Previously relegated to the nostalgic status of "that '70s program," the Baltimore Free University stands poised for a 21st-century revival.
Johns Hopkins has recently announced its plans to bring back the informal nondegree-granting adult education program that existed from 1968 to 1984. Like its predecessor, the new BFU will feature a wide array of personal enrichment, social issues and practical trade courses.
The new incarnation will begin this fall and will be administrated through the Center for Social Concern. Bill Tiefenwerth, director of the Center for Social Concern and a major advocate of the BFU's rebirth, says that the 2003 version of the Baltimore Free University will adhere to many of its original founding ideals, providing a no-boundaries, creative approach to education and community building.
"We plan to attract young and old with this new program," Tiefenwerth said. "I don't want it to be just an exercise in nostalgia; this is a way for Johns Hopkins to give back to the community and foster the sharing of knowledge."
The original BFU was founded in 1968 by Chester Wickwire, the university's chaplain from 1953 to 1984. The innovative program featured courses that ranged from Baltimore history and modern psychology to photography and a self improvement course titled Dare to Be Alive. Its instructors included community members and Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and students, all of whom worked pro bono.
At its height in the 1970s, the BFU catalog brimmed with 110 courses, and registration lines outside the Chaplain's Office numbered in the hundreds. The
courses were open to anyone for the nominal registration fee of $10, which was necessary to cover the cost of course catalog production.
The university dissolved BFU in 1984 due to perceived competition with the Johns Hopkins Evening College, a precursor to what has become the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.
As to what prompted BFU's comeback, Tiefenwerth said that in recent years there's been a steady clamor from community members and former BFU instructors, who all asked the same questions: "What ever happened to the Baltimore Free University?" and "When is it coming back?" In response, this past May Tiefenwerth convened a seven-member planning committee charged with assessing the feasibility of a 21st-century BFU.
"Everyone at that first meeting kept on saying what a tremendous resource for the community [the BFU] had been. There was a whole lot of nostalgia about what happened in the old days," he said. "As we got past the nostalgia, we began to think, Why couldn't we do this again? It would be the perfect opportunity to bring together faculty, students, staff and the community for the sole purpose of educating one another, with very little money transacted in the process."
Beginning in September, the BFU will roll out a slate of approximately 12 to 15 courses. Still a work in progress, a list of proposed subjects for the fall term includes digital photography, socialist theory, history of the labor movement, international languages and how to start a nonprofit. Tiefenwerth said that future courses could include ones on real estate law, how to do your taxes, the rise of fascism and woodworking. He said there are also plans in the works to offer a book club at the state penitentiary through the new BFU.
"We're very flexible as to what we can and will offer with this updated program," he said.
Once again, courses will be taught by Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and students, and community members. Tiefenwerth said that the initial response to a call for instructors has been "amazing."
"Faculty can be very generous with their time. A lot of times they have not been asked to do something like this," he said. "I'm finding they are more than happy to do a workshop here and there, and work it into their schedule."
Tiefenwerth said that the program's planning committee, many of whom taught for the original BFU, has been very careful not to replicate anything that is already done at Johns Hopkins or at the community college level. Thomas Crain, director of the Odyssey program, said that the BFU and Odyssey -- SPSBE's noncredit liberal arts program -- have agreed to exchange curriculum plans months ahead of time so as not to duplicate course offerings.
BFU classes will be offered weekday nights and weekends, both fall and spring terms, at various Homewood campus locations and at branches of the Enoch Pratt Library. Tiefenwerth said that Enoch Pratt has been very supportive of the BFU's re-emergence and will commit staff to instruct some courses.
As for course length, Tiefenwerth says it will vary, from weekend workshops to classes that extend two semesters.
Arthur Seidman, an original BFU instructor and a member of the new program's planning committee, said he is "extremely pleased" that a new generation of Baltimoreans will get an opportunity to experience free education.
"I think there is a great need for it at this point in time," said Seidman, a retired professional who has enjoyed careers in real estate, law, teaching, accounting and management consulting, among others. "The wonderful part of how [the BFU] was back then, and how I believe it will be again, is the tremendous freedom given to instructors to mold and shape their classes, and also for the participants to influence the class. It was phenomenal."
Salem Reiner, the university's coordinator of community relations, said that the BFU will provide a fruitful platform for community building.
"I think it's a great idea, both in terms of meeting the mission of the university and in terms of community outreach and using our resources, and those of the community, for a common good," Reiner said.
As for being "free," Tiefenwerth said that, in deference to nostalgia, the BFU will once again charge only a $10 registration fee.
"Compensation is not part of the picture. It's really what the name suggests. It's in Baltimore, it's free and, while it's not degree-granting, it's a universe of ideas," he said. "And if someone can't pay the $10, well, we do have scholarships available."
For more information, contact Bill Tiefenwerth at email@example.com or 410-516-4777.