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At EFYE 2019 we welcomed the iconic Dr. John N. Gardner and Dr. Betsy Barefoot of the John N Gardner Institute, transitions pedagogy expert Professor Sally Kift, President of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows, and change-maker Dr. Gemma Irvine, Head of Policy and Strategic Planning in the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in Ireland. 

Dr. John N. Gardner and Dr. Betsy Barefoot

Dr John N. Gardner – Biography

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.


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.

Dr Betsy Barefoot – Biography

Betsy is a native of North Carolina. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Duke University and Master’s and Doctoral Degrees in Higher Education from the College of William and Mary. Currently, she serves as Senior Scholar for the Gardner Institute. The Institute, originally named the Policy Center on the First Year of College, was founded in 1999 with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Gardner Institute has also received grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lumina Foundation for Education, USA Funds, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Gates Foundation. In her work at the Institute, Betsy is directly involved in the development of instruments and strategies to evaluate and improve the first college year and collegiate transfer. In addition, she conducts seminars on the first-year experience across the United States and in other countries and assists other colleges and universities in implementing and evaluating first-year programs.

Betsy served for 11 years as Co-Director for Research and Publications in the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina. In this position, she engaged in ongoing research on first-year programming in American higher education and co-edited a number of publications including the Journal of The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition and a series of single-topic monographs. While at the University of South Carolina, she also served as a clinical faculty member in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education and taught graduate courses in Principles of College Teaching, Contemporary Trends and Issues in Higher Education, a special topics seminar on The First-Year Experience, as well as the University 101 first-year seminar. She was also involved in acquiring grant funds, designing, and implementing a campus-wide program to provide training in methods of college teaching for graduate teaching assistants at the University of South Carolina.

Betsy has also authored and co-authored a number of publications including the 2005 Jossey-Bass books, Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College, and Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student: A Handbook for the First Year of College, and most recently (in 2016) The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. She has also edited The First Year and Beyond: Rethinking the Challenge of Collegiate Transition, a 2008 volume of New Directions for Higher Education. She currently serves as co-editor of the New Directions for Higher Educations series. She continues her interest in music as an occasional vocal performer, pianist, and church organist. She is married to another scholar of the first-year experience, John N. Gardner. The “BGs,” as they are known in their neighbourhood, reside in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina.

Professor Sally Kift

Professor Sally Kift is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law (FAAL), and President of the Australian Learning & Teaching Fellows (ALTF). She has held several university leadership positions, most recently Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at James Cook University. Sally is a national Teaching Award winner, a national Program Award winner and a national Senior Teaching Fellow on the First Year Experience. In 2010, she was appointed an Australian Discipline Scholar in Law. In 2017, Sally received an Australian University Career Achievement Award for her contribution to Australian higher education.

Dr. Gemma Irvine

Dr Gemma Irvine is currently Head of Policy and Strategic Planning in the Higher Education Authority (HEA). In this role Dr Irvine coordinates a national approach to the development and implementation of policy for higher education, with specific responsibility for the enhancement of teaching and learning, research including open science, international education and equality, diversity and inclusion.   Dr Irvine provided the secretiat for the Irish National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions, 2016 and the Gender Equality Taskforce, 2018. 

Dr Irvine is the Irish National Delegate for the European Commission’s ‘European Universities Network’ initiative and previously the Irish National Delegate for SSH in H2020 and for Research Infrastructures in the FP7 EU Programme.  In 2012, Dr Irvine coordinated the operational merger of the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) into the Irish Research Council (IRC), becoming the Assistant Director of the IRC and

Dr Irvine was responsible for coordinating the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) when she first moved into the HEA in 2007.  Prior to that Dr Irvine completed her Masters and PhD in Neuroscience in New Zealand before coming to Ireland in 2004 to work as a Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin


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