Penelope Peterson reflects on 2 decades leading SESP as dean


Source: Julie Deardorff

Penelope Peterson.

Ally Mauch, Reporter

When School of Education and Social Policy Dean Penelope Peterson came to Northwestern in 1997, she said she knew she wanted to lead an “innovative school” that would reform the field of education.

“We’ve succeeded in becoming even more innovative,” Peterson said. “We’re still at the leading edge in terms of trying to do some things that are nontraditional.”

Peterson will retire in August as the longest-serving dean in SESP’s history. She will be succeeded by SESP Prof. David Figlio, who is the director of the Institute for Policy Research.

Under Peterson’s direction, SESP undergraduate and graduate enrollment has gone up and SESP faculty receive nearly seven times more research funding now than 20 years ago. Additionally, the school’s endowment has increased from $900,000 in 1997 to $46 million today.

Coleen Coleman, (Communication ’88, SESP ’91) SESP’s associate dean, said Peterson’s time at the school is “a story of growth.”

“We talk about SESP as being small but mighty,” Coleman said. “We are still small, but mightier because of the time that she’s put in here helping the school grow.”

Peterson said her favorite part of being dean has been interacting with students and seeing how passionate they are.

“We are a student-centered school,” Peterson said. “We think the students are the ones that we’re here for, and we want the students to have the learning experiences that will help them achieve their goals.”

In the past few years, Peterson has also taught undergraduate classes, such as learning philanthropy and an honors thesis seminar.

SESP senior Meredith Greene, who has taken classes taught by Peterson, said Peterson takes an individual interest in each of her students. Greene said she felt Peterson got to know her “as a person, not just a student.” She added that Peterson is a challenging professor.

“She’s the kind of professor that learns what you’re capable of and then challenges you to meet that standard or exceed it,” Greene said. “She really asks the tough questions and makes you think.”

Coleman said Peterson is set apart by her involvement in the lives of students, faculty and staff, and seeks to get to know people and their stories. Coleman described her as a “thoughtful leader.”

After the U.S. presidential election in November, Greene said she saw Peterson’s leadership shine. Peterson led a conversation with SESP students and faculty regarding the outcome of the election.

“In a time of great uncertainty and fear, she was really a voice of calm and reason while still being incredibly understanding,” Greene said. “She does a really great job of creating spaces where everyone feels like their opinion is valued and heard.”

After retiring, Peterson said she is moving to Seattle to be with her son and grandchildren and plans on writing a young adult novel with her daughter.

She said she has joined a hiking group — Great Old Broads for Wilderness — and is excited to hike and explore the outdoors in Seattle, but said she will miss SESP.

“Many of the undergraduates feel like they are a part of a family and I do, too,” Peterson said. “That’s a big part of what I will miss.”

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