University News

RISD stabilizes under new leadership

Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2011

A new spirit of peace and collaboration at the Rhode Island School of Design has replaced last year’s turbulence, according to students, faculty and administrators at the school.

Many attribute the positive changes to Interim Provost Rosanne Somerson P’11, a RISD grad and former chair of RISD’s furniture design department. Somerson was appointed after Jessie Shefrin left the post to take a year-long sabbatical last spring. Her departure followed the faculty’s 147 to 32 vote of “no confidence” in her and RISD President John Maeda last March and the faculty’s vote of disapproval of last year’s draft of a five-year strategic plan for the school.

The vote reflected a general feeling among faculty members that the recommendations their committees had made were not being recognized in the draft of the strategic plan, said Mairead Byrne, chair of the Faculty Steering Committee and RISD associate professor of English.

David Frazer, professor of painting, said RISD was led last year by many individuals Maeda had appointed from outside. Many faculty members felt the newcomers were trying to “radically change” parts of the school. At the time, administrators were planning to reorganize several undergraduate departments.

“There was a lot of discouragement about the sense that RISD was broken and needed to be fixed,” Frazer said.

“Any school of our caliber always needs to be looking to the future, but RISD really works well — it’s a great school,” Somerson said. “If there is a change, there has to be a strong rationalization for why that change makes sense.”

Students, faculty members and administrators said they are ready to move forward, and most feel a renewed confidence in the administration. In addition to Somerson, two other faculty members have joined the administration — Bill Newkirk, former head of the graphic design department, is acting as interim dean of architecture and design, and Anais Missakian, former head of the textiles department, is acting as interim dean of fine arts.

Frazer, who worked closely with the new administrators in their previous roles, said he and other faculty members are “very, very pleased” with their performance.

Peter Walker, department head of furniture design, said Somerson’s background has helped ease last year’s tension. “She has the ability to bring people together that I think the school was in desperate need of,” he said.

The administration has been working to rewrite the five-year strategic plan and to collaborate with Maeda in expanding the role of the deans who act as liaisons between academic departments and the administration, Somerson said.

Maeda has changed his leadership style, Somerson said. By allowing the deans to take a larger role, he has been able to devote more energy to fundraising and advocacy. “(Maeda is) helping arts and design be a part of the national agenda in a way that is having an amazing impact on public policy,” she said. “He’s been able to return to the things that were his goals because the school is functioning really well right now.”

“There’s a feeling that the administration is listening,” Byrne said. “I can’t speak on behalf of all the faculty, … but there’s a mood of cautious optimism.”

But the optimism is not unanimous. Gabriel Feld, professor of architecture, said he thinks Somerson is “doing a terrific job to calm things down,” but he is disappointed that the changes proposed last year have been tabled.

“I think that RISD needs to reinvent itself to sort of capitalize on its strengths, but to construct a school that is looking towards the future, not one that is looking towards the past,” he said. Though the proposed restructuring was largely unpopular with the faculty, Feld said it would have given the school more research power, benefitting students.

Feld said he has noticed a change in Maeda’s leadership style, but unlike other faculty members, he does not think that change has been positive. “He has lost his sense of excitement about where RISD could go and sort of brought himself to the much more modest and much less ambitious sense of the future,” he said.

Esther Fell, a senior at RISD, said Maeda’s presence has not been as strong this year, citing the absence of his regular emails to the RISD student body.

Given that Somerson, Newkirk and Missakian’s appointments are for this year only, the administration is now looking for permanent replacements. Though the search is open, Fell said administrators are “certainly not discouraging internal candidates,” especially given how well the administration has functioned with a leadership that “knows RISD deeply.”