Penelope Peterson: A Life Devoted to Learning

Penelope Peterson: A Life Devoted to Learning

2017 SESP Undergraduate Senior Honors Students

The third floor of Northwestern University’s Annenberg Hall was still an unfinished shell in 1997 when Penelope Peterson was being recruited to be dean of the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP).

 Gazing out a corner window at Lake Michigan, Peterson assumed that faculty offices would eventually occupy the prime real estate. But when she learned the faculty-proposed design would turn the space into a classroom -- giving students the scenic view -- she knew she was in the right place.

“I thought that was exceptional,” Peterson said. “I’d never been anywhere that was so innovative and put the students first.”

Over the next two decades as dean, Peterson maintained SESP’s innovative spirit while establishing her own brand of leadership, vision, and reform. She leaves an indelible mark on the school, students, and faculty, and all the while, she has remained committed to education reform and the driving question of her life: “How do people learn?" 

Considered one of the world’s leading educational psychologists, Peterson will retire on August 31 as the longest-serving dean in SESP’s history and the longest-serving dean currently at Northwestern. She will be succeeded by SESP professor David Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Orrington Lunt Professor of Social Policy, but her impact will be felt for years to come.

“Penelope’s strength as dean and a person is that she’s selfless,” said School of Education and Social Policy professor James Spillane, a leadership expert who was a young doctoral student at Michigan State University when he first met Peterson.

“Great leaders have to be selfless in some respect. In 20 years, it has never been about her, said Spillane, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change. “It’s about the students, the school, the faculty and making SESP a great place to learn, develop, and grow.”

In many ways, SESP under Peterson, the Eleanor R. Baldwin Professor, was a time of unprecedented growth. Under her direction, SESP undergraduate and graduate enrollment increased. SESP faculty now receive nearly seven times more research funding now than 20 years ago. Additionally, the school’s endowment has increased in value from $900,000 in 1997 to $46 million today.

More than 4,500 new alumni have joined the SESP community since Peterson began as dean. And nearly half of School of Education and Social Policy full professors, including Peterson, have been elected to the National Academy of Education — the most prestigious institution for educational researchers in the world.

Still, despite her fondness for the faculty, Peterson has always been most inspired by the students and their passion. Each fall she invited the incoming freshman class to her home for dinner. She created an undergraduate advising system that is a model for the university, said Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro. And her open-door policy offered support and helped generate student-driven ideas for classes.

“Penelope says what she means and means what she says, and with that spirit, she had been able to sustain us,” said professor Carol Lee, who arrived at Northwestern in 1991 and has served under Dean Peterson for her full tenure. “Penelope has a deep understanding what it takes to keep SESP on top – navigating for SESP’s interests within the university and keeping SESP competitive with other programs across the country.

“Sometimes that fierce focus on keeping us competitive has created tensions within the programs,” said Lee, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy. “But in the end her wisdom has stood the test of time. We think of ourselves as ‘the little school that could.’”

Midwestern Roots


Penelope PetersonBorn in Moline, Illinois, Peterson and her younger brother were raised in a home full of twenty-five cent Golden Books by parents who believed in the power of education. Her mother graduated college with an English degree, and Peterson’s earliest memories are of her mother’s voice chanting, “I think I can; I think I can” as she read to her from The Little Engine That Could.

Her father, a second-generation Swedish American who never completed college, was living proof that one could succeed through hard work, Peterson said.

The family moved to Dubuque, Iowa when Peterson was in middle school, where she began quietly shattering glass ceilings. As a teenager, Peterson began working for the U.S. Postal service and eventually became the first female letter carrier in Iowa. A serious student, she was named Dubuque Senior High’s valedictorian.

Peterson studied psychology and philosophy at Iowa State where she graduated with honors in 1971 and was later recognized in the school’s Plaza of Heroines as one of the first female undergraduates in psychology and “one of the world's leading educational psychologists.”

After Iowa State, Peterson pursued graduate school at a time when some believed higher education was wasted on women who would just get married and have children. When she chose to move halfway across the country to attend Stanford University, it marked “a major act of rebellion” for the shy, mild-mannered, 21-year-old who had never been west of Sioux City.

Peterson flourished in the field of psychological studies in education at Stanford. After earning her master’s and PhD in 1976, she returned to the Midwest and the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where she was something of an anomaly.

Not only was she a woman, but she was a new mother, having participated in a dissertation oral from her hospital bed after delivering her first child, Andrew.

And she was only one of two professors in the department who researched learning in real classrooms; everyone else did laboratory studies of learning.

“You had to be better than the men,” she said. “You didn’t want them to say you weren’t committed.”

Peterson dove headfirst into academia and motherhood. After four years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she had tenure; in two more, she was a full professor. By age 35 she was awarded the Sears-Bascom Professor of Education and had three children: Andrew, Josh, and Elissa.

Penelope PetersonIn 1984, she began a six-year term as editor of the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) Review of Educational Research.

Two years later, in 1986, Peterson was awarded the Raymond B. Cattell Early Career Award by AERA for her programmatic research on effective teaching and learning.

“She always made it seem so easy, but as a woman starting her career in the early 1970s, I know it had to be anything but that,” her son Andrew Dickson said. “Nevertheless, as kids growing up we always felt there was nothing our mom couldn’t do.

“It was always important to her to do work that’s in the service of the public good,” Dickson added. “It has always mattered deeply to her to make a meaningful contribution and leave the world a better place than when she found it.”

Learning From Our Lives


Anna Neumann Penelope Peterson Penelope Peterson, Anna Neumann

Peterson moved to Michigan State in 1987, where she joined a number of distinguished scholars, including Anna Neumann and Aaron Pallas, who were instrumental in researching the roles of teachers, and thus teacher education, at top research universities, said former colleague Richard Prawat, chair of the department of counseling at Michigan State.

“During this time, she was truly one of our stars,” said Prawat, who worked on several big research projects with Peterson. “But she was also a great colleague, down-to-earth with a good sense of humor that made her a pleasure to be around. In fact, I have to say that Penelope is among the best of a great group of faculty members that I have had the pleasure of working with during the 26 years I have been chair.”

At Michigan State, Peterson began to explore the connection between research and personal identity after she realized that her female graduate students had trouble relating to the autobiographies she had asked them to read because they were written by male academics.

Unable to find a suitable autobiography by a female researcher, she produced her own. In “Learning From our Lives: Women, Research, and Autobiography in Education,” a compilation of essays that she co-edited with Neumann, Peterson sketched her life history as a learner and reflected on her own struggle as a feminist to balance work and family.

“Just as (my son, Andrew) has strived to create a sense of himself as a learner, so too have I struggled to do so as a student, mother, researcher and educator,” she wrote. “Andrew’s success, like mine, will depend on developing a capacity to make sense of similarities and differences in experiences across contexts, to improvise under uncertainty and to learn across a lifetime.”

The collaboration with Neumann was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship and partnership. In another project, Peterson, Neumann, and Pallas studied how doctoral students learn to be researchers.

“Just about everything I’ve done with her has forced us to break new ground,” said Neumann, professor of higher education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“Penelope is deeply concerned about people, about learning and about doing good for the world through learning,” Neumann said. “She has devoted her life to learning whether as dean, researcher or teacher.”

By 1996, Peterson had become a national leader in effective teaching and learning at Michigan State, where she was University Distinguished Professor of Education. As the president of the American Educational Research Association, she led initiatives to reform the organization and to make research-based knowledge more useful to policy makers and practitioners.

In her book Restructuring in the Classroom: Teaching, Learning and School Organization, Peterson and her co-authors took readers into three elementary school classrooms to examine how teachers responded to changes in their schools.

"In the 1980's and 1990's, Michigan State was at the center of U.S. discourse around teaching and teacher education, and Penelope was at the center of this,” said Pallas, Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Penelope was especially interested in teachers' thinking, a challenging phenomenon to understand and study because we don't observe thinking directly.

“One of Penelope's key insights was that it might not be so much what teachers *did* in the classroom that mattered, but how they thought about their practice as they planned and then interacted with students and subject matter in the classroom,” added Pallas.

Taking a Northwestern Direction


Peterson’s arrival at the School of Education and Social Policy in 1997 kicked off a period of substantial growth and success. The preceding years had been relatively turbulent with three deans in five years and constant “hubbub and drama,” said professor Dan McAdams, professor of human development and social policy and director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives. SESP hadn’t yet moved into the still unfinished third floor of Annenberg Hall.

But Peterson brought stability to the school, McAdams said. “She was a calming influence and after a year or two, you sensed ‘this one’s going to stay. She’s committed to us.’ And it made a big difference. She’s grounded. And she was here; she’d walk the halls and you knew how to find her.”

Peterson, in fact, had already committed in her mind to stay at least ten years.

“Reform is steady work,” she said. “You can’t reform something in a year, you have to keep working and working. You have to build the capacity of the faculty. People need to move on and new people need to come. It takes a while to really make change.”

In 1999, the George and Edwina Tarry Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning was dedicated on the third floor of Annenberg Hall, giving the students the million-dollar lakefront view and increasing SESP space in Annenberg by more than 25 percent. The new teaching and learning studios became a model classroom design moving forward.

Under Peterson’s watch, SESP received a serious of successive, prestigious training grants supporting the doctoral programs and students, including from the Spencer Foundation and the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) creating the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences.

Peterson made critical faculty hires and worked to keep top talent. SESP also launched two nationally competitive master’s programs, and the Center for Talent Development experienced significant growth.

“Penelope was one of the first human design thinkers”, said SESP alumnus and board member Jeff Rosenblum (BS84), executive vice president at Franklin Square Capital Partners.

“She wondered, ‘how do you take the components that exist at Northwestern today to solve tomorrow’s problems?’” Rosenblum said. “Penelope showed it’s done through creativity, repurposing and ultimately moving people around, a true testament to human design thinking.”

The soft-spoken Peterson, meanwhile, established herself as a force to be reckoned with.

“No one ever says ‘thank you’ and you have to be OK with that,” Peterson said. “You have to make the right decisions as a leader, even knowing that some people might be upset and not like you because of it. It’s not a popularity contest. You have to do what you think is right for the organization.”

Peterson also continued to teach, offering undergraduates a unique opportunity to learn about philanthropy. In her popular class “Learning Philanthropy,” students found and researched nonprofit organizations in an effort to distribute $100,000 in grant money.

“Dean Peterson always offered a wealth of knowledge and some much-needed encouragement during the thesis-writing process,” said Eupha Jeanne McCrary, who was in Peterson’s Honors thesis class in 2011-12 and is now pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California’s Urban Education PhD program. “It was an honor to be able to work with her so closely.”

For undergraduate Imani Wilson, a third-year social policy student, Dean’s Peterson’s impact on the school was clear from the day she arrived as a freshman.

“Northwestern is not easy, and it’s important to have a community like we do at SESP,” Wilson told the crowd during a retirement party for Dean Peterson. “It means a lot to know your advisers care about you, your peers aren’t all out to get you and that you have a space to eat, cry, laugh and just be.”

At the reception, Wilson thanked Peterson for her service, leadership, and dedication to SESP’s small but mighty community. “But most of all, thank you for your commitment to students and for your willingness to not just listen, but to respond to our needs,” she said.

Peterson’s Next Chapter


Penelope Peterson hikingPeterson, an avid gardener, hiker, reader, and writer, plans to move to Seattle where her two grandsons, Benji and Augie, live with their mother and father – her second son Josh, who graduated from Northwestern.

She also wants to write a young adult novel with her daughter Elissa, the Poet Laureate of San Miguel County in Colorado.

“You can expect the adventurous heroine of our story to be feisty, athletic, and fearless, but also to come out with some eloquent and pointed bursts of spoken word poetry that devastate her enemies!” Peterson wrote in her final dean’s letter of the alumni magazine, Inquiry.

As a member of "Great Old Broads for Wilderness,” a national grassroots advocacy and stewardship group, she also plans to do a lot of hiking and campaigning “to preserve our environment, national parks, and the wilderness that restores our spirits and reminds us that we are part of the circle of life.”

Already, she has plans to meet former students in Seattle, and she encourages others who find themselves there to look her up.

“You’ll find me living in Madrona, walking the shores of Lake Washington in the mornings, writing my novel in the afternoons, and reading to Benji and Augie in the evenings,” she wrote.

The Student Affairs Office, long considered the heart of the school, will be renamed the Penelope L. Peterson Office of Student Affairs, but she stresses that name recognition isn’t what’s important. “I will be happy if the culture continues,” Peterson said. “The great orientation, the advising and the high-quality faculty.

“There’s no other school like it in the nation,” she said. “And I’m proud to be part of it.”

By Julie Deardoff
Last Modified: 6/12/17