University News

RISD president’s departure elicits mixed response

Over the past six years, John Maeda became known for melding technology and design

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, December 6, 2013

Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda’s resignation, announced Wednesday, has drawn mixed reactions from RISD students and faculty members as they reflect on how his leadership influenced the school and what RISD’s future may hold.

Maeda’s presidency was marked by a perceived tendency to promote the marriage of technology with art and design, potentially at the expense of developing the fine arts, some students and faculty members said.

Maeda announced his decision to step down in an email to the RISD community, which was accompanied by a YouTube video that explored his six-year presidency. He will leave to work as a design partner at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.


A sudden departure?

Though some of Maeda’s efforts as president to “integrate technology into art” have been controversial, most community members agree that the announcement of his departure came suddenly, said Brown-RISD Dual-Degree student Grace Yoon ’17.

“People find it a little absurd,” Yoon said. “There have been mixed impressions of President Maeda among RISD students,” she said, adding that some students “were not surprised” he is leaving.

“Honestly, I thought the news was sort of abrupt,” said Rafael Attias, a senior critic in RISD’s digital and media illustration department, adding that it is “a little bit shocking” that  Maeda made the announcement so soon before leaving.

“It’s definitely a shock when you just get an email that says your president is gone,” said RISD junior Nicolas Scholz, adding that upon further reflection, he thinks it is unusual that Maeda would leave so abruptly when “he set a good foundation” but may not “have accomplished his goal.”

Maeda’s relatively sudden transition “is typical for a private sector opportunity,” wrote Jaime Marland, director of media relations at RISD, in an email to The Herald.

“I was fairly shocked,” said RISD sophomore Olivia Pecini, adding that the news was disappointing because he was “a very forward-thinking president.”


Mixed criticism

The idea that Maeda “put too much focus on design at the cost of fine art,” is “the biggest criticism of Maeda,” Yoon said.

“RISD has a bit of an identity crisis,” Attias said, explaining that Maeda’s presidency highlighted tension surrounding the fundamental question of what a 21st-century arts school should look like.

“John might have been viewed as being very one-sided,” Attias said, but his position is “a hard role” to have, given the conflict between “old guard art professors” and those who embrace Maeda’s perceived emphasis on technology design.

Maeda has been an influential figure who sought to keep society from forgetting about art and design, students and faculty members said. He coined the term STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and design, and mathematics — as an adaptation of the commonly used term STEM to emphasize the importance of art and design in modern society.

But such initiatives were sometimes perceived as counter to RISD’s “traditional” curriculum founded in fine arts, Scholz said. Some students find his efforts to strengthen the design curriculum “a bit excessive,” Yoon said.

“RISD is a bit like an old ship — a bit conservative actually,” Attias said, noting the “rigidity” of the school’s curriculum.

The tensions between Maeda’s initiatives as a leader and the school’s more traditional culture were exemplified by a March 2011 no-confidence vote in Maeda, which passed the faculty by a margin of 147 to 32, The Herald reported at the time.


Looking to the future

Despite controversy surrounding Maeda’s priorities, students praised his friendly and sociable disposition and said they hope future presidents will be similarly personable.

“I liked Maeda a lot,” Scholz said.But he noted that RISD has been “a really traditional school, and he’s been the one pushing for tech,” resulting in support from some faculty members and opposition from others.

“From my perspective, he was doing a good job,” Pecini said.

RISD’s Board of Trustees is “determining a plan to ensure a smooth leadership transition,” Marland wrote.

RISD community members said they think it is difficult to determine which qualities should define the next president, but several students said they hope Maeda’s initiatives are not forgotten or undone.

The next president should “definitely (be) someone who is still willing to advocate for technology and art,” Pecini said. Yoon also said she hopes Maeda’s successor continues the work that he has championed.

“Whoever it is is going to have a tough job,” Attias said, adding that the culture in a community of artists does not always take kindly to figures of authority. The next president should be “someone with thick skin,” he said.