Maine native Bernard Osher is a successful businessman and community leader, a patron of the arts and education, whose philanthropy has affected countless organizations over the past quarter century. His wife, the Honorable Barbro Osher, Consul General of Sweden in San Francisco, serves as chair of the foundation.
History of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Movement
What began in 1997 as the University of Southern Maine's Senior College became the nation's first Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And its beginnings are the stuff of legend. Local Rabbi, Harry Sky, worked with the leadership of the University to invite potential older learners to a meeting about an exciting new learning opportunity for older learners in Maine. They expected 150 people, and had enough “chowdah” to feed 175. When 500 potential students showed up, the program was successfully launched, albeit with a very watered down fish chowder lunch.
The Senior College was renamed in 2001 after receiving a gift from The Bernard Osher Foundation that enabled the program to expand its peer-taught courses, workshops and other activities for more than 950 adult learners, ages 55 and over in the Portland, Maine area. OLLI was started, developed and remains an organization run primarily by volunteers who develop the curriculum, staff the office at USM, and design OLLI's extracurricular activities including local and international field trips. The USM institute also coordinates the Maine Senior College Network (MSCN), an organization of the state's 15 Senior Colleges that serves more than 6000 Mainers statewide annually.
Recognizing that the proportion of older people in the United States is growing rapidly, and with it, the demand for lifelong learning programs, the Osher Foundation began to encourage the development of vibrant learning communities of older adults. The Foundation funded Sonoma State University, a member of the California State University (CSU) system, which planned to model its lifelong learning program on the highly-respected Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco.
Then across the country, new programs offering stimulating learning opportunities were started—and a national movement was born. Pleased with the results of their two pilot programs, the Foundation decided to join the “lifelong learning” field in a significant fashion. The concept of a network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes was compelling, and Requests for Proposals (RFP) were sent to the remaining campuses in the California State University system as well as to those in the University of California (UC) system.
In November 2002, the Foundation Board awarded initial grants to six campuses in the CSU group ( Bakersfield, Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, Dominguez Hills, Hayward, San Francisco, and San Jose) and four campuses of the UC system ( Davis, Riverside, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz). A separate award was made to the University of Vermont. In February 2003, two more CSU campuses ( Fullerton and San Bernardino) and two more UC campuses ( Berkeley and Irvine) were awarded Osher Foundation grants along with the University of Hawaii at Manoa. With these additional grantees, the Foundation was supporting Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes on 18 campuses in four states. In April 2003, the outstanding progress demonstrated by Sonoma State University led to an endowment grant along with its third year of operating grant support.
In an effort to expand and further diversify the network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, another RFP was issued in mid-September 2003 to nearly 30 colleges and universities in California and across the nation. In February 2004, the Board of Directors of The Bernard Osher Foundation approved first-year operating grants to 23 institutions of higher learning. In this cohort are eight additional California State University campuses (Channel Islands, Chico, Humboldt, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Marcos, and San Diego; the remaining three University of California campuses (Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara); four private universities (Brandeis, Dominican University of California, Santa Clara, and Richmond); six state universities from Hawaii at Hilo in the West to New Hampshire in the East – with Arizona State, Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah in between; and two community colleges providing unique services to seasoned learners – Sierra College in Northern California and Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona.
Soon existing Lifelong Learning Institutes became interested in the affiliation with the Osher Foundation, seeking to expand and strengthen current programming. Although prior emphasis had been placed largely on start-up programs, the Foundation was also interested in helping to strengthen existing programs, of which there are nearly 400 across the country. In June 2004, with initial grants from the Foundation, the network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes was expanded to include seven established Lifelong Learning Institutes programs at George Mason University, Kennesaw State University, Duke University and the Universities of Dayton, Minnesota, Oregon, and Pittsburgh.
February 2005 saw the designation of 12 additional programs as Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. The institutes include existing programs at Rutgers University (NJ), University of South Florida, University of Miami; Eckerd College (FL); Tufts University (MA); University of Texas at El Paso; University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Northwestern University (IL); University of North Carolina at Wilmington; Clemson University (SC); and a new institute at California State University, Fresno.
Thirteen programs were approved in June, 2005 by the Foundation's Board of Directors. They include: University of Alabama at Huntsville, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, American University, Washington, D.C., University of Arizona, Hampton University (VA). University of Massachusetts-Boston, University of Missouri-Columbia, New York University, Saginaw Valley State University (MI), University of South Carolina-Beaufort, University of Southern Mississippi-Hattiesburg, Texas Tech University and University of Wisconsin-Madison. The programs at Hampton University, New York University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison programs are start-ups and the remaining ten are existing programs.
Thanks to the generosity of the The Bernard Osher Foundation, the network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes across the United States is meeting the needs of older learners who want to learn simply for the joy of learning and personal fulfillment.
Provided below are the biographies of the Foundation's Chairman, Founder and Treasurer, and President.
Barbro Osher, Chairman of the Board
Barbro Osher is Consul General of Sweden in San Francisco, having served in the same capacity in Los Angeles from 1995-1998. She also is owner and publisher of Vestkusten, one of the few Swedish-American newspapers in the United States, established in 1886 and providing news from Sweden on politics, business, and sports as well as information on the active Swedish-American community in the West.
A native of Stockholm and a graduate of Stockholm University with a degree in languages and political science, Osher pursued a career in publishing and advertising in Sweden before moving to the United States in the early 1980s. Her first visit to America in 1962 was to Maine where she participated as a student in the Experiment in International Living program. Over the years, she has represented both the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the Swedish Tourist Board.
Barbro Osher is the founder of the Swedish Women's Educational Association (SWEA) chapter in San Francisco and was president of Positive Sweden/North America, an organization furthering the image of Sweden through educational activities in the United States. She serves on the Boards of the University of California (Berkeley) Foundation and the American-Scandinavian Foundation.
Among numerous recognitions, including several American honorary degrees, Osher received the Eliason Award from the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Los Angeles in 1999. She was a recipient of His Majesty the King's Medal in 2002. In 2004 Barbro Osher was named SWEA International's Woman of the Year, and in October, 2006, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in art from Göteborg University, Sweden.
Barbro Osher is chair of the Bernard Osher Foundation and president of the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. The Pro Suecia Foundation supports Swedish-related cultural and educational projects in North America and Sweden. Among the Foundation's grantees are several American universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, Gustavus Adolphus University, and the University of Texas at Austin, whose programs advance understanding of Swedish culture and tradition both in Sweden and in America. She is also a very active member of the Consular Corps of San Francisco, an avid reader in six languages, and an enthusiastic skier.
Bernard Osher, Founder and Treasurer
Bernard Osher, a patron of education and the arts, is well known as “the quiet philanthropist.” He created the Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977 which seeks to improve quality of life through support for higher education and the arts. The Foundation provides postsecondary scholarship funding to colleges and universities across the nation. The Foundation also supports selected centers in integrative medicine at Harvard University, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. In addition, the Foundation supports a growing national network of lifelong learning institutes for older adults. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, operating on the campuses of 115 colleges and universities from Maine to Hawaii, have a National Resource Center at the University of Southern Maine. A local grants program provides support for arts and humanities institutions in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area and the State of Maine.
A native of Biddeford, Maine and a graduate of Bowdoin College, Osher has pursued a successful career in business, beginning with the management of his family's hardware and plumbing supplies store in Maine and continuing with work at Oppenheimer & Company in New York before moving to California. There he became a founding director of World Savings, the second largest savings institution in the United States, which was recently merged with Wachovia Corporation.
A collector of American paintings of the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, Osher purchased the fine art auction house of Butterfield & Butterfield in 1970 and oversaw its growth to become the fourth largest auction house in the world. In 1999, he sold the company to eBay.
Having served on a number of philanthropic and non-profit boards, Osher is an active community leader in the San Francisco Bay Area, the recipient of several honorary degrees, a serious student of opera, and an ardent fly fisherman.
He and his wife Barbro Osher, Consul General for Sweden in San Francisco, conduct their philanthropy through the Bernard Osher Foundation, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Fund, and the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, which supports Swedish cultural and educational projects in North America and Sweden.
Mary G.F. Bitterman, President
Before becoming President of The Bernard Osher Foundation, Mary G.F. Bitterman most recently served as President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, an independent grantmaking foundation serving Californians, and as President and CEO of KQED, one of the leading public broadcasting centers in the United States. She has served also as Executive Director of the Hawaii Public Broadcasting Authority, Director of the Voice of America, Director of the Hawaii State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, and Director of the East-West Center's Institute of Culture and Communication.
Bitterman currently is a director (and Chairman) of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), The Bernard Osher Foundation, Bank of Hawaii, Barclays Global Investors, and the Commonwealth Club of California. She has produced several documentaries for public television and has written on telecommunications development and the role of media in developing societies. She is an Honorary Member of the National Presswomen's Federation and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Bitterman received her B.A. from Santa Clara University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College.