Board Chair and CEO


John N. Gardner

John Gardner is universally regarded throughout the national and international higher education community as the initiator and leader of an educational reform movement, spanning more than four decades, to improve the retention and graduation rates of college and university students.

His work has focused especially on two critical student transitions during the undergraduate years: the first-year experience and the senior-year experience. Gardner is the founder of two higher education research and professional development educational centers, the University of South  National Resource Center on The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.

He is also Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science and Senior Fellow at the University of South Carolina. He is a widely published author and scholar whose work has been recognized with numerous awards including twelve honorary doctoral degrees. Gardner brings fifty years experience working in higher education to his presidency.


Vice President 


Besty O. Barefoot

Dr. Barefoot is one of the three co-founders of the Policy Center on the First Year of College where she currently serves as Co-Director and Senior Scholar.

Prior to 1999 was Co-Director for Research and Publications for the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. She has extensive university teaching experience at undergraduate and graduate levels. Her special area of expertise is the scholarship of efforts to improve the beginning college experience. She is widely published and is universally regarded as a leading scholar in her field.

She is also highly regarded for her editorial and management skills in the production of higher education publications. She has twenty-five years of experience working on issues of first-year student success at the national level.




Angela M. Whiteside

Angela Whiteside serves as Vice President of Finance, Human Resources and Events and has been with Gardner Institute since 2001. She oversees the finances, prepares and monitors the budget, and collaborates with the finance committee. Ms. Whiteside is responsible for receivables and disbursements as well as presiding over the annual independent audit each year for the Institute.

She also works with management to prepare all contractual agreements for participating institutions and provides support on financial support on incoming grants. She is directly responsible for the overall administration, coordination and evaluation of all human resource functions. In addition, her responsibilities include strategic management and execution of all Gardner Institute conferences and events, as well as Gardner Institute board meetings in which she is Secretary and Treasurer. Angela directly supervises multiple employees at the Institute.

She holds a BS in Business Administration from Gardner Webb University and has a MBA from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is married to Lewis Whiteside, a BMW employee and has with two children. Angela has lived in North Carolina since she was eight.





Lou Albert 

Lou Albert is a Professor of Practice in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. 

Prior to his appointment at ASU, Lou served as President of the West Campus of Pima County Community College in Tucson, Arizona from 2003 until his retirement in 2015.  He is a former academic Vice Chancellor of the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District (1998-2003); and former Vice President of the American Association for Higher Education (1982-98), a not-for-profit membership association where John Gardner served as a member of its Board of Trustees.  At AAHE, Lou was responsible for organizing the annual National Conference on Higher Education, and for special initiatives that focused on school/college partnerships, service-learning and civic engagement, and instructional technology. 

Lou was also a faculty member and senior administrator at Essex Community College, now a part of the Community College of Baltimore County.  Lou’s board service includes two terms on the National Board of Campus Compact, a consortium of nearly 1,200 college and university presidents committed to advancing the civic mission of higher education.  

He also served for six years as Chair of the Board of Trustees for the International Partnership for Service-Learning.  In Tucson, he is a past Board Chair for the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.  

Lou earned his Master of Science in Zoology and Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Maryland-College Park. He holds a B.S. in Biology from Loyola College (now University) of Maryland.   In 2001, he was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) from Cuttington University in the West African nation of Liberia.


Wendy Ault 

A Maine native, Wendy Ault is a graduate of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.  She has worked as a reproductive health teacher and the Assistant Director of Admissions at Westbrook College (now the University of New England) in Portland, Maine.  Ms. Ault served as University of Maine at Farmington’s Associate Director of Admissions for seventeen years.  For eight years of her time at UMF, she ran and was elected to the Maine House of Representatives representing part of Kennebec County from 1988 through 1996.  She served all eight years as a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, serving as its House Chair during her last term.  In September 1999, Ms. Ault became President of the non-profit Maine Educational Loan Marketing Corporation.  When MELMAC was sold to a for-profit corporation in January 2001, the proceeds from that sale created the MELMAC Education Foundation.  Since 2001 Wendy has been the Executive Director of the MELMAC Education Foundation. She lives in Wayne, Maine with her husband.


Ed Case

Ed Case is a recently retired senior financial and operations executive with more than 30 years of experience leading health care, academic, and community organizations. In his most recent role as Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Case led the development of a transformational replacement hospital project.  Case has served on several boards holding the role of Chairman, Audit Committee for public and nonprofit organizations.  Case has also served as a lecturer at the Washington University – St. Louis, Masters Health Administration and University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, School of Public Health programs.

Case earned a BS in Business Administration from the University of Missouri in St. Louis, and a Masters Public Health from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.

Case was named the “2013 Chicago Nonprofit CFO of the Year” by the Financial Executives International (FEI) association.


Scott Evenbeck

Dr. Evenbeck joined City University of New York in 2011 as the Charles and Stella Guttman Community College’s founding president. He served as professor of psychology and founding dean of University College at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Scott has long been involved in designing, implementing and assessing programs for students in their first years of university study. He played a major role in various initiatives to support student achievement in Indiana, including efforts to keep students in college. He has given more than 100 presentations on serving students as they enter college, and he has written many articles and chapters on academic achievement and persistence. Scott was a task force adviser for the Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year, a board member of the American Conference of Academic Deans, and a faculty member for the Learning Community Institute of the Washington Center for Undergraduate Education. The National Learning Community conference recognized him with the lifetime achievement award. He has been on accreditation teams for three regional associations, focusing on general education, assessment and programs for entering students.


Jillian Kinzie

Dr. Kinzie (Associate Director, Center for Postsecondary Research & NSSE Institute) coordinates the NSSE Institute project activities. Her PhD is from Indiana University in higher education with a minor in women’s studies. Jillian comes to the NSSE staff from the faculty at IU where she coordinated the master’s program in higher education and student affairs from 2000-2002.


Leo M. Lambert

Leo M. Lambert is President Emeritus and Professor at Elon University.  Lambert served as president from 1999-2018, leading Elon’s rise to national prominence by promoting a student-centered culture that values strong relationships between students and their faculty and staff mentors. Focused on developing students as global citizens, ethical leaders and creative problem-solvers, Lambert led two strategic plans, creating a model for the modern liberal arts university.

Led by President Lambert, Elon built a national reputation for academic excellence across the curriculum, including the sheltering of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and for its innovative programs in study abroad, undergraduate research, leadership, interfaith dialogue, civic engagement and community service, and preparing students for meaningful careers and advanced study.

Elon’s campus grew tremendously during Lambert’s presidency. More than 100 new buildings were added, including major investments in the residential campus, building four major neighborhoods, integrating academic and residence life programs and nurturing a flourishing intellectual climate. 

Lambert was a strong advocate for increasing access to higher education for students with high financial need and created the Odyssey Scholars program (for undergraduates attending Elon) and the Elon Academy (to support local high school students in gaining access to higher education).

Division 1 athletics advanced during Lambert’s tenure, including membership in the Colonial Athletics Association, the addition of important facilities such as Rhodes Stadium and the Schar Center, and the adoption of a new athletics identity, the Phoenix.

Lambert has written extensively about post-secondary education and is co-author of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most, published by Jossey-Bass in 2016. He was also co-editor of a book about university teaching that was published by the Syracuse University Press in 2005. His alma mater, the State University of New York at Geneseo, awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2002. In 2009, he received the inaugural William M. Burke Presidential Award for Excellence in Experiential Education from the National Society for Experiential Education. His forthcoming book (with Peter Felten) will be published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.


John Lawless

John W. Lawless has many years of experience as a manager and CEO of business and non-profit organizations. His career began in the information systems division of McDonnell Douglas and includes the founding of HBOC, a nationwide healthcare information systems company. He was also involved in the establishment of several start-up companies and mergers, most notably the merger of Inforum and Medstat to create the Michigan-based firm of Medstat, a healthcare information company. Lawless has also served on the boards of several arts organizations and served as chair of the board for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina in Hilton Head,

SC. Lawless is now retired and lives with his wife, Barbara, in Hendersonville, NC. Mr. Lawless brings to the Institute board a long history of making non-profit organizations even more viable in addition to his extraordinary business acumen and experience in strategic planning.


George Mehaffy

George Mehaffy serves as the Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in Washington, D.C., representing 430 public colleges and universities and their 3.7 million students. His division is responsible for developing and managing programs for member institutions in areas such as leadership development, undergraduate education, technology, international education and teacher education. He directs a variety of projects, including international programs with a Chinese higher education association, a technology transformation project with EDUCAUSE, an articulation project with community colleges, and two national studies of student success. In 2003, he launched the American Democracy Project, a civic engagement initiative with 228 colleges and universities, a partnership with The New York Times. He has university teaching and administrative experience in New Mexico and California.


Charlie Nelms

Dr. Charlie Nelms is a transformational servant-leader, a motivational speaker, and a consultant with expertise in higher education. He has more than 40 years of experience and leadership in student access, retention, and graduation; institutional effectiveness; and strategic planning.

The former chancellor of universities in North Carolina, Indiana, and Michigan, Nelms serves as a board member for leading educational associations and foundations across the U.S., including the C.S. Mott Foundation. He is currently a senior scholar at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, specializing in providing assistance to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and Senior Advisor to the United Negro College Fund. In addition to serving as an executive coach, he has been a consultant to nearly 100 colleges and universities and education-related organizations.

Nelms is the recipient of numerous awards for his accomplishments in higher education, including two honorary doctorates and fellowships from the American Council on Education and the Ford Foundation. In 2012, President Obama honored him with the MLK Drum Major for Service Award for helping to address the most pressing needs in our communities and nation. He is a founding member of the Millennium Leadership Initiative, and vice president and professor emeritus at Indiana University. Nelms founded the Destination Graduation Initiative, which aims to increase retention and graduation rates at HBCUs, and in 2011, he published A Call to Action, a policy directive intended to spur a national dialogue concerning the revitalization of HBCUs.

Nelms earned a B.S. degree and a master’s of education degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and an Ed.D. from Indiana University. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post and HBCU Lifestyle, he tweets, and is a frequent guest on podcasts and radio talk shows around the nation.


Laura Rendon

Laura I. Rendón is Professor Emerita and Co-Director of the Center for Research and Policy in Education at University of Texas-San Antonio. A native of Laredo, Texas, Rendón’s scholarly endeavors have focused on college access and success especially for low-income, first-generation students. Rendón is credited with developing the theory of validation that academic and student affairs practitioners have employed as a student success framework.  Her current research on student success is focused on shattering deficit frameworks, illuminating student assets, and assisting Latinx students succeed in STEM fields. 

Rendón is also a teaching and learning thought leader. She is the author of the book, Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking Pedagogy): Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation, that addresses deep learning experiences employing contemplative tools.  Her current work in this area relates to contemplative education that centers social justice. Rendón earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She holds a Master of Arts degree from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Houston. Rendón earned an Associate of Arts degree from San Antonio College and also attended Laredo Community College.



Director Emerita


Martha Nesbitt

Dr. Nesbitt is President Emerita of Gainesville State College, one of the 34 constituent units of the University System of Georgia. Prior to that she was Vice President of Academic Affairs of Georgia Perimeter College. She has been a two-year college leader of first-year experience improvement efforts since 1985 when she began working with Director Gardner on various professional partnerships. She is a doctorally trained historian as well. Her expertise in the fastest growing sector of public higher education (the community college) is especially valuable to the Institute.


Francine McNairy

Dr. McNairy is President Emerita of Millersville University of Pennsylvania, where she previously served as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Millersville is one of the fourteen constituent units of the State System of Higher Education of Pennsylvania. President McNairy has been working with John Gardner since 1978 on a multiplicity of improvement, publishing, development activities. She is a doctorally trained expert in communications as well. Her type of institution is the institutional type that has been most engaged in the activities of the Institute, said institutional type known as the regional, comprehensive, public university. There are 430 of these in the US and they collectively educate four million students. Her advice on serving this institutional type, with special attention to minority and underrepresented groups is particularly valuable to the Board and the Institute.