially held in living rooms, theaters and anywhere else space could be found until dedicated space on campus could be arranged. In 2006 the Institute received its first grant from the Osher Foundation and became an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  Since then it has received two $1 million endowments that have been instrumental in its growth. The OLLI is now home to over 1,400 members, drawn from retired university faculty and staff, alumni, longtime community residents, and retirees drawn to Boise’s growing stature as a desirable retirement destination.  Volunteers play a big part in the organization, providing council to the executive director through a 15-member advisory board, and serving on four subject-specific curriculum committees and other committees.  Members pay $70 for a full-year or $35 for a half-year membership which includes attendance at all lectures for no additional cost, a parking pass, and attendance at two seasonal events, but does not include short courses or special trips, for which varying fees apply.  Executive Director Rosemary Reinhardt directs an office that includes three other paid staff—a coordinator and an administrative assistant—and a part-time student office assistant.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at your LLI?  Coordinating the efforts of our four curriculum committees to ensure high quality programming is a big part of the job, and in that area I focus on sourcing instructors from active and retired Boise State faculty and administrators—this keeps our relationship with the University strong, too.  But mainly, and this goes for my staff as well, we’re here for our members, we listen to their needs, and we’re always on the lookout for better ways to serve them.  This commitment to developing great courses and engaging with our members fulfills our objective of providing high quality lifelong learning opportunities for adults seeking intellectual and social fulfillment.  And of course there’s strategic planning, budgeting and, always important, fundraising.

How is your relationship with Boise State University?

We have a great relationship with the University. In fact, we see ourselves as the University, not as a separate entity. I appreciate the way our program both relies upon and serves Boise State. We employ stellar University faculty to teach for us which really highlights the caliber of teaching at Boise State. We are well supported in that we have well-appointed office and classroom space and supportive administrative leadership across campus that sees the value in what we do.

What are some favorite courses you offer?  We have faculty superstars, but I try not to go to back to the same talent well too often.  A diverse pool of instructors keeps things interesting, and I think we’ve had every University VP or top administrator teach a course here!  History is perennially popular, but our courses range from iOS for the iPhone to Racial Backlash in America.  Though I had some trepidation when we first offered them, courses on the Conscious Dying Movement have really gotten people engaged and talking.  A recent course on Mass Extinction was also very successful; one participant told me “you might have to clean up the classroom because several minds were blown.”  Though most courses are taught by active or retired professors, we also bring in instructors from the community, like the artistic director of the local opera or ballet.  While we don’t have formal training for new faculty, I do carefully vet them and invite them to observe a class before they start, and I also share with them what we’ve learned about best practices when teaching older students, from practical issues like always repeating questions to less obvious things like members’ aversion to being broken into smaller groups for discussion.  They’re consistently impressed by the astute questions they get, and learn pretty quickly that you can’t phone it with the smart people at our OLLI.

What developments do you see in the future for your LLI or for the lifelong learning movement more broadly?  We’re exploring more options for distance learning, both to keep our members who can no longer drive, or have to miss a class, engaged, and to bring the outside world into our classrooms through links with national museums and other institutions. We’ve also hosted a few Death Cafés, a movement with the objective “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”  How to navigate the challenges and opportunities of life’s “third act” is a topic of growing interest among this demographic and we feel it is important to provide resources like these to our interested members.

What did you do before you came to Boise State? I’ve been Executive Director for five years, and at Boise State for 11. My academic background is in theater management.  I’m a native Idahoan and I worked in the arts and basic administration at the college level at various institutions across the country before returning to Boise to raise my kids.  Before coming to Boise State I was the director of marketing at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?  I’m drawn to the coast!  First, the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea for history and beautiful landscape.  Second, Scandinavia for its stark beauty, and salmon that’s even better than the great salmon we have in Idaho.  We may have to put together a Road Scholar trip for these destinations!

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others?  I just finished reading Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt.  It’s the story of a mother and father and their twins, born as boys, one of whom is a transgender girl.  On the surface it’s about their medical and emotional journey, but at heart it’s a testament to family love.  I’d also recommend the podcast Many Things Consideredby Marc Johnson.  Marc is a former broadcast journalist and worked for Idaho’s Governor Andrus, and the podcast looks at current politics through the lens of political history.  That’s an important perspective in today’s environment.