John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Fifty Years Anniversary Posting—But Who’s Counting? I Am!

January 30, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Fifty Years Anniversary Posting—But Who’s Counting? I Am!

Milestones, life markers, whatever we might want to call them, are important, for us professional higher educators and for our students. For those of us working with first-year students or seniors, the 2016-17 academic year would be very fitting to suggest to them as a life marker. You could encourage them to be noting some contrasts between world and national events, trends, and the major events of their lives, like starting college or preparing to graduate.

I had one of my own on January 10, 2017. That marked the fiftieth anniversary of my arrival in South Carolina and the commencement of my journey as a higher educator, a citizen in service to his country. I would never have dreamed on January 10th 1967 that any of the major events of my career would have taken place. Not that I was exactly a tabula rasa. I had been influenced and prepared by my own outstanding liberal arts education to take maximum advantage of opportunities that were both going to serendipitously present themselves to me and/or other opportunities that I created and seized the moment therein.

Once upon a time, on a mild, what passes for a winter night, in central South Carolina, I arrived on a Wednesday night, and checked in at my duty station: Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, and specifically the 363rd Tactical Hospital—not as a patient, but as the newest member of the hospital staff, a young, idealistic, mildly anxious, brand new psychiatric social worker. I had arrived in my Karman Ghia sports coupe with all my worldly goods inside, which mainly consisted of many of my books from college and graduate school; some of my college notebooks (yes, hard to believe, but I was so attached to them I had brought them along for the ride); my “record” collection; my uniforms; and some civilian clothing.

I had driven down from my parents’ home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Shortly after crossing over the South Carolina border I passed through two small towns, Latta, and Timmonsville, where I couldn’t possibly have imagined at that time, I would return time and time again to the homes of two different women that I married (in succession, not simultaneously).

When I signed in to the hospital an NCO told me to: “Relax. We don’t salute or wear hats in the hospital area and we don’t shine our shoes!” I would soon get an alternative directive from my first supervising psychiatrist (whom I now “Skype” with in New Zealand where he lives a saner life than is possible in the US) that I was to “spitshine” my shoes so that my career military patients could see their reflections in the shine on my shoes and thus feel more confident and comfortable in sharing their life histories with a very young looking social worker. My boss admonished me to look “military” and so I always wore freshly dry cleaned white medical uniforms to further inspire rapport. I don’t know whether or not the tactics worked, but they did really open up with me.

So the first day, not on campus, but on the base, it was de rigueur for the hospital squadron commander to call new personnel in for a welcome and orientation. This consisted of him bracing me at attention with a copy of my record open on his desk at which he continually glanced up and down. Soon he told me “Gardner, you will have more education than anyone in my squadron except for the doctors.” This included him but it was not evident at all that he held that against me. In fact, it was the basis for him giving me the gift of what is now my fifty-year professional life.

He went on to say that because of my educational level (BA and MA at age 22 just 3 weeks short of my 23rd birthday) “This means you are going to perform community service.” I had only been in the Air Force for a little over three months in basic and officer training but I knew at least that the operative expected reply to any statement from a superior officer, regardless of gender, was “Yes Sir.”

But I knew I was free to ask a superior officer a question. So I asked him “But Sir, what does that mean?”

And he replied: “Gardner, it means you are going to do some college teaching.”

I was flabbergasted. It had never occurred to me to become a college teacher. I had only gone to graduate school to avoid the draft and had been drafted anyway. Then I volunteered for the Air Force to avoid the Army and the Air Force in its infinite wisdom and total control over my body, and mind, put me in its medical corps and sent me involuntarily to South Carolina, the last place in the US I wanted to be. I was a white, liberal, Connecticut Yankee, college grad and South Carolina was just 2.5 years beyond the Civil Rights Act. I had even volunteered for Vietnam in order to choose another duty station than in South Carolina. This process was known as “The Dream Sheet.” You got three choices. I chose Lakenheath England, Weisbaden Germany, and Vietnam. I got Sumer South Carolina. Go figure.

On the base everything was racially integrated. Cocktails were freely available and condoms were on highly visible display at the check-outs in the Base PX and food establishments. But the minute I drove off the base I entered a world of appalling segregation: schools, housing, movies, toilets, drinking fountains, the local hospital, restaurants that proclaimed “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”; doors into public buildings, etc. And here I was staring down at my squadron commander who happened to be an African American, who was about to exert the greatest influence on my life, short of my parents’ decision to adopt me. And also off base, there were no legal cocktails served anywhere and no public display of condoms either.

So I continued my response to my commander: “Yes, Sir. But I am not a college teacher, Sir. I have never taught anything. I am a psychiatric social worker (which I had never done either!).

His response: “That’s all right, Gardner. You will learn to be a college teacher. The Air Force needs college teachers to serve our on-base higher education program for our troops and we are desperate for qualified part-time faculty. This is South Carolina two years after the Civil Rights Act and we don’t have an abundance of good teachers moving down here wanting to teach. The Air Force needs you to do this. You will do this. You have a day shift job and you are –you were- free—in the evenings and now you will be teaching in the evenings.”

What else could I say but “Yes, Sir!”

He immediately sent me to the Base Education Office where the Base Education Officer also reviewed my transcripts (as had my commander who obviously was impressed by my grades at the beginning of the alphabet) and so this officer immediately called somebody at the University of South Carolina, 42 miles to the west, which was the provider of the college courses on the base to make an appointment to see me. I was then ordered to report to the University 48 hours later on Saturday, January 13, to have my credentials officially reviewed. In that era most colleges and universities had Saturday classes.

I drove into Columbia two days later and was interviewed by multiple administrators. The Sociology chair approved me to teach Sociology 101. The history chair (whom I met in his apartment and learned that he was a member of the extended “Ochs” family, the founders of The New York Times) approved me to teach four different courses: US and Western Civilization History. I told him that I had a mail subscription of the daily and Sunday Times sent to me at the base. I later learned that I was the only member of my squadron who engaged in such a practice. I had been doing this since I was a first-year student in college as The Times was not allowed by my father in our house who viewed it as Communist influenced paper!

In my closing interview that Saturday a senior administrator told me that I had been approved to teach these five courses and that there was a need for me to start teaching two weeks later at a campus in a town I had never heard of, Lancaster. It was a small, rural, regional campus that had been started in 1959; and all the students were either textile mill workers or the children of those mill workers. I didn’t know it then but I would be teaching at that campus when it admitted its first African American student whom I would have in my class.

I told this Dean that I couldn’t possibly begin teaching in two weeks, that I had never taught anything and that I needed at least six months to prepare a course. His response: “Mr. Gardner, anything that comes out of your mouth will educate those students!” I was astonished at such cynicism, but agreed to accept the appointment.  Sixteen years later in 1983 I went to work for this same officer as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University’s five regional, two-year campuses. How could I have possibly foreseen this on Saturday, January 13, 1967?

The basis on which I accepted my first teaching assignment was that I teach the course from 7.30-10.00 on Friday nights. The campus was so desperate for an adjunct faculty member that they agreed to it. My choice of Friday nights was driven by the fact that the campus was 65 miles from my base and that teaching on any other night of the week would have had me returning back to the base very late at night and I needed my beauty rest to be at the top of my game when I started seeing my patients at 7.30AM the next morning. And I didn’t see patients on Saturday so that was the deal. I must confess that most nights after my Friday evening class, I would go out drinking with my students! I dropped that practice pretty early in my career.

Within a few months though, I was also teaching two courses per night, 5.30-7.30 and 7.45-9.45, two nights a week per eight weeks for every Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday sequence on the base itself with military students. And on Friday nights I had my civilian students in the textile mill town. And on Saturday morning I taught at a regional hospital for student nurses who needed Sociology 101 in a place called Orangeburg; I would be teaching there about 18 months later one evening in February 1968 when the bodies of 33 African American students were brought into that hospital, three dead, 30 wounded, all shot in the back by SC Highway Patrolmen while the students were peacefully demonstrating the continuing segregation of a bowling alley. This event subsequently became known in American history as: The Orangeburg Massacre.

Yes, it is now fifty years. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, whom I recently regaled with my fiftieth anniversary memories, is amazed at the detail of my recollections.

Ok I started teaching then, first week in February 1967. Friday nights. My students were NOT happy about having to be there on a Friday night. I was not initially happy either. Instead, I was initially quite anxious. So much so I would say I was having a mild “adult situational reaction” which is a diagnostic category straight out of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for that year! Yes, I was anxious—and for good reason not having ever taught before and not knowing anything about the culture or lifestyles of my students and being only one week ahead of my students in terms of preparation.

And I looked so young. Had no hair. So some nights I wore my uniform to compensate. My students were so respectful. So polite. They addressed me as “Sir” almost like they were in the military too. I was so anxious on those first few Friday nights I couldn’t eat before class.

But after about six weeks my symptoms abated and I began to feel more comfortable about coming to class. In fact, I had to admit to myself that I was excited about coming to class. I looked forward to it. It was the highlight of the week.

And there it was, the most important epiphany of my life: I had discovered my vocation, my calling, my purpose in life. And all thanks to the United States Air Force and the University of South Carolina. What was the epiphany? It was that I realized that college teaching was permitting me to do simultaneously the four things I loved the most to do in life 1) talking—and to “talk” in front of a class, I had to do—-2) reading.  I had always been a reader. I loved to read. I had not been raised on television because my parents refused to have one as long as they had children in the home. 3) writing—after reading I wrote notes for delivery in class. I loved to write. And I was pretty good at it; and most important of all 4) helping people. And there it was: my adult profession in which I got to do talking, reading, writing, and helping people—and to get paid for it to boot. I had never imagined that I could earn a legal living, and one with redeeming social value, where I would be paid for doing those four things I loved to do.

After finishing my tour in the Air Force I was an instructor of history at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina for two years. Was terminated there for my liberal civil rights activities. Lucked out, again, and immediately was offered an appointment at the University of South Carolina. Spent the next thirty years there moving up through all the faculty ranks from adjunct instructor to Distinguished Professor; and the same with administrative ranks from program director, national center founder and executive director and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Initiated an international reform movement to change the way higher education introduces students to higher education—and other crusades too.

And it all started 50 years ago. I feel like I have been on an adventure. I have been. And am still on it. Not quite sure where it is going now because I am not sure where my country is going. I never had a traditional lock step game plan and still don’t. But I did have a few great original ideas that made a difference. And I owe all of these life marker events to the Air Force, which taught me the importance of “service.” Nobody had ever said to me in college that I needed to perform “service.” Hard for me to imagine that now. Surely most of all us talk to our students about the importance of performing service, of what college graduates owe our country. But I was almost 23 and no one in authority had ever said that to me before until that African American commander of mine in the Air Force.

What are the lessons from my life that I would share with my students? They are legion:

  1. Let college prepare you for the unknown
  2. Be open to new possibilities
  3. Take healthy and appropriate risks
  4. Obey authority figures who give you legal and moral directives
  5. Yes, you do have an obligation to serve others
  6. Life is a journey. Make the most of it.
  7. Try your best to leave your community, employing organization, country, a little better than you found them.
  8. And, oh so much more.

Happy anniversary John. You made it this far. Who knows what else you might be able to accomplish?

Reflections Needed More Than Ever

January 18, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

John N. Gardner


I don’t really need an MLK Day to make me think of Dr. King. I think of him frequently for the impact he had on my own consciousness and life. I think of him in the 2017 national presidential election cycle especially in terms of the unfinished civil rights movement, and the fact that there surely would be no President Barack Obama were it not for the ultimate sacrifice of Martin Luther King.

In the summer of 1963, when King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, I had just finished my sophomore year in college. I didn’t know that a few months later my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, was going to be murdered. That August though, I had a summer job in Hillside, New Jersey, as a steelworker, laboring in a factory making millions of beer cans, and not a drop to drink — real torture for a red-blooded American college kid like me. On the day he made that speech, I was driving on the Garden State Parkway. I had my car radio on, and I listened to the news coverage of the demonstration and speech. As he started to speak, I knew that I was never going to hear another live speech like this again. I just couldn’t believe my ears. His words and spirit touched me like no speaker I had ever heard. I rapidly became enthralled and so for my own safety I pulled over to the shoulder, shut my engine off, and took in the speech in wonderment. I hadn’t yet begun to conceptualize that I would ever earn my own living as a public speaker, and even if I had, I would not have imagined ever being able to speak like that. And, of course, I can’t. However, he inspires me to this day.

Just five relatively short years later, with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts adopted, and the Civil Rights movement in full swing, along with the war in Vietnam, I had been drafted and then volunteered to go on active duty. I was stationed at a US Air Force base in South Carolina (as a psychiatric social worker) in April of 196\8 when Dr. King was murdered. I was scheduled to teach a class in Sociology 101 the next night in my capacity as an adjunct instructor at USC Lancaster, and I just couldn’t imagine sticking with my original game plan for that class. So, I went to the base library and checked out several of Dr. King’s works, and used the following class for an extended eulogy and exploration of his life and its significance. My eulogy consisted largely of readings I did for the students who sat there looking –some of them—shocked, others embarrassed and avoiding eye contact with me. The next week when I returned to teach that class the campus Dean met me before class to inform me that a “delegation” of students had come to see him to complain about my previous class describing me as a “N…… Lover.” I couldn’t and didn’t deny it.

Fast forward, here I am, 49 years later. As I look at my own continuing work to help colleges and universities improve first-year and transfer student success, more than anything else, I see my work as part of the continuing, unfinished, civil rights movement. This has been powerfully confirmed for me in the past few months as more and more attention has been called, rightfully so, to the institutionalization of inequality in the US. Now, once again, the whole country is talking about inequality, the 99% vs. the 1%, the myth of American upward social mobility, compounded by our myth that we are a classless society with equal opportunity for all.

I know my work was needed when I was just one, lone, classroom adjunct college instructor in a small, rural, southern, textile mill town. I am far from that now in terms of my own stature but my work is needed just as much given what we know to be the powerful inequities that remain in our society that can only be corrected by education as the primary means of upward social mobility.

There are so many examples of one person making a difference. Dr. King is about as good an example as I can think of. He inspired me then. He inspires me now

As an exercise for any of my readers who work with college students, ask them who inspires them, and think long and hard about what they tell you. This year, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, would be a great time for such a discussion.



John N. Gardner


For many of us on Inauguration Day 2017 it was just impossible to resist comparisons of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Different men, different times, different contexts, different speakers. I wonder, wouldn’t even want to venture a guess, what percent of our country’s college students actually heard/saw the address live. Sadly, I suspect very few relatively. And if they had/did, did they know what they were hearing that might be significant? I hope some of us have been talking about this with them.

I had been in college two years when I heard, live, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I remember where I was, time of day, what I was doing. Really quite simple. I was in New Jersey in August of 1963, driving to a second shift job in a factory that made beer and soda cans. Millions of cans and not a drop to drink. A real torture for a 19-year-old college kid like me. I was a unionized steelworker, who didn’t know what he wanted to major in at the end of his sophomore year, let alone what he wanted to do in life. But I knew what I didn’t want to do: work the rest of my life in that plant. It was a character building experience that had been arranged for me by my father. The older I get the smarter he gets. And he has been deceased for 35 years.

I was working for the first time in my life in a very multi-racial/ethnic environment.  I was a child of privilege who was dropped into an ideal learning setting.  I was learning that even though I thought the plant’s jobs were incredibly monotonous, they were nevertheless the ticket to good middleclass incomes and lifestyles for my fellow workers. They were lucky to have them. And I was happy for them. America was then in the business, unlike now, of growing its middle class. I knew there was going to be a march that least had a car a simple radio, good enough to catch Reverend King’s speech live as I drove on the Garden State Parkway. After few paragraphs into the speech, I knew that I had never heard anything like this in my life. So I pulled over on the shoulder and put my flasher on. In my best of college lecture classes, I had finally grown up enough to be a very active, focused listener to some really good stuff that would stimulate my thinking if only I let it. But this speech was something else. I had never heard anything like it. Not even President Kennedy’s Inaugural, which I had also heard, when I was a senior in high school. Not only how it was being delivered, but what was being said. I shall never forget that day. While I couldn’t fully anticipate the contribution the speech would make—how it would increase the momentum to pass the Civil Rights Bill one year later, and the Voting Rights and Higher Education Acts two years later, I knew enough to know that it was going to be a game changer for our country. And so what are our students thinking about what they heard in this Inaugural? I hope you are helping them think that through. How are they trying to connect the words to what may unfold for them? What difference might it make for them if we developed a more humane policy towards immigration? Do they want to see Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security preserved, modified? Are they regretful there was no mention of the national debt as the Republicans have lamented? Did it strike them as significant to hear a US president reference explicitly our fellow citizens who are “gay”? Did the speech strike them as an unapologetic, even uncompromising exposition of liberalism? So many questions they could be asking. So many things for them to be thinking about. We are helping them, I hope.

If I were 19 again, and had heard the speech just two days ago, would it have implanted itself in a way that I would remember it 39 years later? I am not sure. But I know that after two years of college, the college experience had already better prepare me to know that what I was hearing was really something special. I am thankful we now celebrate the birthday of this great American. Many of our students cannot remember a time when we didn’t, let alone the resistance to doing so. And that is another indicator, that resistance or not, America is changing, ready or not. We need to help our students be more than ready.


Post Election Statement from Institute President John N. Gardner

December 6, 2016Julie HellerInsights0

John N. Gardner


Like millions of Americans with whom we are in good company, I, in my capacity as President of the John N. Gardner Institute, and the Institute staff are trying to figure out what lies ahead for our country in the aftermath of the recent Presidential election. However, in spite of post-election uncertainties, I am not waiting to see which way the wind blows to chart a course. Nor will I allow our professional principles to be compromised or weakened in this new period of American history – a period during which it appears some would have the nation back away from the unfinished agenda of the American Civil Rights movements. Admittedly all of our U. S. Presidents and their administrations have found there is a profound difference between campaigning and governing, and we really don’t know how all these directions we fear are going to turn out. So we do have to try, difficult as that is because of the attendant anxiety, to let this play out while at the same time making our own position clear. The new administration has been duly elected and now inaugurated, and I certainly support the need for the appropriate transfer of power. But I am both concerned and saddened that the election was a catalyst for raising to more prominent levels the latent racism in our society and accompanying xenophobia, misogyny, and prejudice against gay, lesbian, transgendered fellow citizens. I worry that we are confronting potential adoption of public policies that will only exacerbate economic inequality by instituting disproportionate income tax reductions for the wealthiest amongst us and redistributing federal school aid money away from America’s public schools. And I am fearful of policies that will further punish immigrants and more generally the poor and will reduce or eliminate health insurance for the approximately twenty-two million fellow citizens who gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Amidst all of these uncertainties and fears, I do know what my positions are, and with these positions in mind, I will endeavor to lead the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education as we

  • redouble our efforts to improve the success of all undergraduate students, regardless of country of origin – especially those from low income, first-generation and minority backgrounds who have been so historically disadvantaged;
  • continue to argue for more attention and priority to historic low-status courses (gateway, high failure rate courses) and low-status and historically neglected student cohorts, especially first-year and transfer students; and
  • provide the best possible advisory support to those college and university educators – faculty, academic administrators, student affairs and student success professionals – who are dedicated to improving the success of these students.


I firmly believe that our work is in the national interest, and I am committed to pursuing legitimate efforts that will improve higher education attainment levels for all. I believe that this stance is totally compatible with our mission as a non-profit public charity. I am proud of our efforts to contribute to making our country a more educationally just and successful country. As one of the Institute’s Co-Founders (along with Betsy Barefoot), I would argue that our continuing work is a patriotic duty just as was my youthful volunteering for service in the armed forces during the Vietnam era and, upon my honorable discharge, my zealous pursuit of civil rights activities, which cost me my first academic position in an American college. I will not diminish my commitment to these core issues now. To the contrary, I will pursue the Institute’s mission with more dedication, resolve, and focus than ever.