Rhode Island School of Design President Roger Mandle will leave the school when his contract expires on July 31, 2008, he announced in an open letter to students on Feb. 2. The decision follows a no-confidence vote in Mandle by department heads prompted by contentious contract negotiations between the RISD faculty union and the administration.
Mandle took RISD’s top post in 1994 and is the longest-serving president in the history of the institution.
Last October, after months of contract negotiations between the administration and the full-time faculty union, university department heads ratified a vote of no confidence in Mandle. An Oct. 31 document outlining their concerns criticized the “lack of transparency with respect to financial decisions” and the “disproportionate growth in upper-level administration of the college.”
Following a period marked by such tension, some students were less than surprised at Mandle’s announcement. “I was a little shocked, but it wasn’t totally out of the blue because of the no-confidence vote,” said Laura Worrick RISD’08.
Worrick said she was “thrilled” when she heard Mandle would not seek renewal of his contract. “There is so much that we are left in the dark about,” Worrick said of the administration’s decision-making process, especially with regard to the school’s budget.
Despite speculation that Mandle’s decision might have been prompted by the recent tension surrounding the contract negotiations, Mandle maintains that the two issues are unrelated. “None of my decision has anything to do with any of the kerfuffle that happened last fall,” he said.
According to Mandle’s letter to students, his decision had been under consideration since prior to the fall term.
“In talking with RISD trustees in the late summer, I began to make them aware of the potential that someday I might move on to new challenges,” Mandle wrote.
Though Mandle says he has received an outpouring of support and understanding since he announced his decision to step down, reactions among members of the RISD community vary.
“A lot of people seem pretty happy about it,” said Marin Brennan RISD’08.
Mairead Byrne, associate professor of English at RISD, called the news “disappointing” but added that it is a reasonable decision and that Mandle made a good contribution to the university.
“In the last year or two there was a very difficult contract negotiation, and there was a visible rift between the faculty and administration,” Byrne said. “I thought he was going to set about bridging that, so I was a little bit disappointed that that’s not going to happen.”
The press release announcing Mandle’s departure stated that RISD has undergone many changes under Mandle’s leadership – including a significant rise in the number of faculty and graduate students, growth of the undergraduate student body, establishment of new programs and departments, the success of a $150 million capital campaign and the increase of the endowment from $67 to $340 million.
Also among Mandle’s accomplishments is the considerable physical expansion of the university. Mandle oversaw the construction of a new library, additional residential facilities and most recently the Chace Center, which is slated to open in fall of 2008.
Still, Mandle said he is most proud of having built a greater sense of community among RISD’s various constituents and of having worked with the faculty to ensure that the curriculum reflects the changing world.
At the root of these accomplishments, he said, is an understanding of the importance of “adhering to the core values of the institution, being careful to understand clearly what the mission of RISD is through every single decision.”
Though Mandle expressed his excitement at the prospect of exploring new professional opportunities, he said he has no concrete plans for the future. “I am approaching this experience in my life like a blank canvas,” he said.
In the time that remains on his contract, Mandle said he plans to focus on completing expansion projects, creating a structurally balanced budget that includes scholarship funds and competitive salaries and improving transparency and decision-making within the university.
“I plan on continuing to work on all the issues that relate to RISD’s quality and effectiveness while I’m here, and that means interacting with all elements of the community, particularly the faculty,” Mandle said. “It’s not just making information available, it’s creating a climate in which there is a willingness to engage, and that’s everybody’s responsibility.”
Byrne said Mandle had done a good job listening to the concerns of the faculty despite the fact that the school’s recent growth has complicated communication between the faculty and administration. “I don’t doubt his commitment to RISD,” she said.
As far as the expansion projects that Mandle has overseen and will continue to preside over for the next 18 months, Brown is affected indirectly, said Richard Spies, Brown’s executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president.
“RISD’s willingness and foresightedness in thinking about expansion and pushing outside the envelope of their own campus has been a good thing for everybody,” Spies said. He praised Mandle’s vision and courage, citing the risks inherent in the types of expansion projects that Mandle has overseen and his success in such endeavors.
According to Spies, Brown and the city of Providence will miss Mandle’s leadership, but his departure will not have a direct impact on Brown’s current expansion plans. “A new president will bring a new perspective and a new leadership that I hope will work as well with Brown as Roger has,” he said.