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RISD selects Somerson as president

Search committee, board of directors unanimously elect an alumna to executive position for first time

Rosanne Somerson P’11, a renowned studio furniture designer, became the 17th president of the Rhode Island School of Design Wednesday. For the past 13 months she served as interim president following the departure of her predecessor, John Maeda. Every member of the RISD Board of Trustees voted to elect Somerson after a unanimous recommendation by the 11-member presidential search committee, according to a Wednesday press release.

A 1976 RISD graduate, Somerson previously held multiple faculty and administrative positions, co-founding the furniture design department in 1995 and serving as provost from 2012 until she assumed the interim presidency.

“It was amazing. I felt extremely honored and excited,” Somerson said of being elected, adding that she feels supported by the unanimous decisions of both the board and the search committee. “I felt very welcomed and honored to be offered the position.”

Somerson’s appointment marks the end of an international search process that lasted 9 months and reviewed over 100 candidates. Somerson, who said she applied and interviewed for the position while serving as interim president, was not involved in the search process. “I was just keeping my focus on the work at RISD at the time,” she said.

“The search committee worked tirelessly to identify a new president with the vision, values and leadership style to match RISD’s standards for excellence,” wrote Michael Spalter, chair of RISD’s board of trustees, in a statement on the search committee’s website. Selecting Somerson, who has been an integral part of the community, made the decision “especially gratifying,” the statement reads.

The committee comprised faculty members, students, administrators, alums, parents and RISD Museum staff members, according to the committee’s website. Isaacson and Miller — a professional search firm — was also consulted, as were other groups.

Ryan Murphy, a senior at RISD, said students received periodic email updates on the search process but were not frequently engaged with the “day-to-day stuff.” Limited communication struck him as appropriate, considering that the interim president was also a candidate for the permanent position, he said.

Murphy said the decision was met with enthusiasm but not much surprise.

Tyler Mills, a junior at RISD, said the community perceived Somerson as a strong candidate. During the search, “deep down we were all like ‘okay Rosanne, just end up being president,’” he said.

Murphy and Mills both said Somerson is generally popular among students. “I think she’s done a wonderful job,” Mills said. “Overall, we all really do like her.”

Somerson said her time as interim president was predominantly focused on maintaining ongoing  initiatives and continuing to implement the school’s strategic plan, which she helped craft during her tenure as provost. As president, Somerson said she will be able to pursue longer-term goals for the school.

Somerson cited implementing certain elements of the school’s campus master plan — the part of the strategic plan devoted to facilities improvements — and expanding RISD’s financial accessibility as two of her main objectives. She said she hopes to see “those who are qualified to be RISD students have access to a RISD education,” adding that “there will be quite a bit of effort around fundraising to ensure that that happens.”

As a former faculty member, Somerson said she is “always interested” in advancing new programs and supporting the faculty and research. “I really believe … that the world is more broadly starting to understand the value of art and design,” she said. “Part of what I plan to do is … to show that our model of education is more vital than ever.”

RISD community members generally support the decision to appoint a president who “rose through the ranks of the institution,” Murphy said, adding that Somerson is familiar with RISD and its values. But it is possible that “she won’t shake things up in the same way” as someone from another institution or professional background might.

Reflecting on her first experience with RISD — visiting the campus as a prospective student — Somerson said she was immediately struck by the quality of students’ artwork. “I was so impressed,” she said, adding, “If anybody had told me at that particular moment in time that I would someday be leading this institution, I would’ve been incredulous.”



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