Research News

SESP Community Honors Dean Peterson

IPR associate led school for two decades


Penelope Peterson

Penelope Peterson, outgoing dean of the School of Education and Social Policy and an IPR associate, with IPR Director David Figlio, her successor.

The Student Affairs Office, long considered the heart of the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP), will be renamed the Penelope Peterson Office of Student Affairs, Northwestern University Provost Dan Linzer announced during a May 31 celebration of Peterson’s tenure as dean.

It’s a fitting tribute for SESP Dean and IPR associate Penelope Peterson, who has built a supportive, student-centered culture in SESP over the last two decades. 

“I’m in awe of what you’ve created at SESP,” Northwestern President and IPR economist Morton Schapiro told Peterson during the program.

“The way I describe SESP—and that’s your legacy—is a place of incredible caring for faculty, staff, and graduate students, but most important, undergraduates, while at the same time nourishing world-class research. You change people’s lives and have been a mentor who really inspired me.”

More than 150 members of the SESP and Wildcat community gathered for a reception on Annenberg Hall’s East Lawn on a sunny spring day to honor Peterson, Northwestern’s longest-serving dean who will retire in August as the longest-serving dean in SESP history.

For undergraduate Imani Wilson, a third-year social policy student, the Student Affairs Office—with its perpetually full candy bowl, the most accessible advisers on campus, and gigantic video screens showcasing social media posts with the SESPlove hashtag—has been a comforting space since she arrived as a freshman.

“Northwestern is not easy, and it’s important to have a community like we do at SESP,” Wilson said. “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.”

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 oldest son, Andrew Dickson, spoke of his mother’s career, which started when she was working for the U.S. Postal Service in high school and eventually became the first female letter carrier in Iowa. She graduated from Dubuque Senior High as valedictorian and from Iowa State at the top of her class.

“It’s noteworthy that it went on this way for 50 years, with her quietly shattering glass ceilings in bigger and bigger arenas and never slowing down,” Dickson said.

“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. 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.”

SESP under Peterson has been a time of consistency and unprecedented growth. Under her direction, SESP undergraduate and graduate enrollment increased. SESP faculty now receive nearly seven times more research funding than 20 years ago. Additionally, the school’s endowment has increased 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 is most inspired by the students’ passion. Each fall, she has invited the incoming freshman class to her home for dinner. She set up an undergraduate advising system that is a model for the university.

Peterson helped SESP entrepreneurs open a coffee shop inside Annenberg Hall, the first student-run coffee shop on the Northwestern campus. And her open-door policy offered support and helped generate student-driven ideas for classes.

Peterson tapped into the student experience and may have been one of the first human design thinkers, said SESP alumnus and board member Jeff Rosenblum (BS '84), executive vice president at Franklin Square Capital Partners.

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

After Peterson retires on Aug. 31, she’ll move to Seattle to spend time with her son Josh and daughter-in-law and two grandsons. She plans to write a young adult novel with her daughter, Elissa, and will join the nonprofit organization, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, where she will hike and advocate for the environment.

And if you find yourself in Seattle, please look her up.

“What we all have in common is a desire to change and improve lives,” Peterson said. "We’re known as a close community with a passion for leadership and making change, and I’m proud to have led the SESP community in this vision for 20 years.”

Peterson encouraged guests to take home a memento—a small purple SESP flashlight.

“You have to work to carry on SESP’s torch and to let our little light shine,” she said. “We are the small school with the big heart. We’ve done so much in the last 20 years, and I know all of you will continue our mission. Thank you for everything, and good luck with carrying on.” 

Penelope Peterson is Dean of the School of Education and Social Policy, the Eleanor R. Baldwin Professor of Education, and an IPR associate.

This story was originally published by the School of Education and Social Policy's News Center.