Outgoing Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda’s decision on Dec. 4 to announce via social media and video his imminent departure after six years for a job in California’s Silicon Valley with the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers took the college and state by surprise.
While widely praised in public statements last week by college officials and community leaders for his contributions, the abrupt end of his tenure Jan. 1 underscores a mixed track record marked by the highs of successes such as the 2012 ranking of RISD by “Business Insider” as the No. 1 design school in the world and challenges, including a 2011 faculty vote of no confidence.
RISD named Provost Rosanne Somerson to serve as interim president five days later. And when the search for a permanent successor begins in January, college officials and trustees would do well to learn from Maeda’s surprise move to the private sector, says Daniel P. Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island.
While it is unclear when college trustees first knew of Maeda’s plans, faculty members were clearly caught by surprise. Jack Stripling, a reporter who covers school presidents and college boards for the Chronicle of Higher Education, says the apparent short notice is unusual.
Historically, the lengths of college presidencies typically run eight to 10 years, and it’s more common for college presidents to give trustees substantial lead time that “allows an institution to get well into a presidential search, if not conclude one,” Stripling said.
But Maeda’s move toward an opportunity in his field – the intersection of technology, business and design that he has promoted while president – may be the kind of exit colleges and universities are going to have to get used to, says Egan.
The succession-planning time frame that higher education institutions are used to may shrink because of the new type of leader that’s emerging – leaders who aren’t pure academics, Egan explained.
“John’s an innovator and entrepreneur from a design background,” Egan said. “People in the business world operate on a different time clock than people in the academic world. Five [full] years is a good stay. He’s obviously left his imprint on the institution. [But] college and university boards of trustees are going to have to become more nimble over time, because this can happen more, and schools are less likely to have staged exits of a presidential leader.”