John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

If Only You Had the Time

November 17, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copyTo be fully human is to have the thought, raise the question: “If only I had the time…?

I would like you to apply this train of thought to whatever is most important to you now professionally. So assuming you had all other ingredients in order—you got the concept, the big idea right; you have the backers you need; you have willing and needy recipients of whatever it is that you are trying to do; and the resources and assets are there—but if only you had time. You can get it launched. Maybe you already have. But what about its full development and then what about institutionalizing whatever this is and making it an inherent part of the way your place does its basic business? If only you had the time….?

My thoughts on this are inspired by a visit my wife and I just made to Barcelona, Spain, where, like millions of tourists before us, we visited multiple sites of the work of one of the world’s greatest architects: Antoni Gaudi. Best known for his revolutionary and innovative design of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, he spent 43 years of his life devoted to this one masterpiece. Actually, he had multiple masterpieces but this one would be generally regarded as his ultimate creation. He died in a tragic accident in 1926 at 74 years of age, with the cathedral not yet finished but with his plans and drawings produced comprising the basis of construction that continues to this day. It is the goal to have his work completed on the one hundredth anniversary of his death – 2026. I plan to be still alive and to go see it!

So what are you working on now but do not have time to bring to full fruition and realization of all its potential synergies, replications, adaptations, permutations, and perfections? What are you working on that you would want your college or university, as in the case of Gaudi, to be still working on 100 years later? Fanciful thinking you say! I say not. I engage in this kind of thinking all the time and it has been one of the keys of my success.

I would frequently walk my own campus, the University of South Carolina, founded in 1801, and particularly within the confines of the original part of the campus, our hallowed ground, I would find myself thinking that students, faculty and staff had been walking that same ground for two centuries. And most of them had been faced with similar categories of major life decisions that I have faced and made, often for all of us with the help of the University. It helped me to know the historical context of what had preceded me. And I was very conscious and deliberate about creating something that would make my university stronger and better for my having been there for only three decades—the further development of which would be carried on for much longer, maybe even another 100 years. I refer, literally, to the launching of the first-year experience concept in 1972, which I shepherded for 25 years. But it certainly wasn’t finished at that point and my successors have been subsequently furthering the development of that concept for the following sixteen years in many exciting ways that I could not have fully imagined but now fully appreciate. And I believe I can make a rational and objective case that this work will continue, like Gaudi’s cathedral, for another 100 years.

We have just gone through the annual awarding of the Nobel Prize winners. I look forward to reading each year in The New York Times the biographies of these incredible men and women of the sciences, economics, diplomacy, and literature. What strikes me as a pervasive theme in their distinct lives is that all of them found some intellectually powerful, demanding, all consuming line of work, exploration, creation in young adulthood and they stayed focused on that line of work where one discovery led to another one frequently for three to four decades before their work was recognized.

I invite you to practice delusions of grandeur. Think of yourself as having another 40 or so years to work on what is now so compelling and then being externally rewarded for your work that has been so intrinsically rewarding now for so long—but not long enough—if only you had the time….?

Well you do have the time. Look at it as your building a foundation, laying out a grand design for a great something that you will launch and others will take up. That’s why it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the time.

I just can’t stop thinking in this manner. I like to think that the current signature work of my non-profit organization, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, still in its nascent stage, will become a work of another century. I refer to our pioneering work on Gateways to Completion, G2C, our effort to reduce failure rates in gateway courses and therefore increase retention and completion rates. This is a hugely complex problem, towards the solution to which there is so much built-in resistance pervading the academy. Oh, but only if I had the time? I do have the time. I am laying a foundation and others will continue the building of the cathedral where far more college students will be successful and fulfill their hopes and dreams, and ours too.

Why Didn’t I Think of That?

November 10, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copySurely all of my readers at one time or another have had the thought “why didn’t I think of that?” In my own case, as much as I travel, I wish I had invented the roller board suitcase. What a back saver that has been! And millions of them are in use in every size, shape, color.

And what about bottled water? Why didn’t I think of taking a substance that exists usually in some “free” form and packaging it, making it portable, and get people wanting to pay for something for a commodity that historically they did not think of paying for?

I have just been in Spain where I was reminded of the universality of a device that I didn’t think of but am glad others did: the cell phone. This is truly a one-world phenomenon. Everywhere I looked, on the streets, in restaurants, in parks, airports, almost everyone I saw—several thousand over 10 days or so—were holding this one device in common. It has become essential in ways that we could not have imagined. Its use is changing the way we communicate, spend our time, meet new people, retrieve information, you name it. When my wife and I go out for a meal, there are really three of us: Betsy, me, and her smart phone. Yes, I have one too. But I am not on it as constantly as she is. She knows our meals are non-stop conversation and we will constantly be raising questions with each other about something we want to know the answer to—and out comes her phone to retrieve the answer. Why didn’t I think of this?

Well, I did think of something that hundreds of thousands of people have used, experienced, mostly for their betterment. I am the creator of the “first-year experience” concept, which has been adopted in programmatic formats in a few thousand colleges and universities the world over in such manners as to pay more attention to the success of beginning higher education students than we used to. My invention came about in 1982 and was developed in the context of my employment with the University of South Carolina. So when I registered this form of intellectual property, as a registered trademark, I did so with the University of South Carolina as its proper owner—which is exactly what I should have done—no regrets. In 1998 we adjusted the “mark” out of respect for women, from “the freshman year experience” to “the first-year experience.” I am also the creator of the “senior year experience” concept to call more attention to another critical transition period during undergraduate years. And in my professional life for the past sixteen years I have created with my colleagues in our non-profit John N. Gardner Institute, a number of other trademarks that describe our processes: Foundations of Excellence, Gateways to Completion, and Retention Performance Management.

I guess I could argue that I could or should quit while I am ahead. Most people don’t ever get to create anything in life that becomes widely used by others, let alone has redeeming social value. But I was socialized by my mentors to never rest on my laurels and be complacent. So seeing all these Spaniards doing what my fellow US citizens and students are doing, all of them doing one thing in common, using a smart phone, has nourished my professional fantasy life on this trip resulting in my asking: what is it that I could invent that every campus in the world would want to have, do, use, join, share? I really have been racking my brain about this.

At this point in my career, the thing I want to be part of more than anything else professionally, is a world-wide movement to transform gateway courses, where all the failure is occurring in higher education. Under the leadership of our Institute’s Dr. Drew Koch, I have been working with my colleagues on the development of a new process to fulfill this fantasy that I have just shared. We have created Gateways to Completion, G2C, and are attempting to launch a higher education reform movement to reduce the deplorable D,W, F, I, grade rates eventually the world over.

Is this a smart phone, bottled water, roller bag invention moment? Well not yet. But nobody gets anything done of consequence with low aspirations. So we’ll see. I invite you to stay tuned and check out our work. This just might turn out to be really something!

John Gardner’s Coming Out Party in College

October 22, 2015huhnInsights1

John N. Garnder

John Gardner copyLike some of my readers perhaps, I have been back to my alma mater, Marietta College of Ohio, many times since graduating 50 years ago. I returned to be awarded an honorary degree twenty years to the day from when I graduated (1985). I have visited numerous times to speak to students. I served on the Board of Trustees for twelve years. And I have been involved in numerous projects involving the work of the faculty and staff on improving the first year, dating back to 1979, many involving campus visits. But this blog posting is prompted by the occasion of my returning in October, 2015, for my Fiftieth Anniversary Class of 1965 reunion.

It was not a good year for men to graduate from college, as it was the first year of the Vietnam War buildup. In order to escape the war I went to graduate school but was drafted a year later anyway. Many of my classmates married immediately after graduation in order to earn a draft deferment. At my reunion I saw some of them who had done so. Not me.

On this return to alma mater though I was not engaging in any professional business. And so I had time and opportunity to do some things I had wanted to do but had never gotten around to.

One of those things was a visit to the College Library Special Collections department where the past editions of the student newspaper, The Marcolian, are archived. I had long remembered the single most important event in my four years at Marietta, important in the sense that it changed my place in the College and how others saw me. Quite simply, it was a letter that I wrote to the student newspaper to protest certain actions of my fellow students. After the letter’s publication, students and faculty alike never saw me the same again. They had read a John Gardner they had never known before. There was no going back. I could not put the genie back in the bottle. I feel like my true adult journey as a crusader for certain kinds of justice began with this letter.

I penned, literally, this letter in anger, dismay, disillusionment after witnessing, and attempting to counter a student riot of sorts. The event so disturbed me that immediately afterwards I left the campus and took the Greyhound bus to New York City and holed up for six days until I felt like I had regained sufficient perspective to return to college. While away, I wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper, which was published in my absence from campus. The first day back I could immediately see both my professors and fellow students looking at me differently. I did not save a copy of that letter. So on this return visit to alma mater when I was searching for perspectives on the meaning of my times as an undergraduate student, I found a librarian special collections archivist who retrieved a copy of my letter and provided me a photocopy.

This is what I had written:

Dear Editor:

Thursday evening Mar. 7, a man driving a cab owned by the New Cab Co. of Marietta, turned into Butler Street from Seventh Street and coming upon the water, which still covered the road, he foolishly entered the field along the road and attempted to make a “U” turn.

 Having half completed his circle, he was halted by the mud. This was soon noticed by someone on a concourse of Men’s Residence # 2 and as a few more men became aware of the cab in the field, they began to yell.

 Few Begin Yelling

 These few yelling drew more men out and within a matter of several minutes a large percentage of the dorm’s 192 men were on their concourses mocking the cab driver in his efforts to get his vehicle free from the mud.

 Despite the mass verbal encouragement and aid as well as accompanying recorded circus music and trumpeting, the driver could not move the cab. Furthermore, the cab driver’s efforts were illuminated for the amusement of the spectators by a student-directed spotlight.

 Heckling Increases

 The driver eventually got out of his car and immediately the heckling unanimously increased in intensity; and finally, when he was a few yards away from the dorm he was welcomed by cries of “HOOPEE—SPIT ON HIM SPIT ON HIM” and unprintable vulgarities.

 He asked for no help from Men’s Resdience # 2 and none was offered. He reached his brother on the telephone who in a few minutes arrived in his Jeep and succeeded in pulling the cab out of the field.

 Cheer Men On

 Meanwhile the women in the dormitories across the street were flashing lights and cheering the men on. However, they did not stop their encouragement after the cab was gone. The men having already acted as a mass with the encouragement of the women acted as a mob and stampeded into the street as animals would and in a frenzy yelled “PANTY RAID, PANTY RAID.”

 Although their numbers swelled, there was no leader. A mass action had been accomplished, a mob action had not, but it was not due to lack of potential.

 Questions Justification

 Now on the basis of these incidents, how do the residents of these particular buildings justify their actions? How do they justify them in light of their Christian ideals which preach brotherhood, respect for others, and help for those brothers in need?

 How can they justify their emotional and frenzied actions as students in an institution of higher learning, where theoretically, they are attempting to confront situations intelligently, objectively and maturely?

 Destroy Dignity

 And how according to the moral code of our western culture, which maintains the dignity of the individual, can the students of Marietta College justify their destruction of one man’s dignity and their own consequent self-degradation?

 And finally, in light of these student actions, how does Marietta College justify the following statement found on the rear cover of every Marietta College Bulletin: “Marietta College has been dedicated to the task of helping our nation prepare young people to become intelligent, useful members of our society. It further seeks to develop new leaders for a Christian democracy…….”

 John N. Gardner

Men’s Residence # 2



The Gardner Institute Turns Sweet 16

October 21, 2015huhnInsights0

JGheadshotHow would my readers have known that October 18, 2015, was an important marker for a now prominent (he immodestly and un-objectively writes) non-profit US higher education organization, if I didn’t tell you? Well, you wouldn’t have. But, yes, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education quietly turned 16 on October 18, 2015.

I write as a co-founder of the Institute. Our other founder, in this case the Founding Mother, is Dr. Betsy O. Barefoot. I am Betsy’s husband. The Institute has given us both the opportunity to continue the work we began at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition from 1986-99 but to take that work in new directions so as not to duplicate the work of the University’s Center. That was the original vision for our work suggested by our initial philanthropic supporter and we have maintained it to the present.

Now we can apply for a driver’s license. Using human development theory, I guess this means we are now in the full
bloom of adolescence. We are not yet fully mature, and still discovering and developing our potential.

We were established in 1999 as the Policy Center on the First Year of College, through the generosity of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and its then Senior Higher Education Program Officer, Russell Edgerton. Russ was launching a number of projects in this same period all designed to, in his words, “increase institutional accountability for student learning.” These projects included our Policy Center; and the National Survey for Student Engagement; the Higher Learning Commission’s Academic Quality Improvement Program; and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Quality Enhancement Program. We were and are in good company.

From 1999 through 2008 we were supported by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lumina Foundation for Education, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and USA Funds. It was the hope of these initial investors that our work would become valued by our higher education colleagues and that they would support our work going forward thus making it self sustaining. That vision has been accomplished.

Our grants were initially housed, as were we, under the fiscal agency of the Brevard College Corporation in Brevard, North Carolina. This was because Betsy Barefoot and I did not have our own 501c3 organization. In 2007, upon the recommendation of the auditor of Brevard College we were spun off and recreated as an autonomous 501c3, registered as the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. We have been functioning as such then for 8 years and have been supported by fees paid for our services by colleges and universities, overwhelmingly in the United States who engage in our processes and meetings to improve undergraduate excellence. We have been extremely fortunate to have the support of approximately 300 two and four-year colleges and universities which have engaged in one or more of our signature processes for improving undergraduate education.

A description of our work can be found on our website at While we engage in many customized improvement projects and meetings, we primarily provide three processes for increasing student success:

  1. Foundations of Excellence ® First-Year and Transfer Focus. This is a self-study, planning process to create a comprehensive plan to improve the entirety of the first-year or the transfer experience. High implementers of the FoE process have been shown to attain significant gains in first-to-second year retention. These two processes have been engaged in by 276 and 55 institutions respectively. See .
  2. Gateways to Completion, G2C. Begun in 2013 we are now in our third year of a national pilot with twelve institutions which undertake a comprehensive self study and improvement process of selected gateway courses and then launch revisions of these courses which include the use of our predictive analytics processes. Preliminary results from these institutions are showing significant reductions in the rates of D,W,F,I grades and improved retention rates. Naturally, we are very excited about this promising intervention and are now recruiting our second national cohort and a state cohort in Georgia. See
  3. Retention Performance Management, RPM. Started in Fall 2015 with eight colleges and universities and continuing with a second national cohort in Fall 2016. While we designed RPM originally for smaller, private institutions which may lack robust IR infrastructure, we are finding that multiple types of institutions are getting engaged including community colleges, regional comprehensive public universities, yes, small private colleges and even large public research universities. See

As we approach this milestone it is important for my readers to know that this work and the Institute’s overall success are not totally reliant on the founding mother and father of the organization. Instead, there are ten of us who have the privilege of providing these services for higher education and our bio sketches can be found at:

Collectively our work is governed by our Board of Directors whose biographical sketches can be found at:

Coming from my position as a tenured, full professor at a public, flagship, research university, to a soft money funded activity was for me a brave new world. When we started in October of 1999, all Betsy Barefoot and I knew was that we had a 14.5 month shelf life because that was the initial funding period from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Looking back, we acknowledge that we did not create the organization with an initial vision and plan for long-term institutionalization. That instead has occurred over the previous 16 years. Unlike my time at the University of South Carolina when I could count on some level of renewed funding from the legislature and students of South Carolina, each year in the Institute, we start again. There is no guaranteed funding and each day we have to earn our support and reputation. At times I think every tenured faculty member should experience this kind of existence as I have since I gave up my tenure with early retirement in 1999.

We sincerely thank all those who have believed and trusted in our work and thus made it possible and we look forward to a long-term future of service to the higher education community.

What Have I Been Doing Lately? A Posting from Abroad

September 29, 2015adminInsights0

John Gardner copy

Five years or so, give or take, one of my much younger colleagues persuaded me, over much resistance, to start writing a blog. This has taken a lot of time and dedication. It is a commitment. And it has competed with many other responsibilities. But I have enjoyed the writing and especially the reflecting that it must be based on. Obviously, to be a blogger you have to have some things you want to say and you have to make yourself do so. And there have to be people that want to and will read what you have to say. I have especially enjoyed the observing and thinking I have done when I get out of my own country and become a reporter from foreign lands, that is admittedly, from the perspective of an US higher education leader. Maintaining a blog takes discipline. And while I think I am a very disciplined professional, there are limits and mine have been largely available time vis a vis my other commitments.

Well I am just returning from several weeks outside the country in Italy and the England, on vacation, with my wife Betsy Barefoot, thank goodness. They lead me to these observations and thoughts.

  1. There is much more of importance going on in the countries I visit than what matters most right now in the U.S. We do receive coverage in the foreign press but we are not the center of the universe. That encourages me to take some things about us less seriously.
  2. The people I talked to are aghast that Donald Trump is garnering the attention he is. And in Britain, there is appropriate attention being paid to the similarities of the rise of Bernie Sanders as a candidate on the left, and Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Labor. And the pundits are already predicting that his election will drive many more British moderates away from Labor for a more centrist option with the Conservatives. I must be careful about overdrawing similarities in the US and British political systems.
  3. There is more universal admiration for Barack Obama abroad than home.
  4. The majority of people in post industrial, well-developed economies enjoy far greater minimum levels of security than our citizens, in such elementary matters as health care, paid sick leave and vacation. I find them, quite subjectively, to be happier, more content, more focused on their families.
  5. I am amazed at how much vacation time working people, for example, taxi drivers abroad, take compared to our country. They are really serious about their sacred “holidays.” I need to learn from and emulate them in this regard. Americans take less of their authorized time off than any other nationality.
  6. The most ubiquitous symbols of our influence are the US corporate logos and American music. There is no escaping American music anywhere, no matter what the official language.
  7. And after that the most common denominator I see is the hordes of people holding in their hands and using the smartphones made by Apple. Imagine if we could produce something in higher education that everyone not only wanted but absolutely had to have, no matter what their status. Unfortunately, that something is not higher education per se.
  8. My country would be so different if it had a really working train system that our people were committed to using and our government to supporting. I loved my ride in an English passenger train until all lines north and south of London were shut down to investigate and “sort out” a suicide of someone who had jumped in front of a train. I learned that is a preferred choice of suicide method in the UK.
  9. Obesity is much more obvious in my own country than the two I just visited.
  10. There are movies made outside of the US and about people who are not Americans. I learned this experientially by attending with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, the 72nd annual Venice Film Festival, where the majority of films shown and seen by Betsy and me were not made in the US or about Americans. This was made possible for us, by our joining one of the so-called “Times Journeys” marketed by The New York Times. This was a group of US citizens, approximately 25 of us, who purchased the right to be part of this experience, one lead by the senior New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott. It was a peak experience, particularly, to be set in this host city. The Times and its travel company partner, Academic Travel Abroad, will be repeating this opportunity for the September 2016 Venice Film Festival, and also for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this coming January 2016. For my readers who enjoy film and are willing to really pay for that experience, I highly recommend these “Journeys.” One of the most pervasive themes in multiple films we saw was the despair of adolescent and young adult, under educated, under or unemployed males, which reminded me of “the male problem” which is so central to the challenges I face in my work with higher education institutions anxious to improve “student success” and retention.
  11. One of the many reasons I have stayed at this work on the so-called “first-year experience” for so long—over four decades, are the attachments I have developed to other academics with whom I initially did some kind of work with, but ultimately became life long friends. Case in point, my wife and I visited what in England is known as “the North” which is the opposite of the American “North.” In England, it is “the South” of the country that has the most wealth and that dominates the government, media, and economic sectors of the country. In a small market village of Guisborough live two retired academics who are two of our most cherished friends. One of them was my partner for a decade or so, starting in 1987, in organizing what the University of South Carolina used to sponsor, our International Conferences on the First-Year Experience. This person is the most competent person in our mutual language of English that I have ever known. He is my very own personal correspondent who reports to me especially on British political news. We are almost weekly e-mail correspondents, and I covet but will never have his writing ability. He keeps encouraging me to retire but I am not heeding his advice.
  12. While in his country, I read about research that is documenting that increasingly Americans are less likely to see and/or meet work colleagues outside of the work environment for social purposes. Now we have other means to both meet people and other reasons for establishing affinity and bonding. I was reminded on this trip that this certainly does not describe me. Most of my closest friends have developed out of my associations within the academy. In many respects then I am not a man of the 21st
  13. And while Britain has its share of the 1% versus all the others and concerns about economic inequality, this country that we used to think so restricted upward social mobility because of its class system, actually has more upward social mobility than our country. In my country, if your parents are not college educated, if you were born into a poor family, if you are African American or Hispanic, it is much more likely you will not improve your status in life, enjoy the rewards of the shrinking American middle class, even for many who do receive a college education. Recent research has shown that both African Americans and Hispanic college graduates were much more likely disrupted and set back by the Great Recession than were other college graduates.

When I was a child, between the ages of 9 and 14, I lived in another country, Canada. I am very thankful I had this experience. It has made me a different person than I would have become had I lived only in one country. It gave me much greater insight into what it meant to be an “American”, particularly the several times I was beat up by other school children because I was an American and they had heard justifiable complaints from their parents about the treatment of Canada by the US government. Foreign travel has also had an impact on my development and sense of my place in our world. This is why it is so important to encourage the same kinds of experiences for our students, no matter what that socio-economic status.

I am glad I just took this trip, and I am glad to be returning “home.” I am proud to be a US citizen, in spite of some of the things we do. I am also a proud “veteran.” But I don’t come home wanting to promote what our right-wing terms American “exceptionalism.” I return home as committed as ever to the work I base here. And my next blog posting will be written from home, not as I return home.

Of all the efforts we either know of or have tried ourselves to improve undergraduate education, what matters most?

September 22, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

Three years ago I received a phone call from a special friend and colleague in higher education, President Leo Lambert of Elon University in North Carolina, inviting me and my wife and colleague, Betsy Barefoot, to join him in a book project. I didn’t realize it then but this was really the start of a process to encourage and enable me to join a really special group of good thinkers to make some decisions about what I and we think matters most in undergraduate education.

Leo was calling me to discuss a potential project that would provide a companion volume to an important book published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004, Transforming A College, which was about the story of the transformation of Elon from a relatively little known, regional, private university to a highly esteemed, national, innovative university, now being studied and emulated by many others. This book was written by the noted higher education strategic planning expert and consultant, the late George Keller. About 100 pages, designed to be read by institutional senior leaders on a flight from New York to Chicago, the book enjoyed great success in terms of sales and wide use by campus governance groups, especially administrator and board retreats. Leo’s original idea was that it was time for an update on what had happened since this “transforming” and what could be the most important lessons learned and applicable to a more diverse array of institutions that provide higher education for undergraduates.

President Lambert put together a working group consisting of himself; a colleague from Elon, Professor of History Peter Felten; Charles Schroeder, a Senior Consultant then with Noel-Levitz; Betsy Barefoot and myself. After we thought through what we wanted to do, could do, and what might be publishable, we had the good fortune to be offered a contract by Jossey-Bass. This book will be published this spring, 2016. Peter Felten is the author of two previous Jossey-Bass books and has been the editorial leader of this project. He is also the immediate past President of POD, the Professional Organizational Development network and is an outstanding faculty development leader and student of undergraduate innovation. Betsy and I have had six other books published by Jossey-Bass and we are privileged to be able to publish with them again. Charles Schroeder is one of the most esteemed leaders of the student affairs profession, having been a former chief student affairs officer at four universities and one of the most able student retention consultants in the country. And Leo Lambert is one of the college presidents from my career whom I admire most. In addition to Leo and Peter being leaders at Elon, the rest of us have connections with the University. Charles has been a past consultant and advisor to one of his former colleagues who is chief student affairs office at Elon, Smith Jackson. Betsy and I have been involved with the University as parents of an Elon graduate and other improvement initiatives undertaken by the University. We are huge fans of the University and have great respect for its remarkable transformation.

Our work together on this project has reminded me again how important it is to work collegially with other close colleagues and fine minds, to ask the most important questions to frame how we might inform and inspire others. In my entire career I have had a multitude of opportunities to come to important conclusions, worthy of sharing more broadly, when I am faced with a task of preparing an article, lecture, proposal, or even a book. It is those kinds of tasks that have often proved most helpful to me to decide what I really think, believe and know.

In this case we spent a great deal of time talking about the diversity of American higher education and how that might influence what we could endorse as strategies for improving undergraduate education that would have the most applicability to the broadest range of higher educators and institutions. Naturally, we did not want to write a book only for one sector where what we were encouraging would apply to only a narrow range of institutional types. At one point we went through the brief exercise of adding up the number of years the five of us had of higher education experience: in public and private, two an four-year, open and selective institutions and the total was moving towards the 200 mark. That would suggest it took us a long time to talk through what we knew, had experienced, observed and what we thought we ought to share and argue for.

As our work proceeded we kept coming back to one question and I both share that now and urge you to pursue it yourself in some kind of collaborative exercise. That question is—of all the efforts we either know of or have tried ourselves to improve undergraduate education, what matters most? Given the variety and depth of our experiences in undergraduate innovation this was quite a sorting process. We also wanted to be able to not only achieve consensus, but provide our readers with a book focus and especially recommendations that would be manageable, achievable, practical, and sufficiently generic. So we ultimately chose six themes, six core conditions that we believed—and then went on to illustrate, matter most to improve undergraduate education. And we posit these beliefs no matter what are the challenges facing the viability of US undergraduate education.

So what did we choose? Well, we are about to share the answer to that with our publisher as our final manuscript will be submitted October 1 for a spring 2016 publication. And it feels so good to be getting this manuscript off and into production. I will write about this further, surely, after publication. But I wanted to alert my readers to this pending publication ahead of time.

Most importantly, I wanted to encourage replicating our author group’s process of coming together for rich dialogue, debate, analysis, sharing and produce your own answer to this same question: what matters most for improving undergraduate education? Then we can compare our conclusions in mid 2016. So let this be both a catalyst and an invitation to consider coming attractions. We know that what will matter more than our six core principles are yours. And if you haven’t become explicit about your own, we highly encourage you to do so. The results could be profound for you, the students you serve, and your institution.

I publicly state my appreciation for the leadership of Elon University in this project and for them extending me the privilege of participating in this process. We know that publishing is the currency of the academic realm and we are hopeful that this Jossey-Bass book of ours will gain some real traction and influence and that ultimately, you will be quoting either our six themes for what matters most and/or your own.

Way Down South In Dixie

John N. Gardner

John teaching at USC_res-up
The tragic terrorist attack and related killings; the extraordinary forgiveness offered by the families of the victims; the visit of President Obama; the calls by the Governor of South Carolina and my University President, Harris Pastides, to take the flag down; and now as I write the formal debate in the South Carolina Legislature to take the flag down—all have unleashed a torrent of memories for me about my own experiences with racism and bigotry under the official auspices of the Confederate flag.

I lived in South Carolina for nearly 33 years, from 1967-1999, coming there involuntarily, staying by choice, and leaving also by choice—although not leaving completely because of my two sons and friends who live in SC and my continuing appointment with the University of South Carolina. I am hardly a detached observer of the recent events, which have moved me profoundly.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I had just been this June in Charleston, the Holy City, so named because of all its historic churches, including the one turned into a charnel house, for nine days during the annual, internationally acclaimed Spoleto Arts Festival. We had walked by the site of the massacre several times just thirteen days before the tragedy.

Looking way back to my relative youth, I did not want to come to South Carolina, but that is where the US Air Force sent me. I volunteered for Vietnam to get an alternative duty station but Shaw AFB is where Uncle Sam sent me. I was a military trained psychiatric social worker stationed at an Air Force hospital in Sumter, S.C. This was two and a half years after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. The base was fully integrated in housing, schools, everything. But as soon as one left either the front or back gates of the base, you entered another country that was totally segregated by race. But at least the Air Force showed us how we all could and would live and serve together.

My first day on the base I was introduced to an America I had never experienced before. I was ordered to report to my Squadron Commander for an individual orientation to the unit briefing. As I stood rigidly at attention I looked down and saw that he was an African American. Wow. Other than one of my drill sergeants in Basic and Officer Training, I had never been under the command of anyone whose skin was not the same color as mine.

This African American gave me the gift of my lifetime career. He gave me a direct order to perform volunteer service in my off duty hours by engaging in university teaching for the University of South Carolina. And he specifically told me to whom I was to report to arrange this. That was a life changing event.

A few weeks later I walked in to the President’s office of Morris College, a small, historically black private college in Sumter, S.C. I told his secretary I wanted to see about being a volunteer, non- compensated, adjunct instructor. It was a very awkward moment for her. But she secured the willingness of the President to meet with me. He was very polite to me and thanked me and told me he would take my offer under consideration. But I never heard further. I didn’t realize how he must have thought I was from another planet. In 1967 white men just didn’t walk in off the street and offer to teach for free at a black college. Coincidentally, I am spending a day on this campus this coming August.

During this same spring term of 1967, one night I was eating in the hospital “chow hall” and a call came out for volunteers to take an ambulance out behind the black gate where there was a civilian who had been reported as having been struck by a car. I volunteered. When we arrived at the scene we found an African American man already dead. So we called the Sumter County EMT operation but we did not specify the race of the deceased. When they arrived, they told us that they would have to send the coroner’s pick up truck, because they only put white people in that ambulance.

I soon noted in South Carolina that there were many restaurants that had signs on the front door proclaiming “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.”

Late that spring, as my first college course was into final exam period, I drove to the nearby Poinsett State Park in search of a quiet restful place to grade my students’ final exams. I engaged a park ranger in conversation. He told me the federal government had ruined his beloved park because now “colored” people would “take over” the park and whites would not want to come. I guess he assumed that because I was white that he could share this with me. In my ensuing 31 years in South Carolina, I participated in many family reunions in South Carolina state parks. Yes, blacks did indeed come. But so did whites. The prophecy of doom was totally unfounded.

The following fall, 1967, on the opening night of my Sociology 101 class at a Regional Campus of the University of South Carolina, I began my class of 80 students, on a Friday night at 7.30. One, only one, student, was black. And he sat in the very back row. I knew that this was a moment of history. He alone was racially integrating this campus. After I went over the syllabus I asked if anyone had any questions.  A white male student said “Yes, sir, I want to know what you think about us having to have N—— in our class.” I couldn’t believe—didn’t want to believe– what I was hearing. I knew this was it. I was about to loose the whole ballgame. So I decided I would try to finesse it. My reply, delivered with my best scowl was: “I don’t believe I heard you. Would you care to repeat your question?” I hoped he got my not so subtle message and would not repeat the question. But he did. So I said: “This time I heard you. And you have just violated one of the principles of this course which is that we all are going to respect each other’s dignity regardless of differences in our demographic characteristics. Now do you have any other questions?” Surely he would get the message and let the matter drop. But he didn’t. So this time I said in the best bluff I could muster up: “Look, I am an Air Force trained killer and if you don’t get up and leave this classroom I am going to come down your row and bodily remove you!” He rose and walked out.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done had he remained in the classroom.

From 1983-96 I was the University’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for that campus and in that capacity I came each year to the graduation ceremony. And as I looked out into the totally, racially integrated audience, I thought of that one brave young man who took that class with me in 1967 and paved the way for all these other students.

During the next semester, in late February, 1968, I was teaching Sociology 101 one weekday night to Nursing students enrolled in a degree program the University was offering at a small hospital in a rural county seat in Orangeburg, about 45 miles from the State’s capitol. Literally as the class was underway, all hospital operations were thrown into pandemonium as the victims from a mass shooting were brought into the hospital. That night was the occurrence of what went down in US history as “the Orangeburg Massacre.” Thirty-three black college students, part of a larger crowd who had been protesting the refusal of white owner of a bowling alley to admit blacks to his business (four years after the Civil Rights Act), were all shot in the back, by the SC Highway Patrol. Three of them died. Congress responded by passing the Omnibus Crime Control Act to provide funds for training of police and national guard troops in crowd control tactics. So two years later when white students rioted at my university, they were not shot but they were tear gassed. That was progress. The highway patrol shooters were processed in both the state and federal judicial systems and no jury would convict them.

Later in Spring term, 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered on a Thursday. My class was the next evening. So I decided to deliver a homily about his life and times and suspended all other regular class activities. That class became only about Dr. King’s life and accomplishments. I did a reading from four different pieces of his writings. The next Friday night, the campus chief executive officer met with me and told me that a group of students had come to see him complaining that I was a “N—– Lover.” I was urged to refrain from class consideration of “controversial” topics, including most notably, the war in Vietnam.

I had come to work full-time at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, in the fall of 1970. I had my military experience honorably behind me, and also two years as an Instructor of History at the former state supported women’s normal school, Winthrop College. Although I was popular with the students there and respected by my colleagues, I had run afoul of the administration, which non-renewed me because of my liberal civil rights activities. Specifically, that meant they were displeased with another professor and me who had founded a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

To my relief, and delight, in contrast, I found that academic freedom was alive and well at the University of South Carolina. Before leaving Winthrop I had taught one summer in its Upward Bound program. Federal site inspectors found the program in non-compliance for establishing a hostile climate towards the students. After arriving at USC I applied for a summer teaching position with the University’s own Upward Bound program, for which I was accepted on the faculty. The director of that program, the University’s then chief student affairs officer, a salty retired naval officer, told me: “Well, if you enjoyed teaching in that other lousy Upward Bound program, you are going to have an orgasm in our program!” The USC program did not quite live up to that literal billing but it was transformative for me as a young college professor. What I learned were two things: 1) how to motivate students when I could not use grades as the carrot or stick; and 2) how to understand and empathize with black kids who had grown up in de jure segregated school systems.

I learned that my USC had been the first southern predominantly white university to seek and accept an Upward Bound program in 1966, because we were the first to commit to racially integrate the residence halls, a requirement of receiving the federal grant.

And this extraordinary Upward Bound program showed our President what could be done and should be done for all entering students, and not just the relatively few who received special funding from the Federal government. What he had seen in Upward Bound in terms of student transformation led him to incorporate a number of similar experiences into the design he influenced for the launching of our now famous, University 101 course. He invited me to a summer think tank to design that course in 1972 and two years later, I was his third choice to become the first faculty director of that program, but the first two turned him down. Unlike me, they were both tenured full professors.

Three years after we launched University 101, it was discovered by my beloved USC colleague, Paul Fidler, in research he conducted on the effectiveness of University 101, that black students who participated in University 101 were achieving greater gains in predicted versus earned GPA’s and retention than were white students. I took great satisfaction in this unintended reverse discrimination in favor of these students whose ancestors in SC had been enslaved and discriminated against ever since.

In 1974 I represented my alma mater, Marietta College, at the inauguration of a new president at the South Carolina Episcopalian HBCU, Voorhees College. There I witnessed the amazing spectacle of the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, sitting through that whole ceremony and courting the black vote. Times had changed thanks to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now “those people” could vote.

My university also became in the 70’s the first of our institutional peer group to have an African American become SGA President. This was truly national “news” and Walter Cronkite ran it as his lead story one night, to my pride and pleasure. That young man later became a psychiatrist and a member of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Faculty.

For much of my time at USC black students had higher graduation rates than our white students. In 1986 my colleague, Michael Welsh, did a study, supported by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, contrasting the characteristics of black students who graduated as compared to black students who had not graduated. What he found was that the graduates were more likely:

  1. to have taken University 101
  2. to have been a member of a black greek affiliated student organization
  3. to have had a black roommate as a first-year student
  4. to have had at least one black faculty member for a course
  5. to have been a member of a student organization that was advised by a black faculty or staff member

In 1998, the year before I left South Carolina for North Carolina, everything seemed to come full circle. For one thing, a former student of mine who had been my undergraduate advisee in our Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies degree program, David Beasley, ran for a second term as Governor. One of his platform planks as the Republican candidate, was for the removal of the Confederate flag. He was resoundingly defeated. The candidate who did win, the son of one of my fellow faculty members, invited me to the Inaugural Ball. At this black tie event, I noticed an African American gentleman whom I thought I recognized. Then it hit me. This was Gary Bell whom I had taught in Upward Bound about 25 years previously. I approached him and addressed him as “Mr. Bell.” He quickly corrected me and suggested I address him as “Dr. Bell.” We caught up on each other’s lives and I learned that he had gone on to undergraduate school at Tuskegee and then to medical school and then returned to practice medicine in Columbia. He gave me feedback that I have never forgotten. He told me that I was his first teacher who had ever asked him to write anything, which meant that I assumed he had any ideas worth writing. When he told me this at first I found it hard to believe. But he assured me, that up to that point in his school history, he had never been asked to write anything, literally. For Dr. Bell had been another one of my students who had come up through the segregated school system of South Carolina, where black kids had shorter school year terms and vastly inferior education for, as we all knew, too much education could ruin a good field hand.

For most of my time at the University I saw what I believed was a powerful laboratory at work for how we all could live, work, recreate, eat, date, marry, raise families together. We were the new south. The Confederate flag flying proudly just a block from the University campus did not represent the University—or most of the state that I had come to know. It has been time, for a long time, to remove that symbol of the power structure that enslaved other human beings, once and for all.

My experiences such as those related above, have made me whatever it is that I am today as an educator and citizen. I am grateful to South Carolina, for all that is has taught me, for better or worse. I believe that henceforth, things are in the direction of “for the better.” I want that for my two grandchildren who live there and for all  their fellow citizens.

Do It: Mystery Shop Your Own Institution

John N. Gardner

Summer is normally a time when my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I convert our mountaintop home in the western Blue Ridge Mountains into summer camp for visiting grandchildren.

But this year we did something different. We took two of our grandchildren on trips for college admissions visits. It was a real eye opener. Let me get right to the point of this posting: if you haven’t been on the Admissions tour of your own campus, do it. But “mystery shop” it if you can pass incognito. You need to know what your prospective students are being told to expect. The process of creating expectations for your incoming students is tremendously important for influencing the outcomes you want for their college experience. This is when you can begin to spell out what is the history and traditions of the place, its market niche, its core values, its promised experiences to come.

I want to report on one visit we made to a national, competitive, selective, research, university (not my own).

My 17 year-old granddaughter especially wanted to visit this institution. She is an outstanding student, academically and athletically. She had heard in her peer group that—let’s call it University X or UX, was “awesome” and that students there had a great deal of “fun.” We also had a fourteen year old grandchild along who aspires to be an engineer. He is also a high performing kid.

When you arrive at UX for the Admissions tour you enter a “Vistor’s Center.” The lobby and waiting areas feature many posters and symbolic messages largely revolving around X’s athletic programs. There is one prominent display in a case under glass reporting X being named as the “#1 tailgate” in the region. That point was driven home verbally at least three times on the subsequent tour. In my way of thinking “tailgate” is code for excessive consumption of alcohol before, during, and after football games. I am sure some others on the tour made the same connection, particularly the prospective students. However,  the tour guide made it clear that tailgating was not just for students. She reported that everything associated with football was also for the “family.” We were told repeatedly that coming to X is like belonging to a family.

When you go to a big place you might as well start out being processed in large groups because that is going to be the way the place works. On this summer Saturday morning, the “tour” consisted of approximately 130 prospective students and their families. This cohort was definitely drawn from a national population base.

The formal introduction began in an auditorium style configuration. We were asked how we were that morning and when we did not reply in a sufficiently loud and enthusiastic manner, we were instructed to repeat our answers to that question, several times. The expectation was clear: the X leaders wanted us to show some enthusiasm.

X did not have any professional staff from Admissions or elsewhere. This group of 130 had four undergraduate student leaders. I reasonably assumed that they had been carefully selected, trained and scripted.

As we waited for opening remarks, a slide show rotated on one screen. There was print material on some of the slides, but no accompanying music or voice over. The font for much of the print was too small for me to read and I was sitting in about the fourth row back, in the center.

The student master of ceremonies rattled off some basic information about admissions procedures and then asked if anyone had any questions. It was my interpretation that the sub text from the group leader was that this was not really the time or place for questions and the student leader answered them brusquely and impatiently, obviously wanting to get on with the tour.

Thankfully, not all 130 were going to tour together. We were split into four groups. As each prospective student’s name was called out to effect this division, the students were instructed that when their name was called they were to respond as loudly as possible “GO —(Enter name of X’s mascot)! That set the tone. We were going to hear a great deal about athletics on this tour.

The first stop on the tour was a large open grassy area. Here we were told about what would happen during the opening week of the term during an extended welcome orientation, and in particular, how a “student activities fair” would take place in this very area, under a large tent, where students could choose from over 400 clubs and organizations to get involved with. The objective of all of this we were told was to have “fun” and to get “involved.” We were told that in a national survey X ranked very high because over 90% of its students reported that they were “happy” at X. I was pleased to know that the taxpayers of this state were making such an investment to produce “happy” students.

Throughout the two-hour tour the only references made to the purposes of the institution were to: having fun, being happy, and eventually getting a good job. Considering this was a place I thought was especially noted for its STEM work, I found this scripted presentation of the purposes of the University to be particularly puzzling. To reinforce my cognitive dissonance, our tour guide repeated on multiple occasions that she had changed her major (to Communications) in her first year because of her challenges with Chemistry. As she put it “I don’t do anything with numbers.” She apparently was in the right place to go through college that way, even though I found that hard to understand.

Totally missing from the tour were any references to any other possible purposes of higher education, such as preparing for a life of leadership, civic responsibility, service to society, support of the arts, you name it. In fact, with reference to public performances in the arts space, the closest we heard was reference to great rock concerts that were brought to campus.

And next came a residence hall. We heard a great deal about on campus living options and food choices. The virtues of food options were extolled as was “free laundry” meaning no charge to students for use of the laundry machines. That was described as a big hit. It was explained to us that the one area of campus life that had not been rated high historically was the food service and thus, how that had been a focus for special attention for improvement in the past two years. Universities have all sorts of distinctions and I would assume on such tours would tout what they are proudest of. In this case, X is now proud of the food it provides its students.

We also heard about another student concern: parking, and how much more available and less expensive it would be than at many competitors.

We moved on to the Student Activities Center where it was explained to us in more detail what were the opportunities for students to engage in organized group activities. This building was separate from the student union building which we were not shown.

We were also not taken to any classroom or research laboratory facilities. I found that strange given that this is a world-class research university. There was no information offered on any types of research being conducted at this university or what the purposes of a research university are. The only references to academic requirements were to final exams, but in the context that the University food service provided what in the military I came to know as “midnight chow” served up late at night before finals the next day.

We were not taken to any facility where artistic performances of any type would be presented other than the movie theater in the student activities center.

We also did not see the football stadium although we heard many references to it and how we should all look forward to game Saturdays.

Nor did we tour the physical recreational activities building, although that was pointed out to us. In so doing the guide exclaimed that X was really a place for “jocks.” I did not ask her if she understood the male related aspects of that language which she was using generically.

Very late in the tour we got to the Library. We were only shown the foyer. But we were told that the library housed a student success center “upstairs” where students could receive free tutoring.

At another point there was reference to a health center, but none to the availability of counseling, or the fact that the college experience might lead some students to seek counseling.

While there were multiple acknowledgements that students were coming to university to get jobs, strangely, we were never shown the career center. I am sure both students and families would have liked more attention to that, actually, any attention to that.

At some point on the tour, I had this recollection of an experience I hadn’t thought about in years, a pitch for a timeshare. It was probably about 30 years ago and I was over at the blue collar Riviera of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, literally on the beach. And I don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed to attend a pitch for a timeshare—probably for ten beach dollars or something. As I recalled this otherwise forgettable experience I realized the similarities to this college admissions visit and tour. I was really being pitched a vacation experience, fun, recreation, generous and good food, plenty of entertainment, all in a safe environment, even free laundry thrown in. And not inexpensively—all for about what I could purchase a timeshare. Not only was what was being sold similar to the timeshare, so were the strategies being used in the pitch. This was truly déjà vu.

Of course, I know that those responsible at X for enrollment management are not trying to sell a timeshare. But assuming that what is said on these tours is not left to serendipity, and hence is carefully scripted, I had to wonder what was the rationale for what was covered/not covered. And without asking those responsible, all I could conclude was that this was the outcome of an exercise using Maslow’s needs hierarchy into an operational process. So what we got was information on very basic shelter and security needs but nothing much higher up on the aspirational ladder towards self actualization—-unless we accept the proposition that these prospective students had no loftier aspirations than to spend four or five years in a resort as a way station before true adulthood. No, I don’t think so. These students are high performing high school students. I believe they came in not knowing quite what to expect, but still expecting more than they got. I don’t believe they are really aspiring to an extended resort stay.

So how does your place stack up in comparison? What is the pitch being given prospective students? What is/is not on the campus tour? Who writes the tour guides’ script? Who trains and supervises them? What are the criteria for their selection? What is the story being told about your institution? Who is in charge of the front door to your institution? You need to know.

I must admit that for the three decades I was at the University of South Carolina I never went on the tour. I never heard the pitch. But I have now done so and am pleased to report it bears little similarity to X. I should have done this while I was employed full-time and had responsibility for first-year students. I knew very well what we were telling the students during Orientation but knew anything about the messaging that had preceded that. Shame on me.

Ode to a Retiring Colleague

John N. Gardner


For all of us who have been public service employees, the date June 30 has multiple significances: the end of the state government fiscal year, and the most preferred date for state and local government retirees to retire.

I took “early” retirement June 30, 1999 and have been flunking retirement ever since. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I established a not-for-profit higher education firm, the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education immediately after we left South Carolina. One of the triggers for my own move was my disillusionment over the decision to place the Confederate flag at the foot of the steps to the statehouse.

Since my own date for transition I have gone back down to South Carolina for an occasional retirement celebration for a special colleague, this year being a case in point. My colleague of 37 years, Stuart Hunter, “retired.”

Stuart was my successor at the University of South Carolina who was responsible for the University 101 programs and the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. These initiatives have flourished since my departure, and not necessarily because of it! Rather, I prefer to think that the success of these pillars of support for the US “student success” movement is due instead to a number of factors: 1) Stuart’s outstanding leadership; 2) the extraordinary support (especially during and in spite of the Great Recession) of the University’s highest level(s) of administration; and 3) the continuing participation of thousands of USC students and in like manner, thousands of higher educators around the globe.

Stuart leaves behind the administration of the multiple courses and their faculty/staff/peer leader development programs, including University 101, 201, 401 in the very able hands of Dr. Dan Friedman. And in like manner, an equally but differently capable Dr. Jennifer Keup, will carry forward the leadership of the National Resource Center.

Although she was not influenced by me in the slightest regard in this manner, Stuart also will not be totally retiring. She will be on campus several days a week very involved in the academic credit bearing work of the organization and other special projects for the University. I am so grateful to my University for not letting this wonderful corporate memory and contributor fade away. Stuart will join me as a Senior Fellow and, as I have explained to her in all seriousness, this title is not meant to be a reference to our age, rather our wisdom.

It occurs to me of course that Stuart and I are becoming less common in the ranks for American higher education professional leaders in that we elected to spend the entirety of our careers at one institution. Neither of us have any regrets about that. Both of us left the place in a little bit better shape than we found it, for our having being there. Both of us met our spouses there and raised our children with the University being part of their lives.

As I reflected at Stuart’s retirement reception, the University was founded in 1801 and the first students arrived in 1805. The oldest part of the campus is found inside what is known as “the shoe” or “horseshoe, a wall built in 1821 to keep the all male student body inside to prevent themselves from killing each other in the code of dueling practiced after drinking in nearby taverns. As we walk in that sacred place we always are in touch with the eternity of the place. Both of us were always conscious that the University had been there before us and would be there after us. We had one overriding goal: to leave a legacy by making the institution even more student focused and successful for those students. I realize that even though many of our peers will not dedicate an entire professional life to one institution, that nevertheless, no matter how long they stay, they can do the same thing we did: contribute to leaving the place better than they found it.

When I was an impressionable child, my father said to me repeatedly: “Son, find a good company and stick with it.” I did that. So glad I did. Stuart did too. I’m so glad she did.