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Since Rhode Island School of Design faculty voted "no confidence" in President John Maeda and Provost Jessie Shefrin by a margin of 147 to 32 last month, students and teachers have been grappling with the vote's aftermath.

In 2006, Roger Mandle, then RISD's president, received a "no confidence" vote from department heads and stepped down in July 2008 after a 15-year term, though he said the decision was unrelated to the vote. Professors and students expressed doubt that Maeda would resign as a result of last month's vote.

But "the campus is sort of operating at two levels," said Deborah Bright, dean of fine arts. "On one level, everybody's going about their business as usual. … Nothing has changed in terms of the everyday functioning of this school. On the other hand there's a kind of meta-consciousness that there's tension between the administration and a portion of the faculty."

The tension stems from both parties "locking horns" over the question of whether decisions regarding academic reorganization fall under the jurisdiction of the administration or the faculty, Bright said.

The administration proposed merging the Division of Architecture and Design and the Division of Fine Arts into a single Division of Undergraduate Studies after the faculty had rejected a similar plan by a margin of 82 percent at a meeting Feb. 28. The proposal disregarded a clause in the full time faculty contract that outlines a faculty review process for all academic reorganization, said Mark Sherman, chair of the Faculty Steering Committee and an associate English professor.

"The real stress is coming from the desire of the administration to administer in a certain way and the sense among the faculty that this way of making administrative change actually is detrimental to the academic purposes," said Lynnette Widder, associate professor and head of the department  of architecture.

The faculty is "not averse to changing the way things are," said Sherman. "We just want to know why and if it's going to work."

The vote is "very much on the mind of the faculty," said Mairead Byrne, associate professor of poetry and poetics. "I would say also that the president and the provost are very conscious of it."

Maeda, Shefrin and  Merrill Sherman, chair of the board of trustees, did not respond to requests for comment. Jaime Marland, director of media relations at RISD, wrote in an email to The Herald that the board supports Maeda.

The administration organized a meeting March 24 with faculty, department heads, deans and representatives of the full- and part-time faculty unions. During the meeting, the Faculty Steering Committee proposed two steps Maeda and Shefrin could take to "prove (their) desire to repair relationships," Sherman said — suspending the administration's academic restructuring proposal and articulating a "definite policy" on the appointment of deans. The committee felt the administration had abandoned a previous policy on deans, Sherman said.

Following the committee's suggestions, the administration announced it would hold off the restructuring for a year and proposed a task force of faculty, deans and members of the administration to evaluate different methods for restructuring. It also proposed a policy for the appointment of deans that the Faculty Steering Committee will review in coming weeks, Sherman said.

But Sherman expressed concern that restructuring "was presented as a foregone conclusion." The provost's office appended a footnote to the meeting's minutes noting the "possibility" that academic reorganization could be abandoned if the task force came to such a conclusion, Sherman said. "But that's not at all what they said in the meeting," he added.

Maeda also instituted open office hours for faculty, staff and students following the vote. "Despite our efforts to build an inclusive and participatory strategic planning process, to maintain respectful and collegial relations with the leadership of the faculty union and our underlying desire to create space for healthy and reflective debate, recent events on campus painfully reveal that our intentions to work together fell short," Maeda wrote in an email to the RISD community. "I am determined to improve relations between faculty and administration."

"There are initial gestures, but there is nothing the president or the provost has done to suggest a serious alternative to the way they've done business," Sherman said.

For RISD students, the vote remains "more under the radar," said freshman Robert Verdino.

"So many people in RISD are so focused on schoolwork" that they do not have time to involve themselves in the debate, said freshman Susan Merriam.

"The faculty and administration's attitude is that we're not involved," said Misha Kahn, a senior at RISD and vice president of the Student Alliance Executive Committee. To explain the situation, the committee sent emails to the student body and held a forum after the "no-confidence" vote. "That was probably one of the most attended meetings I've been at," Kahn said.

But the issue has since "totally blown over" among students, Kahn added. "Everyone's like, ‘Well, that was crazy that that happened.'" He added, "It will be interesting to see how it will pan out now that everyone's more relaxed about it."

Verdino said he was aware of problems arising between faculty and the administration long before the vote occurred. A professor brought up in conversation with Verdino last fall that some faculty felt "a little bitter" toward the administration's methods. "I realized then that there were some tensions going on," he said.

"There's anger on both sides and it's both justified and exaggerated on both sides," Widder said. "I don't know how they're going to find their way back to each other."


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