John is an educator, university professor and administrator, non-profit organization chief executive officer, author, editor, public speaker, consultant, change agent, student retention specialist, first-year, sophomore, transfer, and senior year students’ advocate, and initiator and scholar of the American first-year and senior-year reform movements. He serves as Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Gardner Institute. The Institute was founded by John and his wife, Betsy O. Barefoot, in October 1999 as the Policy Center on the First Year of College. The Policy Center was launched by an initial grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, and has been subsequently funded by additional grants from Pew, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lumina Foundation for Education, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and USA Funds. In 2007 the Policy Center underwent a legal and name change to the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and an expansion of its mission to focus more broadly on excellence in undergraduate education, as a fully autonomous 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. Since its inception in 1999, the Institute has received over $8,000,000 in support from its philanthropic partners, most recently again from Lumina Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.
The Gardner Institute works with colleges and universities to strengthen their resolve and processes to undertake assessment and other improvement actions to increase student learning and retention. The Institute focuses its work on the use of a previously non-existent set of aspirational standards for improvement of the first-year, the transfer student experience, and the gateway course experiences of students at all undergraduate levels. These first-year and transfer standards are known as Gardner Institute's “Foundational Dimensions”® in a process called Foundations of Excellence® in the First College Year or Foundations of Excellence® – Transfer Focus. In addition, the Institute offers several additional processes for student learning, success, retention and completion including Gateways to Completion® to improve student performance in high failure rate gateway courses and Retention Performance Management® to improve retention rates for specific cohorts such as first year, sophomores, first-generation, low-income, etc.
John is also the Founding Director and Senior Fellow of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. The National Resource Center, founded by Gardner in 1986, organizes the popular and influential conferences on The First-Year Experience, Students in Transition, and also disseminates information through an extensive series of scholarly publications, videos, national and international conferences, workshops, seminars, and teleconferences. Gardner “retired” in 1999 after 32 1/2 years of service to the people of South Carolina, but continues to serve them in a reduced and more focused way in his role of Senior Fellow (in addition to his full-time appointment with the Gardner Institute). He served as Executive Director of both the first-year seminar course, University 101, from 1974-1999, and the National Center from 1986-99. From 1983-96, he also served as Vice Chancellor/Associate Vice Provost for Regional Campuses and Continuing Education.
In his capacity with the National Resource Center, John provides advice, counsel, and intellectual leadership and vision as called upon by his colleagues in the Center. He is actively involved in hosting and presenting at Center conferences, seminars, workshops, and teleconferences. He also remains very involved, as always, in the Center’s scholarship and research activities as in its monograph series and other publishing activities.
Thanks to the US Air Force, Gardner was involuntarily sent to South Carolina in 1967 where he served his active duty assignment as a psychiatric social worker in the 363rd Tactical Hospital at Shaw Air Force Base. At the direct order of his squadron commander he became a part-time adjunct instructor for the University of South Carolina while he was on active duty. After completing his military service, Gardner held a two-year temporary appointment as Instructor of History at Winthrop College from 1968-70, and then began his full-time faculty career at USC Columbia in 1970. He taught courses in American and South Carolina history, interpersonal communications for librarians, public speaking, higher education administration, and other special topics. He also regularly taught the first-year seminar, University 101, and a special topics graduate seminar course he developed for the College of Education on “The First-Year Experience.” From 1994-1998 he developed and taught University 401, Senior Capstone Experience (as a sequel to University 101, only for departing students), and this remains one of his legacies to USC about which he is most satisfied in terms of the help it offers students.
Gardner is the recipient of numerous local and national professional awards including USC’s highest award for teaching excellence, the AMOCO Award for Outstanding Teaching (1975), and the Division of Student Affairs Faculty Award “for outstanding contributions……”(1976). The University of South Carolina Alumni Association conferred upon him its highest award for a non-alum, the Honorary Life Membership “for devoted service in behalf of the University” in 1997. He was also named the 1998 recipient of the University’s Administrative Affirmative Action Award “for an outstanding job in promoting equal opportunities at the University.” In 1999, he was the recipient of a University award created and named in his honor, “The John N. Gardner Inspirational Faculty Award” to be given henceforth to a member of the University faculty “who has made substantial contributions to the learning environment in campus residence hall life.” Gardner is the recipient of twelve honorary doctoral degrees recognizing him for his contributions to American higher education (from his alma mater, Marietta College, 1985; Baldwin-Wallace College, 1990; Bridgewater State College, 1991; Millikin University, 1999; Purdue University, 2000; University of Teesside, UK, 2000; Rowan University, 2001: Thiel College, 2006; Indiana University, 2008; Clarion University of Pennsylvania, 2009, the University of South Carolina, Columbia, 2012, and Northwest Missouri State University in 2013.
In 1986, John was selected by the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) as one of 20 faculty in the U. S. who “… have made outstanding leadership contributions to their institutions and/or American higher education.” In 1996 he was recognized by the Council of Independent Colleges with its Academic Leadership Award “for exemplary contributions to American higher education.” He has served on the Board of Directors/Trustees for AAHE, the International Partnership for Service Learning, Marietta College, and the Brevard Music Center; and on advisory boards for The American Council on Education, The Association of American Colleges and Universities, The New York Times, and Lumina Foundation for Education. Gardner’s work has been favorably reviewed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Times of London,U.S. News and World Report, Money magazine, and numerous other publications. In the January 1998 issue of Change, Gardner was cited in an article naming approximately 80 people as the “past, present, and future leaders of higher education.” The authors of this study drew on the results of 11,000 questionnaires to name the leaders whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the movers and shakers.” Gardner was included in a special category of eleven so called “agenda-setters.” Also in 1998 Gardner was named as one of the “top ten professionals who have most influenced student affairs practitioners.” This was based on a random sample of practitioners throughout the country as part of a study entitled “The Professional Influence Project” sponsored by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Foundation and conducted by The University of Georgia. In 1999 Gardner was awarded by the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) the Virginia N. Gordon Award for Excellence in the Field of Advising, to recognize his contributions towards the enhancement of academic advisement in American higher education. One of the nation’s two major professional organizations for student affairs officers, The American College Personnel Association, recognized him with its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2002.
Gardner is best known as the initiator (in 1982) of an international reform movement in higher education to call attention to and improve what he originally coined “The Freshman Year Experience” and then renamed “The First-Year Experience.” Moreover, since 1990 he has developed a special focus on a second critical transition during the college years to improve and champion: “The Senior Year Experience.” In 1995, he renamed the Center he directed at USC to The National Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, to signify a broader and more generic focus on the need for institutions to focus more intentionally on “students in transition.” John and his colleagues at USC are currently driving a new national discussion about another critical transition in college and have authored a recent book, published by Jossey-Bass, on the sophomore year experience.
Gardner’s special area of expertise in higher education was for almost three decades the creation of programs to enhance the learning, success, retention, and graduation of students in transition, especially first-year students, for example through first-year seminar courses. But more recently, since 2003, his efforts have been directed almost exclusively to working with institutions to look beyond this long standing “programmatic” approach to improving the first year and instead to focus the entire experience of first-year or transfer students. Gardner has also served as a workshop leader or trainer in hundreds of faculty development events and has spoken on/consulted with over 500 campuses in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Denmark, and Norway on issues related to first-year and senior students.
John would say in terms of his legacy that the most important work of his career is his current career capstone push to reduce unacceptable D,W,F, I grades in gateway courses (through the Institute’s Gateways to Completion, G2C, process) which have a hugely disproportionate impact on students being able to fulfill their dreams and aspirations and on high attrition rates.
Gardner has authored/co-authored numerous articles and books, including: College is Only the Beginning (1985 and 1989); Step by Step to College Success (1987), Your College Experience (1992,1993,1995,1996,1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 originally with A. Jerome Jewler and in subsequent editions also with Betsy O. Barefoot, Bedford/St.Martins; The Freshman Year Experience (1989) with M. Lee Upcraft, Jossey-Bass; Ready for The Real World (1994) with William Hartel and Associates, International Thompson Publishing; The Senior Year Experience (1998), with Gretchen Van der Veer, Jossey-Bass; Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student, (2005), with M. Lee Upcraft and Betsy O. Barefoot, Jossey-Bass; Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College (2005), with Betsy O. Barefoot and Associates, Jossey-Bass; Helping Sophomores Succeed, (2010), with Mary Stuart Hunter and Barbara F. Tobolowsky and Associates, Jossey-Bass; Developing and Sustaining Successful-First-Year Programs, (2013), withGerald M. Greenfield and Jennifer R. Keup, Jossey-Bass; and The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most (2016), with Peter Felten, Leo Lambert, Charles Schroder, and Betsy Barefoot.
John is married to his professional partner of twenty-five years, Dr. Betsy O. Barefoot. They reside on their twenty-one acre mountain top property in the beautiful western North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains near Brevard.