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Brave new RISD

After a year at the helm, president John Maeda is balancing broad shifts in the worlds of art, design, and business
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 27, 2009

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JOGGING WITH JOHN Maeda stretches out before a "runversation."

The Rhode Island School of Design, for all its artful ambition, is a conservative place. Students draw. They mold clay. They are awash in taxidermy.

So there was more than a little anxiety when John Maeda — sneaker designer, MIT professor, digital media rock star — took over as RISD president last summer.

Would the canvas yield to the computer? Would the easel give way to the electron? Would the cross-trainer supplant Cézanne?

A year later, it seems clear that the traditionalists have little to fear. Indeed, Maeda seems more enamored these days of what he calls "dirty hands" — the filthy work of ceramics or furniture-making — than of any high-tech pursuit.

"People don't want technology anymore," he said, in a recent interview. "They want humanity again."

But if Maeda, 42, has a healthy appreciation for the old, he is undoubtedly of the new. He blogs. Tweets. Presides over an "open-source administration" that encourages online critique.

He wears T-shirts to work. Repairs to the student cafeteria for lunch. Has a goofy penchant for rhyme. And every month or so, he makes his way downtown at 6 am for "Jogging with John," a "runversation" that has become a favorite among the Providence geekery.

Maeda is, in short, an experiment in leadership. An adventure in administration. And a year into his tenure at the nation's most prestigious school of art and design, no one is quite sure what to make of it all.

"Will it work, totally?" said Henry Ferreira, associate professor of printmaking and president of the faculty union. "I'm not sure."

That sort of uncertainty can be unnerving — especially amid a financial crisis. And RISD, like nearly every institution of higher education, is hurting.

The school's endowment has lost one-third of its value since peaking at $374 million in December 2007. And in recent weeks, Maeda announced he would lay off 15 to 20 workers and close the RISD Museum of Art for the month of August.

But if the campus is still sizing up its president, there is a palpable feeling of optimism about the new administration: a sense that Maeda could be a transformational figure for a transformational moment.

His predecessor, Roger Mandle, was a more conventional president. And by many measures, a successful one. During his 15-year tenure, Mandle grew the RISD endowment fivefold, swelled the faculty half-again, elevated the school's international profile, and expanded the school's campus into downtown Providence.

The Chace Center — a striking, $34 million museum and classroom space that opened on North Main Street last year — leant a sense of place to a campus with no real center (other than the so-called "RISD Beach," a small strip of grass at the corner of Waterman and Benefit streets).

But if Mandle's fundraising prowess and steady hand found support in some corners of the campus, there was also a deep strain of dissatisfaction — laid bare in 2006 when department heads cast a vote of no confidence in the president.

Critics complained of a top-down leadership style, an emphasis on real estate over academics, a lack of transparency around school finances. And those concerns hovered over the search for a new chief.

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Related: Limits of non-traditional leadership, At RISD: Art, science, and what's wrong with ATMs, Now playing — RISD: The Musical!, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Media, John Maeda, John Maeda,  More more >
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