President of RISD Receives No-Confidence Vote

by Paddy Johnson on March 11, 2011 · 12 comments Newswire

The RISD campus

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“.

  • guest

    I think this is a good thing! RISD needs some change, it’s too conservative and so much redundancy!

  • http://twitter.com/zearl Zak Greene

    I’m a 2010 RISD alum and have heard the “no regard for fine arts” criticism over and over again with 0 evidence to support it. Seems to be some kind of childish rumor or meme. I was told by a classmate last year that he “hated art.” I was a graphic design major and he payed very little if any attention to what our department was doing. Not saying that’s a good thing.

    I think the fact that the previous President Mandle, whose style ran counter to Maeda’s, was ousted by faculty as recently as 2007 is telling.

    • Anonymous

      Was that not a “fake” no confidence vote though? Some faculty got together, voted get to oust him, but it was in no way official. It seems like terms of Mandle’s departure might give the false appearance of consistency when in fact the circumstances are different.

      • http://twitter.com/zearl Zak Greene

        Really? I thought it was the exact same thing. Full time faculty union voting no confidence. I remember the controversy having to do with the part-time faculty not being on board.

        • Anonymous

          It’s only what I heard. But I would imagine the part-time faculty would be very reticent to weigh in these situations. If you’re still up for tenure, or on a month to month contract I don’t imagine I’d be voting no confidence either. My job’s on the line! That’s not the case for tenured faculty.

          • Guest

            Reticent, yes, but not just in one direction. For a part-timer, offending a department head would be more to fear than offending the administration. The department heads are the ones who hire and fire part-timers, even though they are the hard core of the full-time faculty union. No wonder less than 40% of the faculty showed up at the meeting where the no confidence vote was taken.

        • Jonathan

          No. It was the department heads who voted no confidence in Mandle. It never came to the full-time faculty meeting, and the full-time faculty union did not vote in either the Mandle or Maeda cases.

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  • Anonymous

    Out of curiosity, what would a faculty union vote mean that an overwhelming no-confidence vote by the faculty themselves doesn’t?

    • birdy

      The Faculty who vote at Faculty Meetings do so as members of the college teaching staff, about the direction of the curricula and general life of the college.
      The Faculty Union members address the working conditions of employment.
      Many faculty but not all belong to both.

  • Guest

    Why should anyone outside their community care? This has no impact to art maybe only positive because they wont be seen as the greatest art factory bullshit machine anymore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=690436854 Elaine Dunlap

    Ah, the Rhode Island School of Art and Design! Is RISAD anywhere near RISD?

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