Neil Nickerson in the atrium of Northrop, maroon and gold sweatshirt under his jacketNeal Nickerson at Northrop, 2019

The door is open

A former student called, and the professor was in

Neal Nickerson’s smiling face is familiar and his reputation legendary among Minnesota educators. Since joining the University faculty right out of Columbia Teachers College in 1964, he has advised or co-advised more than 165 doctoral students in educational leadership and mentored many more professionals in the field. Though technically retired since 2016, he still came to campus every day through 2018.

Last year Nickerson saw his last doctoral candidate pass her defense and qualify for a cap and gown this spring. Amy Hamborg, principal at E. P. Rock Elementary School in Hudson, Wisconsin, wrote her thesis while working fulltime.

“Amy was my last, but she wasn’t my oldest!” quips Nickerson. “That honor would go to Paul Ramseth.”

Ramseth is another legend. He was a quarterback on the Golden Gopher football team that won the Rose Bowl in 1961.

A lasting connection

The son of a high school principal, Paul Ramseth came to the U from Redwood Falls High School in 1960, finished his bachelor’s degree in 1964, and immediately started working on a master’s degree in educational administration.

In his first year of graduate school, Ramseth took three classes from none other than Nickerson, then landed a graduate assistantship working with him—while also coaching freshman football.

Ramseth finished his master’s while teaching English at White Bear Lake High School and also coaching speech, drama, football, and baseball. He became a principal and served in Osseo, Forest Lake, and Roseville. He even started on a doctorate, but in 1981 he left grad school and changed careers.

For the next 24 years, Ramseth worked in the world of financial services. He advanced from sales to leadership to consulting, first for Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent Financial) and later American Express, which became Ameriprise. He “happily retired” in 2005.

It wasn’t long before Ramseth was volunteering a few hours a week back at White Bear Lake Area Schools.

“It was ‘unfinished business’ that drew me back to the U,” says Ramseth. “I called Neal and asked, ‘Are you still there?’”

“I said, ‘The door is open!’” says Nickerson.

Measuring change

In 1964, Nickerson’s first campus office was in 203 Burton Hall. By 1981, when Ramseth left the program, it had moved to the St. Paul campus. Since then, Nickerson has moved three more times—to Peik, Wulling, and back to Burton Hall.

Ramseth experienced many changes, too. Statistics classes were a handful; he hadn’t had a math class since 1960. To him, going to class meant pen or pencil and a notebook, so he learned technology while learning the subject matter.

And what about a dissertation? Ramseth was interested in the topic of reading and writing across the curriculum. But as always, Nickerson asked, “Where are you going to get the data?”

Ramseth thought of AVID. At White Bear Lake middle school, he volunteered tutoring groups of six to eight eighth-graders, “orchestrating an hour’s worth of problem solving” with guidance through asking questions. Developed in 1980 in a single classroom in San Diego, AVID is a college and career readiness program whose mission is to close achievement gaps in education. It’s now in an estimated 6,000 schools in 48 states and 16 countries. Ramseth investigated. He was able to get the data he would need for his research.

Pretty soon his study at home was full. He compiled 150 references working on his dissertation four to six hours a day.

“My wife was very patient,” he laughs.

Nickerson was patient, too. He supervised Ramseth’s work through every step. Ramseth formed his dissertation committee, which included adviser Nickerson; Katie Pekel and Gary Prest, co-directors of the educational policy and leadership program; and Nicola Alexander in educational policy. All gave feedback on every chapter. 

“I measured growth in academics and attitudes of AVID eighth-graders compared to a control group of non-AVID peers,” explains Ramseth. “I was particularly interested in the growth of their attitudes toward themselves and toward school, and I wondered how AVID affected their college aspirations. [What I found] was significant growth after just one year, and evidence that gaps were narrowed and the probabilities of graduation and college admission heightened. But we need an abundance of longitudinal research to show closing of achievement gaps.”

In October, Ramseth defended his dissertation and passed, finishing what he started so many years ago. Fifty-six years after it began, the adviser–advisee relationship between Nickerson (age 91) and Ramseth (age 76) came to a successful close.

“It’s one of the best works of any dissertation I’ve advised,” says Nickerson. “Now Paul is a successful football player with a PhD!” 

Photo of Paul Ramseth and his four committee members on the steps of the steps of Burton Hall.
Paul Ramseth, center, and his dissertation committee after his defense. Left to right, Gary Prest, Neal Nickerson, Katie Pekel, and Nicola Alexander.

Learn more about the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development and its programs.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photos by Erika Loeks (top) and Jean Quam | Spring/summer 2019