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Alumnae Celebrate 40 Years of Class Act

The Alumnae of Northwestern's Continuing Education Program, which offers intriguing courses taught by top faculty, achieves a milestone.

In the 1970s when Don Collins, former dean of University College (now the School of Continuing Studies), noticed the success of continuing education courses run on the Evanston campus by a group of women volunteers, he thought about having University College take over the program. But after researching the countless hours it took for the Alumnae of Northwestern to administer the classes, he reconsidered.

Northwestern couldn't afford to pay staff to do what the Alumnae did free of charge.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the program. Noted for its high-quality noncredit course offerings and reasonable enrollment fees, the volunteer-run program has flourished during its long run.

The Alumnae, a volunteer board founded in 1916, began offering these courses in 1968 when a group of women introduced what was then a pioneering concept: They offered adults the chance to continue learning from Northwestern faculty even after their college years were through. In the first year the Alumnae offered six classes and enrolled 370 students. Today more than 3,000 students take the 14 courses offered annually.

"They have people beating down the doors to get into some of their classes," says Henry Binford, an associate professor of history who taught his first class in the Alumnae program in 1976.

In fact, students pour in from all over Chicago and from as far away as Indiana and Wisconsin to take classes in a wide range of subjects. This fall the offerings include election-year perspectives from 10 professors and a course presented by Northwestern researchers on medical insights into gender differences.

"They're really fruitful, meaty, stimulating courses for post-college individuals — no being talked down to or poorly prepared lectures," says Eileen D. Meyer, a continuing education student from Chicago. "The price is right, too!"

Students can sign up for 10-week sessions for $150 (or $20 per class session when space allows). Despite the bargain price, the Alumnae have managed to raise more than $3 million over 40 years. They give the net income to the University to fund specially selected gifts, grants and scholarships; faculty teaching awards; outstanding student awards; and sponsorships of visiting scholars. In 2008 the Alumnae contributed more than $144,000 to fund 36 programs, including a gala for music theater composer Sheldon Harnick (Mu49) and the purchase of equipment for Northwestern News Network, the University's student television station.

The Alumnae volunteers serve as the lifeblood of the program. Two-thirds of the 60-member Alumnae board serve on the continuing education committee, and many of the organization's 21 associate members proctor classes. "The program wouldn't function without a coalition of people who give 110 percent of their effort all the time," says Binford.

The Alumnae handle all aspects of administration of the program, from course creation to scheduling. They proctor each class, recruit professors and audit courses to ensure that the faculty meet the program's standards.

"For me it's an extraordinary honor to be asked to teach in the Alumnae Continuing Education Program," says Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical ethics and humanities and of religion. "I know that they're careful about whom they ask."

Many prominent professors choose to teach for the Alumnae program because of the intellectually curious students who attend classes. About a third are Northwestern graduates, and more than half hold graduate or professional degrees.

"The people who show up are just a blast," says Clare Cavanagh, associate professor of Slavic languages and literature who taught a course called Poland in the Twentieth Century. "The students come from all different kinds of backgrounds, and the only reason they're here is because they're interested," she says, recalling the intense discussions and arguments that erupted at the end of her lecture on the Holocaust.

The students, generally ranging in age from 40s to late 80s, bring life experiences to the classes that professors find valuable. Zoloth, who taught a popular course on bioethics, has brought in real-life cases from her medical research to get the opinions of what she considers a thoughtful audience.

She says she teaches for the program because it allows her to help extend Northwestern's community of learning. "I think that Northwestern has an obligation to Evanston and Chicago in general to be a place where ideas are discussed and where the University participates in the life-world of the members of the community," says Zoloth. "These Alumnae education classes, taken as a whole, are an extraordinary extension of the work of the University."

— Lauren Price (J08)

To learn more about the Alumnae of Northwestern and its Continuing Education Program, visit

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Jane, Julie and Ginny
From left, Jane Meacham Brower (WCAS52), Julie Baker Rachlis (SESP60) and Ginny Grant Blair (C48) during spring quarter.Photo by Jim Ziv
Professor Earle
Anthropology professor Timothy Earle teaches the spring Alumnae course From the Stone Age to the Plastic Age: A History of Human Economies.Photo by Jim Ziv
spring 1975
From left, Marjorie Reimers Fairman (WCAS43), history professor Ivor G. Wilks, Janis Wolfson Hattis (SESP42), Patricia Steffen Rosberg (WCAS40), Ora MacDonald (WCAS19) and an unidentified student at an Alumnae continuing education course at Norris University Center in spring 1975.Courtesy of the Alumnae of Northwestern