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RISD President Rosanne Somerson to retire

After five-year term, the furniture design scholar will become president emerita after her retirement

Rhode Island School of Design President Rosanne Somerson will retire at the end of the academic year after serving five years in office, the school’s Board of Trustees announced in an email to the RISD community Dec. 22.

“For over three decades, President Somerson has been an influential leader and educator of the RISD community fostering and driving numerous and substantive advances,” the Board wrote. “She has bolstered RISD’s reputation as the premier college of art and design in the U.S. and around the globe with faculty, students and alumni being recognized with prestigious accolades and attention.”

Honoring her term in office, the Board has decided to name Somerson president emerita. She will assume the title after she retires June 30, and will begin a “long-deferred sabbatical.”

In her own letter to the community, Somerson wrote that it was “one of the greatest honors of (her) life” to serve as RISD’s president, adding that she is excited to continue part of her work “on behalf of this amazing community” as president emerita.

Somerson’s history with RISD precedes her tenure as its president. As an undergraduate in the 1970s, Somerson studied Industrial Design and later returned in 1985 to join its faculty. A pioneer in the field of furniture design, Somerson co-founded and headed the Furniture Design program beginning in 1995. She later took on more administrative roles as associate provost for academic affairs in 2005 and provost in 2012, before she was named RISD’s 17th president in 2015.

As president of RISD, Somerson developed a strong culture of philanthropy to support financial aid and scholarships, generating the largest fundraising revenue in RISD’s history. She also developed RISD’s first Social Equity and Inclusion Action Plan, which aimed to “systematically address” issues relating to “forces of bias and inequality” in the RISD community, and which led to Next: RISD 2020-2027, the college's new strategic plan.

Somerson’s term was also marked by strains brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Somerson took lead in reopening campus after it closed in March, as well as tackling a $50 million budget deficit.

RISD’s Board wrote that it will create a sub-committee to conduct a search for the next president and that Somerson will aid the transition to the new leadership. Reiterating its commitment to social equity and inclusion at the college, the Board wrote that the next leader will be “instrumental” in carrying out the plans Somerson set in motion. 

“RISD is an extraordinary place that has positively changed the lives of so many,” Somerson wrote. “I honor all of those gifted students, past and present, as well as the dedicated faculty and staff who have mentored and supported them. I know I will be leaving RISD in the best hands.”



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