Brave new RISD

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 27, 2009

Administration officials maintain there was a genuine misunderstanding about the faculty's agreement. And after a few tense days, Maeda issued a mea culpa in a meeting with union officials and sent an e-mail to faculty and staff announcing the restoration of the pension payments and thanking recipients for helping to "establish a culture of clarity and accountability here at RISD."

Ferreira, the head of the faculty union, said Maeda had been "damaged" by the controversy. "You can't take it back," he said.

And further clashes over financial matters seem almost inevitable, given the financial troubles afflicting higher education. Just up the hill at Brown, for instance, the university is cutting 67 jobs and projecting that its endowment will decline from a high of $2.8 billion to some $2 billion for the fiscal year that begins in July.

But Ferreira gave Maeda credit for acknowledging a mistake and said he could not imagine a similar resolution under Mandle.

"It's quite different," he said.


Different, indeed. But to what end?

Will the Maeda presidency be about a blog and a few corporate partnerships? Or will there be more? What edifice will he build? What academic program will he tear down?

That, Maeda suggests, is the wrong line of questioning. The president says his tenure should be measured not in bricks and books, but in something less tangible. Not in hardware, but in software.

Maeda says his charge is to forge connection, to tell the RISD story to the world — and to a campus that does not always appreciate its own talents.

"Did you notice that you have this superpower?" Maeda said. "If you're not told that you can levitate and have telekinesis, are you going to use it?"

Well, yes, in fact. At least in some cases. RISD, after all, has managed to turn out its share of visionaries without a cheerleader-in-chief — think David Byrne and Gus Van Sant and Nicole Miller.

But if geniuses don't need much help with levitation, there are plenty of lesser lights who could use some encouragement. And Maeda's encouragement has unleashed a new energy on campus — and even beyond.

Stephen Cronin, president of the Pawtucket-based marketing and mail firm Mercury, said an initial encounter with Maeda and subsequent "Jogging with John" sessions inspired a flurry of technological innovations at his company.

"John is able to see things that many of us either overlook, previously dismissed or, in some cases, have never considered," he said.

And Kyna Leski, a professor of architecture at RISD who counted herself a Maeda skeptic after seeing a speech in his MIT days ("there was a depth I couldn't process and an easiness to his talk"), says she now sees a sort of genius in Maeda's ability to distill, simplify, and inspire.

"Week one," she said, of his arrival on campus, "I wanted to do what I do better."

Maeda, she said, has been a catalytic force. A burst of forward energy. And that may be the best a college president can offer.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at 

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