John Maeda Set to Leave RISD for Silicon Valley

RISD President John Maeda has announced he will leave the school to take a job at out West.

I received news (via Facebook, while walking the dog) that Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda would be stepping down at the end of the fall semester, after six years at the helm. Maeda—a respected designer, author and former head of the MIT Media Lab—will become Design Partner at the Silicon Valley-based venture captial firm of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. He will also, according to a press release from the school, “chair the eBay Design Advisory Board, working with the company to evolve design capabilities.”

We have covered RISD a fair amount during my time at Metropolis. I have interviewed Maeda on several occasions and find him to be an exceptionally smart and engaging man. It’s hard to believe six years have passed. At the time of Maeda’s appointment, I remember thinking: this is an interesting choice. The previous president, Roger Mandle, was cut from more traditional cloth. A dynamic leader who physically remade RISD, he was an adroit political operator (Roger loved to tell stories about former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci) and clearly an impressive fundraiser. Although he had headed up the media lab and was responsible for management and some fundraising, the RISD job was, for Maeda, a significant bump up in scale. After being named president, he stressed how, even as a college chief executive, he wanted to continue “making.” This may have been wishful thinking on John’s part.

Maeda’s run at RISD, by many accounts, was a bumpy and surprisingly contentious one. Academic politics, of course, can be quite toxic—especially today, when students are asked to pay king and queen’s ransoms for their educations, and low paid adjuncts carry a lot of the classroom load. Still, almost from the outset, we heard of infighting and unrest at RISD. Again, some of this is endemic to the field, but the level of distrust among the faculty during the Maeda reign seemed alarmingly high. Maeda also took office after a wave of Mandle-inspired building, just as the economy was tanking. The timing, no fault of his, couldn’t have been trickier.

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Despite all that, I still wonder if the RISD job was the right fit for Maeda, an artist and designer and writer with a roaming, inquisitive mind. Being a college president today is an exercise in salesmanship (fundraising) and cat herding (faculty relations). Sometimes, it looks painfully peripheral to the traditional role of higher education. And more often than not, it has little or nothing to do with “making” (with the possible exceptions of budgets and fundraising targets). You’re paid like a CEO (sort of), but then expected to think and act like one, pretty much all the time. I haven’t talked to Maeda in a while, but I have the distinct sense that today he’s feeling like a free—or least, freer—man.

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