John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Salute to a Special Colleague in Transition: Is She or Isn’t She Retiring?

John N. Gardner

While this blog is one hosted by the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, my Institute colleagues have, by default, largely allowed me to be the primary, if not quite the sole, contributor. So I guess that gives me some sort of personal editorial privilege. I am taking this now to offer a posting about the “retirement” of a special colleague, the co-founder of our non-profit organization, Betsy O. Barefoot. Disclaimer: Betsy and I are also related by way of marriage.

As noted above, Betsy is the Co-Founder of our Institute. She and I had the good fortune to find a 501c3 non-profit organization (Brevard College) to be the fiscal agent for a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which enabled Betsy and me to start a new higher education organization in 1999. We moved to western North Carolina to launch this new venture, originally established as the Policy Center on the First Year of College, as the state of South Carolina’s strict nepotism policies would have prevented Betsy and I from both working together as we had since 1988 at the University of South Carolina, and to be legally married to one another, with one of us being in a reporting relationship to the other. This was the catalyst then for my early retirement from my beloved USC. In 2007 we reorganized the legal status of our organization and renamed it with its current name, as an independent 501c3 organization.

There is one most important question I want to address here: Is Betsy Barefoot really retiring?

Well, yes, and no. All depends on how we define “retirement.”

If we mean by “retirement” she would be giving up all of her work in the student success movement, absolutely not?

But she has retired, effective June 30, from her position of Vice President of the Institute. She will continue, however, in her role as the Institute’s Senior Scholar working occasionally in a less structured way with selected Institute initiatives. She will also continue serving as the Co-Editor, with Dr. Jillian Kinzie of Indiana University’s Center for Post Secondary Education, for the Jossey-Bass Publishers’ New Directions in Higher Education series. And she will actually pursue an increased set of her independent research activities, which her previous administrative duties in the Institute precluded. She will also remain an active speaker and advisor to the higher education community. And Betsy and I will continue to do a number of consulting projects as we have for several decades. Finally, Betsy and I will continue to author a series of textbooks for Bedford/St. Martins of Macmillan Higher Education.

I can’t imagine having created this Institute ( without her. Together we have assisted, supported, advised, literally hundreds of two and four-year institutions in the US and abroad over the past fifteen years. Our work did not duplicate the work we had done together previously from 1988-1999 at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. Instead, our work in the Institute has gone in new directions that complemented our foundational work at the University of South Carolina. At USC Betsy was the co-founder with another bright graduate of Duke University, Dr. Dorothy Fidler, of the Center’s prolific publishing activities. Thanks to these two women a vast scholarly literature base was created and disseminated to provide much of the intellectual underpinning for what is now called the student success movement. I had been affiliated with USC for much longer, since 1967, but didn’t know Betsy until she serendipitously was appointed as a graduate assistant in our Center in 1988 while finishing her doctorate at William and Mary.

During this period of our work together based in North Carolina, she has also been by far our most productive scholar with an impressive array of contributions to the scholarly literature that is now part of the larger student success intellectual foundation. Betsy’s combination of skills in public presentation/speaking, writing, editing, researching, analyzing, evaluating, advising, consulting, planning, were unique in our organization. Her interpersonal skills made her a joy for all of us to work with. Her judgment came to be depended on by all of us. Although I was and am the titular head of the organization, the reality was that many times in our staff meeting group processes, all of us would look to her for closure on reaching a final direction for what might be the best course of action. Betsy is/was trusted by all her professional partners, internal and external to our organization, for delivering for them on her insightful counsel, respectfully and wisely rendered. On many occasions, we would be asked: “Well, what is Betsy Barefoot’s take?”

Betsy and I are both especially thankful to our esteemed colleague and mentor, Russ Edgerton, the former President of the American Association for Higher Education and senior higher education program officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, for his initial vision for this new organization which he wanted to see us found. That vision led to the creation of our organization, which has been subsequently funded and supported by four other foundations: The Atlantic Philanthropies; Lumina Foundation for Education; the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation; and USA Funds; and supported also by hundreds of colleges and universities.

After fifteen years of a highly structured professional life, Betsy has reached the point where she wants much less structure, and far more freedom. I am fond of telling people that Betsy’s mother, whom I never met, is quoted as having told many that when Betsy was a very little girl she had a favorite prayer: “Lord help me to do what I want to do”! Well, now finally she gets to do just that. Betsy is ready to live without staff meetings of any duration (and ours are usually long!). Personally, I love staff meetings, especially ours, and can’t imagine a fulfilling life without them. She is ready to live without most recurring and long-term professional commitments. And she wants to make way for younger and newer people in our organization. She has a phrase that says it all: “It’s time.”

Betsy and I plan to continue enjoying our lives together in a beautiful setting in our Blue Ridge Mountains, which surround our 21 acre mountain top home. For Betsy this has been a return to her native North Carolina. Her roots for the pursuit of educational excellence were shaped in her hometown of Goldsboro, where like her fourteen year older only sibling, a sister, Betsy was high school valedictorian. Betsy has been kidded by many for marrying down with me as a partner, as I was far from ever being a valedictorian at any level of formal education. But our work together in the Institute has been a great fit of abilities, values, and vision. And this work will continue after Betsy’s retirement based on the exceptionally strong foundation she has left us.

And what about my plans? Well, I don’t have any for retirement and plan to keep on keeping on.  Readers may continue to communicate with Betsy as before, at

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