INSECURITY MUST BE a basic yuppie trait. To what else can you credit the phenomenal success of Open University? Begun 10 years ago by a Peace Corps veteran as an outlet for baby boomers who felt that the safest haven from a cruel overcrowded world was classes in orgasms or bagel-making, Open U has blossomed into a million- dollar business with 500 classes and 50,000 students.
Virtually every class is how to do, how to cope, how to buy and how to meet. The campus is everywhere, from teachers' efficiency apartments to hotel meeting rooms. A recent "Sex, Sex and More Sex" class met at (!Ol,e!) El Palacio restaurant. The classical basis of this university is not Plato or Aristotle, but Narcissus.
And Open U is flowering. Its bimonthly catalogue is in white cans on street corners, on store counters an in the hands on roving clowns pushing it on passersby. Along with the flowering, though, has come hints of a faculty rebellion, fueled by a cut in the teacher pay rate. A competitor, First Class, founded last fall, says it has registered 6,000 students since January (at an average $15 a pop) and now is beginning to sign up disgruntled Open U teachers.
For 10 years Open U was a nonprofit corporation. But in February Sandra Bremer, its founder, sold out to Learning Annex, Inc., of New York. She got $100,000 on the spot; she'll get $404,729 more over the next three years. That's according to a report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Bremer's shy about saying how much she got. "People don't understand what it really means to be nonprofit," she says. To Learning Annex, Open U's name and Brem list of students and teachers was as good as gold, and Bremer owned it all.
William Zanker, 31, the president of Leaning Annex, owns a $3 million share in the publicly traded firm. Learning Annex has classes in six major metropolitan markets and will soon expand to ten. Zanker is in clover until yuppies tire of classes like "Paris -- Best Buys Along the Champs Elys,ees," "So You Want to Be a Stand-up Comic," and "Dare to Go Bare" as taught by Beth Glatt, "1984 East Coast Nudist Queen."
Forget the heavy words "learning" and "university." As Learning Annex vice president Jules Leventhal puts it, "The concept we're selling is edu- tainment." The 1975 Open U catalogue was rudely quaint. It offered a course called "How to Enjoy Your Job." Now Open U coaches you in "Office Politics," "How to Use an Executive Search Firm," "Assertiveness" and "Improve Your Office IQ." And while you learn to master the 9-to-5 world, learn also "How to Pick Up Men/ How to Pick Up Women," "Finding the Right Love -- Right Now," or "How to Attract the Right Man."
Washington is a jungle. Open U teaches you to be a Rambo. At least that's what the catalogue seems to hint. But judging from the crowd at a recent "walk-in registration and get together" at Bowties, one of those stations of the cross for singles off Dupont Circle, some of the 50,000 students will never make the A Team.
"Money Power," taught last session by Carol Hoppy, is a 11/2-hour class intended to "demystify Wall Street."
Hoppy explains: "A lot of people are intimidated by stockbrokers."
So her students are timid?
"No, I wouldn't say that. They are looking for a cheap (her course was only $14) and easy way to get information they don't have time to get for themselves."
OPEN U'S STAR TEACHER is Elliott Jaffa, so hot he legally protects the his course titles. Don't dare try to teach something called "Chutzpa 101r" or throw a "Singles Expot."
Jaffa, who also teaches "How to Pick Up Men/How to Pick Up Women," stresses the fun aspect of his courses: "Come early to have a drink or stay late to socialize and practice what you've learned," he says of HTPUM/HTPUW.
"These people take classes to meet other people," Jaffa explains. "There's a negative about bars. But taking a course, you never know who you'll sit next to . . . I know of 12 marriages from my classes, so who knows how many one-night stands?"
Could people who have to have it laid out so obviously be timid? Jaffa stalks the bar just to prove some really sharp people take Open U courses. He finds one.
What course did she sign up for?
"How to Get Free Publicity."
What's her name.
Not for publication.
"I think we're pretty adventurous," says Maureen, no last name please, who signed up for sailing instructions.
With her two friends, also single women from Gaithersburg, she squeezed into a booth, away from the action.
Her friend Judi "dragged" their friend Debbie into signing up for "Introduction to the Regression Experience," where instructors Tony and Ilse Denson will help them "become aware of a life (they) have lived before."
All in one two-hour, $15 class.
Dick Costello, who works for the Department of Justice, is high on the $12 Pub Crawls, a tour conducted by Fred Williams, the chap with the beard standing close to the Bowties' kegs.
What's it like taking a crowd of 20 Open U'ers to four or five bars in one night?
"I've never seen more women order wine and club soda."
Going to an Open U class can be a sobering experience. Classes that sound adventurous aren't necessarily so. Pity the poor Austrian chap, in town just a month, who seemed to think "Finding the Right Love -- Right Now" was the kind of course where you, well, found the right woman, right there.
During class night in mid- July as the sun set over I-395, there was no orgy in teacher Wayne Keyser's seventh floor efficiency apartment on Army Navy Drive.
There was a cut-out of Betty Boop atop one hi-fi speaker and a teddy bear atop the other. And Keyser, who also works part-time as a clown, told 10 women and eight men that doing volunteer work at Children's Hospital was a great way to go about maybe finding the right love.
Half of the students looked like they would have been at home at a pentecostal church and didn't seem disappointed with Keyser's upbeat chase-those-negative-thoughts-away sermon.
Only the over-eager Austrian walked out during the 15-minute intermission for socializing. Not that the few other sharp-looking ones there didn't enjoy themselves. Julie Urian, a Capitol Hill secretary, liked what she heard: "I guess I've heard it all before, but it helps to hear it again."
Ironically, there were a higher percentage of people you'd like to take out for a drink at Arnold Sanow's "How to Start and Manage Your Own Business" class. Only the right ambiance was missing. Sanow didn't tea class in his apartment. The class was in a dance studio in the same upper Connecticut Avenue building that houses Open U's offices. With 92-degree heat outside, there were no windows and no air conditioning. The one door to the room had to be shut because dance music kept wafting in. A bare light bulb dangled from the ceiling. If the students had brought their pet dogs to pant beside them as they wilted in uncomfortable folding chairs, the whole scene would have been worthy of a Booth cartoon.
While hearing the same thing over again was comforting Julie Urian, that was just what Alexandra Wyman Cathcart didn't like about Sanow's class. A lawyer setting up her own practice, she has read three or four books on setting up a business. She was disappointed in the course.
Els van Wingerden, who hasn't weighed through the literature, took copious notes and thought the two- hour lecture might help her as she contemplated importing craft jewelry from Bali. till, her fellow classmates didn't strike her as go- getters. "I doubt that any of them will ever set up a business."
"We insist on quality," William Zanker intones in a phone interview.
Low overhead certainly helps the profit margin, though. Sanow's students were not the only ones to suffer this summer. Learning Annex just cut Sanow's take from 50 percent of class fees to 35 percent.
"We can't keep up the level of marketing we're doing without cutting the percentage teachers get," said Zanker. "And with better marketing they'll get more students. Enrollment is up 25 percent in Washington."
Zanker wrote in a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission that he would pay Bremer the $404,729 she's still owed with future profits of his company -- one of those leveraged buyouts beloved of the financial pages.
Although Sanow hasn't complained about the drop in the teachers' percentage, other instructors have. Carol Hoppy, for one, has shifted to First Class, Open U's main competitor. Zanker dismisses the protesters as a few malcontents. A company lawyer sent some of them a shut-up-or-we'll-sue letter after they began seeking faculty allies.
Open U teacher Peter Kranz says he has the support of 52 fellow teachers. "Open U told us that having Learning Annex take over would be good for everybody," Kranz complains. "How can it be good for
everybody if our pay gets
Kranz, who takes students
on archeology digs, says he
doesn't need better
marketing -- he can't handle
bigger classes anyway.
"Primarily what they want is
a lecture-type class in
central locations taught by
people who hope to pick up
clients for their full-time
But even with the shake
out in the teaching corps,
Open U promises bigger and
better catalogues. If
Washington wits can't come
up with good courses to
teach, Zanker can ship them
down from New York.
desperately needs is the
stars New York has," Zanker says.
Look what New York has had that we haven't. Victor "I bought the company" Kiam recently gave a three-hour, $25 class.
And then there is the "Cross- dressing" class. "Guys dressing like women, women dressing like men," Zanker explains.
Now, that's "edu-tainment."