Brave new RISD

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 27, 2009

And Oblong Industries asked RISDites to improvise with g-speak, a three-dimensional "spatial environment" — glimpsed in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report — that allows users to shift around information using cameras, projectors, and special-purpose gloves.

Ken Horii, a professor who heads the school's foundation studies program, said the push has forced the school to re-examine the "mythology" of the virtuous, starving artist.

And more broadly, he said, Maeda's presence has impelled the campus to come to terms with an interdisciplinary, new-media paradigm it has been slow to engage. "Here we are in this world that is text-messaging . . . and we're sitting down cracking open old volumes to track down footnotes," he said.

But the president, he said, has managed to innovate without creating a sense of upheaval — to respect a campus culture that still finds strength in its reverence for the traditional.

Managing the tension between old and new requires communication. And the president began his dialogue with RISD the day he was named to the job — starting an internal interactive blog,, that aimed to quiet fears of a digital demolition and lay out his vision for an inclusive leadership.

There were frequent visits to campus as Maeda transitioned out of the Media Lab and a new blog,, took the place of the old when he officially took over as president last summer.

The online conversation has touched on everything from library hours to labor disputes. And timid critics can post without fear on "anonymous Tuesdays."

"I'm trying to understand how to be the leader I never had — accessible, open, accountable," Maeda said.

That's not to say the president has hit every high note.

Amid early optimism that he would be more in touch with faculty than his predecessor, Maeda disappointed when he replaced popular provost Jay Coogan without significant input from professors and department heads.

"There was some worry that, here we go again, an executive making decisions without consultation," Horii said.

But faculty say much of the early worry dissipated in the months that followed as Maeda's commitment to communication became clear.

There were frequent classroom appearances and a series of public meetings on school finances. A connection to Samsung yielded seven, 52-inch LCD televisions that serve as virtual bulletin boards — with a swirling interface that zooms in on school calendars and student art.

The administration began the work of revamping a cumbersome RISD web site. And events listings on the school's Intranet — open to anyone on campus who cares to post — have helped to stitch together a school that, however small, can remain maddeningly balkanized.

But critics say Maeda's signature communication device — the blog — is more a place to vent than a vehicle for change (the president says he is taking it all in and slowly turning a big ship). And in recent weeks, Maeda faced a small uprising when he announced, among other cuts, a two-percent reduction in pension payments for employees.

Members of the full-time faculty union, who had agreed to a salary freeze for the coming academic year, believed they had a promise from the administration to hold steady on other benefits. And they accused the president of a betrayal.

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