Looks like there may be significant changes at The Rhode Island School of Art and Design (popularly referred to as RISD). John Maeda, the school’s current President and Provost Jessie Shefrin received a landslide no confidence vote last Wednesday. As reported by mediabistro, of the 194 faculty in attendance 147 voted no confidence, 32 voted against the motion, and 15 abstained. Traditionally this means the president leaves sooner or later, though because faculties don’t hire presidents — boards do — the timing can vary. Sometimes the votes have no effect at all.
At the top of a heap of disputes fueling the vote, is a newly announced academic reorganization plan that would merge the Division of Architecture and Design and the Division of Fine Arts into a single Division of Undergraduate Studies. This would mean a lot of changes, not the least of which being that instead of having three Deans, one for Architecture, Fine Art, and Undergraduate studies, there would be only one. According to Henry Ferreira, president of the Full Time Faculty Union, the administration’s reorganization violates the Full Time Faculty Contract. Proposals need to go through an elected faculty curriculum committee and then to a full faculty vote before any announcements are made.
Prior to the no-confidence vote, faculty reaction to the Strategic Plan, manifested in the February 23 vote was, 31 in favor of the motion, 142 opposed, with two abstentions, according to an open letter posted on the RISD Intranet blog forwarded to AFC. “The union met with the administration before the vote of no confidence and told them they could either rescind their decision or the union will go forward with a grievance.” Ferreira told the Brown Daily Herald. According to their reports, if the administration does not respond, the issue could go to a board of arbitration for a determination over whether a contract has been breached.
The breach of contract is a significant issue, but also only one in a long list of grievances the President has accumulated since taking over the position three years ago. As is told on RISD’s Intranet blog and various media sources, Maeda set an antagonistic tone from the start. Before he took the position, he began replacing the school’s administration. Almost none of the pre-existing staff still work at RISD. On this list, is RISD’s popular museum director Hope Alswang who mysteriously resigned in 2009. Alswang is credited for increasing museum attendance to a record high of 150,000 visits in 2008. Speculation in the papers at the time was that RISD needed to make cut backs.
Still, the decision also points to a frequent criticism of the President. “Brilliant designer or not, it is clear in conversation with him that he does not hold the fine arts in high regard and is thus a bad fit for RISD” one student told me on the condition of anonymity. Undergraduate Student Alliance president Naomi Mishkin told the Brown Daily Herald “We are concerned by the lack of communication from both parties and request an open dialogue that we wish to be included in”.
As it happens, John Maeda is currently writing a book titled “Redesigning leadership“.