LLI Spotlight: Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University of North Carolina Wilmington - Shelley Morse, Director
By Peter Spiers


The University of Carolina Wilmington had a continuing education program—including community-focused non-credit courses—for several years before becoming aware of the Osher Foundation’s grant program, received its first grant in 2005, with subsequent $1 million endowment grants in 2007 and 2011. OLLI UNCW now boasts a full-time staff of four and 1,600 members from a growing coastal Carolina retirement population, attracted to the area by great weather, a relaxed lifestyle, cultural amenities such as a new 1,200-seat performance center, the University environment and, of course, the OLLI itself. Members pay an annual membership fee of $50 or $30 for either of the program’s two semesters, plus a separate course fee for the different programs and events. The OLLI is fortunate to have its own building, a renovated former ice cream restaurant that opened in 2010 with a large classroom and three offices. Shelley Morse has been the OLLI’s Director since 2012.

What do you consider your major responsibilities at UNCW?

My major responsibility is day-to-day management of our program operations to include two full-time people in the program area and one in finance. OLLI-UNCW is part of the University’s Office of Community Engagement, and I work together with that office representing OLLI as we create the University’s strategy for community education and outreach.

How does curriculum development work? What are some favorite courses you offer?

The core of our program is liberal arts studies, and the first part of our catalog each semester lists these courses in subject areas ranging from Art and Art History and Film Studies, to Philosophy and Religion and Technology. Many of these course are led by current UNCW faculty, who are very supportive of our program and to whom we pay honoraria. We also have very active “Societies”—such as STEM and “Women on Wednesday”—each responsible for proposing course in their area. “Women on Wednesdays,” for example, is “a forum for women to connect with interesting regional women to discuss meaningful subjects.” One of the ten sessions in that series this spring is titled “’Who Will Believe Thee, Isabel’: The Evolution of the Discussion about Sexual Harassment,” led by a retired labor and employment attorney. We also have Special Interest forums, outdoor, wellness, and leisure programs (which we group together using the OWL acronym), an international travel program, many events that are free for members, and we host live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and from London’s National Theatre.

A very popular instructor is Beverley Foulks McGuire, Ph.D., a former Mellon and Fulbright Scholar and an associate professor of East Asian Religions at UNCW. She has taught many courses at OLLI, including one now called “Happiness: Philosophical and Religious Perspectives.”

As more and more of our membership are from the Baby Boom generation, we’ve adapted to formats that generation likes in a class, including smaller groups, more focused and specialized topics, and a classrooms set up with horseshoe seating to promote discussion and interaction.

What’s your governance structure? We are a self-supporting unit within the University and we have a very active Advisory Council who advise me on the OLLI’s policies and direction. The Council once functioned as an Executive Committee with representation from our various other committees, but that recently changed. Now the Council consists of ten members whom I select from the membership based on their ability to look at the big picture rather than as advocates for one or another committee’s point of view. We also have 120 amazing volunteers!
Are there other LLIs you network with or have learned from? The four OLLIs in North Carolina—UNC Wilmington, UNC Asheville, Duke and NC State—work together closely. There’s no sense of competition and an incredible willingness to help each other.

What is your major longer-term or strategic focus? Our primary strategic commitment is continuing to offer unique and high-quality educational programs—while we manage continued growth, something we and the University at large are both experiencing. The University has to balance its resources; this year, for example, the priority is repairing damage to campus buildings caused by last year’s hurricane. We have an architectural rendering for an expansion to our building, but that’s on hold for now.

In July you’re hosting the Southern Regional Conference for Learning in Retirement? Give us your “elevator pitch” for would-be participants who might still be on the fence. Here are three reasons! One, we’ve created an agenda with topics well beyond what you might have experienced at past conferences, and we believe the conference will be particularly valuable for new LLI directors. Two, you’ll experience a beautiful area, and we’ve reserved a block of rooms right on the Cape Fear River. And three, we have an exciting roster of activities going on before and after the conference. (You can register for the conference here.) 

What did you do before you came to UNCW? I’m originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, however I spent 35 years in Annapolis, Maryland working and raising a family. My professional background is in adult education, particularly adult education and interactive technology. I have a Master’s in library and information science from the University of Maryland, and worked for many years in government, private industry and higher education. I came to OLLI-UNCW almost eight years ago.

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already? We have a large travel program at OLLI-UNCW, and staff often picks the destination we think our members would enjoy traveling. We have trips to Sicily this spring, to Croatia next year, but this fall I am headed with our OLLI travelers to Switzerland to explore the Alps by train, an itinerary I selected! I would love to go to Vietnam and Cambodia in the near future as well.

Tell me about a book you’ve read or podcast you’ve listened to that you would recommend to others. On the lighter side, I love the mysteries of Dennis Lehane. I’m also re-reading “The Art of Leadership,” a textbook by George Manning and Kent Curtis. It is a great primer for presenting concepts and skills in leadership development with practical applications in the workplace.