RISD Rising?

Last December the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) announced that John Maeda, ­associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab, would succeed Roger Mandle as president in June. It was by all accounts a bold and curious choice. Maeda, a 41-year-old designer, computer scientist, professor, author, and artist, had never run an institution of higher ­learning—and here he was chosen to lead one of the premier art and design schools in the country. What exactly was RISD thinking?

Maeda is clearly a man of energy and passion, well suited to the public-cheerleader role of a college president. But his appointment is arguably a response to the successful 15-year reign of Mandle, who grew the school’s endowment from $67 million to $367 million, physically enlarged the campus, and for the first time forged a partnership with the city of Providence that mutually benefited both parties. Maeda is inheriting a substantially stronger school, and his appointment undoubtedly reflects an institution that is asking itself, What next? Recently, executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked with Maeda—as he was waiting to board a plane to Japan—about his new job, the challenges ahead, and the “cult” of RISD.

We’re great fans of yours here at the magazine, but we were all slightly surprised. Everyone thought, Wow, interesting choice. So how did this happen?
It’s the kind of thing you dream about, and then you hit the lottery. I had always wondered what I would do with my life, how I could serve the art and design community. And, personally, I’d done all the work that I could do, wanted to do something different, and then I got a call from the presidential-search committee. I went to interview with them and discovered that everything I was looking for was right there.

Was leaving MIT something you’d been thinking about?
I’d been at MIT for quite a while, but I was a bit tired of technology. I think all of us are. We have so much of it, more of it every day, and we’re not sure why we’re buying so much of it. It’s kind of like a summer movie—except it lasts too long. But leaving MIT is a big step for anyone. It is one of the top schools in the world. So it had to be something spectacular—and crazy to dream of doing—and there it was.

Why do you think RISD picked you? To go from running a department to leading a university is a pretty big leap. What sold them?
It’s going from 300 to 3,300 people. What sold them was a simple idea: RISD already works very well as is. It’s well run; everything is balanced. It at-tracts great students and great faculty; the alums are spectacular. The system works fine. Roger Mandle has done a great job for the last fifteen years. I call it the RISD ship. The airplane is flying fine. And you could probably get any qualified individual to run RISD, and the plane could fly forever on autopilot because all the systems are in place. But the board was asking, What would you bring? And I responded, What if instead of flying in the air you lifted into outer space? Or went under the sea? Where do you find new challenges? And the neat thing about the search committee is that they were ­asking themselves the same questions. I think a faculty person on the search committee said basically that I’m still growing and he’d like to see how RISD can grow with someone who’s still growing.

Who was on the search committee?
It was a combination of faculty, staff, students, and trustees. And I was just humbled at each point along the way. It was like, Wow, do you really want me to come back? It was so inspiring to see how much hope there is for RISD’s future among the school’s constituents. I have an internal blog right now, and I’m speaking with RISD people on an almost hourly basis. This is alums, students, staff, and faculty, and they’re all asking, What can we be? I don’t know what the sixties was like, but maybe this is what it was like.

What were some of the ideas you introduced during the search process that got them jazzed about you?
One thing that put people at ease is that I’m a technologist but I don’t like technology. I’m a very conservative thinker in terms of art and design. I believe in the fundamentals, the classics. But at the same time, I’m pragmatic about the future and willing to ask, What’s going to happen twenty years from now? I can see it coming. So I’m asking the question, How do you connect quality, which is represented by the classics and tradition, with the question mark of the future? How do you ask that and avoid the common situation worldwide in all art and design schools, who say, “Hey, we need a computer lab. We need a hundred Macs, or they should all run Adobe, this/that.” The world is working in a very homogenous space of expression. So how do you get beyond that? You do it by not playing catch-up.

Much of what a college president does involves fund-raising, and you’re someone who has spent a lot of time being an artist and a creative person. How are you going to reconcile your artistic and design interests with that absolute obligation?
It’s all going to be a work in progress. If you look at the average stats for university presidents, fund-raising is anywhere from 75 to 85 percent of their time. So I look at that stat and know that I’m signed up for advancing RISD’s reputation and attracting new resources to it. It was my primary role at the Media Lab, and I actually enjoyed it because you’re doing something meaningful. I will continue to make things on the side once in a while just to stay creatively fit, but I’ve already had a really wonderful run.

How does someone who’s never run a college step in? What are the logistics of that?
I’m meeting a lot of university presidents. It’s so interesting how it happens: suddenly all of these presidents are willing to make time for a guy like me. They all want to approach me. They tell me that it’s one of the best jobs in the world, but it’s really about how you embrace the entire institution. How do you get your arms and heart and mind around it?

It’s funny, I had the same feeling when I came to MIT in 1996 and replaced the great Muriel Cooper. I was like, Holy cow, how do I follow in her footsteps? And now I’m in the same position twelve years later with Roger, who has made major progress in the past fifteen years. Although I have to say, I’m an MIT alum and it’s a great place, but the alums don’t talk about MIT in this weird, almost Apple-like frenzy that RISD people do.

That is true. You respect MIT, but you don’t necessarily love it.
It’s not like my iPod or my iPhone. But the alums speak about RISD with that same fervor, which fills my heart with excitement.

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