John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

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.

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