There is no question that John Maeda left his mark on the Rhode Island School of Design, although the manner of his leaving might be worth further discussion.
First, the good stuff. Mr. Maeda brought accessibility to his position as president rarely seen in academic circles, taking to Twitter on a regular basis while inviting students and others to go on runs around town. He changed the discussion from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to STEAM (STEM plus Art), placing the talents of his students at the center of a 21st-century innovation culture.
He raised the school’s reputation across the world, attracting more student applications while at the same time increasing resources devoted to financial aid.
Less positive was the faculty no-confidence vote in 2011, although any transformative leader is bound to ruffle more than a few feathers along the way.
His apparently sudden departure, while softened by a moving goodbye video, makes one wonder if he had internalized the needs of the school to the extent that a president should have. Perhaps if he had moved to Providence, as opposed to staying in Boston, he would have had a better sense of the Ocean State.
The speed with which he is starting his new job with venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is not unusual in the corporate world. But academia works a little slower (whether too slowly is a topic for another debate). At the level he was at, it seems that he at least should have clued the board of trustees into his plans, if for no other reason than to make the transition as smooth as could be.
Still, a perhaps too-abrupt departure should not cancel out all the positive things he did for RISD and Providence. He will be missed. •
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