Five Questions With:
Rosanne Somerson

The Rhode Island School of Design announced earlier this month that it would use a $10 million anonymous donation – the largest ever received by the school earmarked for financial aid – to create the Society of Presidential Fellows, an initiative that would award certain graduate students with a tuition-free education and other opportunities.

Hillary Blumberg, a 1992 RISD alumna also contributed an undisclosed amount that the school called the largest known gift for financial aid made by a RISD graduate. RISD President Rosanne Somerson spoke about the new fellowship program. 

PBN: Why did RISD feel it necessary to create the Society of Presidential Fellows?

SOMERSON: RISD’s rigorous form of graduate education produces the world’s greatest creative thinkers, leaders and makers. We’re intent on dramatically enhancing our competitiveness in recruiting and retaining the top tier of prospective graduate students and with this fellowship we can now increase access to this education, bringing unique and critical new voices into our community.

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PBN: Who will be eligible and what will be the selection criteria?

SOMERSON: All accepted graduate candidates will be eligible for the fellowship. Selection criteria will be based on the applicant’s competitive ranking within the larger graduate pool based on overall portfolio, experience and other submitted materials. RISD graduate program directors who oversee program admissions will put top candidates forward to an internal jury, who will then select the fellows in the initial phase of the program.

PBN: How many graduate students are enrolled at RISD and how many will be fellows?

SOMERSON: RISD currently enrolls approximately 450 graduate students. Our ambition is to award Presidential Fellowships to the top 10% of our graduate students, and these initial gifts put us on a path toward achieving that goal in the next few years. In the first year, we will award approximately five fellowships and will increase that number as the endowment grows and new gifts are received.

Other admitted applicants may also receive more-modest fellowship awards through our usual funding processes. Our intention is to provide additional pathways to enable top students to attend RISD regardless of socio-economics, building the next generation of creative leaders and practitioners. While we know these fellowships will be highly competitive, our goal is to build the fund over time to reach even more deserving individuals.

PBN: Offering tuition-free graduate studies is, of course, a big feature of this fellowship program, but there will be “professional-development opportunities” for the fellows. Can you be more specific about what those opportunities are?

SOMERSON: Recipients will be connected with alumni mentors and will have access to thought leaders in art and design through special events, building from RISD’s vast network of associates in the art and design realm, as well as guest critics, curators, and artists and designers.

PBN: RISD says the fellowship program aligns with the school’s new strategic plan focusing on both enhancing advanced inquiry through its graduate programs and increasing access to these programs. What other steps are being taken toward those goals?

SOMERSON: We are adding new course offerings, hiring new faculty, investing in research support and developing structures to further support faculty professional advancement.

We are also adding cross-divisional “labs” to support new forms of learning and experimentation. This aligns with the launch of our new strategic plan, RISD NEXT: RISD 2020-27, which emphasizes advanced commitments to sustainability and contributing to just societies, and which commits to new knowledge creation in the arts, design, and liberal arts.

William Hamilton is PBN managing editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at

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