Unfollow: RISD's Social Media President Receives No-Confidence Vote

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is among the finest art colleges in the U.S. But recently it is controversy, not prestige, that is getting the institution noticed. John Maeda, president of RISD, is under fire for a leadership style that, faculty members say, substitutes social media conceits for genuine dialog. Schools offering Animation degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

RISD rhode island school of design jessie shefrin

An Administrative Shakeup

Last week, Jessie Shefrin resigned from her position as provost at the Rhode Island School of Design after three years on the job. Among many faculty members at the institution, this action was perceived as something of a victory for them. Shefrin had become widely unpopular on campus after she spearheaded an effort to combine the Division of Fine Arts and the Division of Architecture and Design. On March 2, the faculty initiated a vote of no confidence against her that passed by a tally of 147-32. In the aftermath of that vote, Shefrin suggested the college would hold off on the merger until more discussion with faculty took place. Still under pressure, the provost has now also determined that it's time for her to leave.

But Shefrin was not the sole subject of the faculty's no confidence vote. RISD president John Maeda was also included in the dissenting action, one that's left the school in a state of uncertainty. Few anticipated that Maeda would step down, a supposition that has thus far held. It's widely believed that Shefrin's departure, though, is the desperate action of an administration under siege. The perception is that the provost was in large part doing the bidding of other school administrators, including Maeda. If he wasn't going to leave, Shefrin would have to in order to help salve relations with angry staff.

A Leader's Style Questioned

The recent flare-up over merging academic departments underscores what for John Maeda is a significant human resources problem. Many at RISD feel that the president is not attuned to faculty members' feelings about significant issues at the college. The impression among many is that the administration as a whole makes pretenses about listening to staff concerns but that it ultimately moves in whatever direction it would like, regardless of the dialog that has taken place.

john maeda president of risd the rhode island school of design

RISD President John Maeda

This criticism has been acutely felt by Maeda, who has crafted a public image of someone who encourages input from stakeholders. The president has done this with an ever-present effort to connect with students and faculty members through blog entries, frequent tweets on Twitter and an onslaught of YouTube videos. This is largely due to the fact that Maeda's experience is not in institutional leadership, but technology. The MIT grad is widely seen as a genius in new media and design. Unfortunately, observers say, his zealotry for using technology to connect with constituents has come at the expense of authentic discussions and sustained campus relationships.

Pledging Change

Maeda seems to have heard his critics and taken their advice to heart. He has created office hours during which RISD staff members and students may share their concerns. Administration is also working to clarify the process for appointing deans, the current policy having been a source of unhappiness among faculty. And the contentious plan to merge the Division of Fine Arts and the Division of Architecture and Design? Well, that's been scrapped. Maeda, as he wrote in an email to RISD constituents, is 'determined to improve relations between faculty and administration.'

Maeda still has a lot of work to do toward convincing skeptical faculty members of his ability to lead at the Rhode Island School of Design. The exit of Shefrin, who had angered so many, is likely intended as an olive branch for upset staff. Maeda, who has expressed desire to continue as president, thus far retains the support of RISD's Board of Trustees. If that is to remain the case, he will likely have to refrain from making faculty and staff 'follow' him and instead make stakeholders active participants in discussions about the school's future.

While Twitter and other social media sites cannot replace direct interaction, they can serve as important tools in academia. Learn how professors are using social media to enhance classroom teaching and research.

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