John Maeda at odds with RISD faculty

When John Maeda was voted in as president of RISD four years ago, I was elated. Here was a man who stood at the intersection of art and technology, bright, a graphic designer, originally from Seattle-- the whole thing sounded to be just the thing that I thought RISD needed.

But it hasn't been good. On March 2nd, the faculty of Rhode Island School of Design overwhelmingly voted no confidence in Maeda's ability to lead the school as president. In information sent out with the no confidence vote, the faculty states:

"Among the numerous specific events that gradually alienated the faculty who voted no confidence, the following stand out. The first was the removal of the then Provost Jay Coogan and the imposition of then Dean Jessie Shefrin in his place. Under prior presidents, provosts were selected after formal consultation with the faculty and sometimes after national searches.

In 2008 the President spurned established RISD practice and simply thrust his provost on the faculty. In the ensuing months and years an excessive number of long-term, highly experienced and competent administrators and staff were eliminated. Some turnover is inevitable with changes at the top, but the scale and manner of these forced removals were staggering.

... Besides the provost, the director of the Museum, the director of Communications, the director of Financial Aid, the director of Alumni and Career Services, the director of Continuing Education, the director of Institutional Research, the director of the Office of Public Engagement, the director of the Writing Center, the vice president of Finance and Administration, and key members of Student Development, Human Resources, Financial Aid, Student Life, Museum staff, and Public Safety were all gone by March 2011. "

These changes, along with the recent decision by the Provost to reorganize the academic structure of the school, have all led to Maeda's current predicament.

Although Wikipedia tells us-- and perhaps Maeda himself posted this-- that the faculty is "uncomfortable with his former Massachusetts Institute of Technology ties, disappointed in his indifference to their input and generally unsatisfied with his overall performence (sic)," these words, obviously written in haste, look like a bit of quick pro-Maeda propaganda, softening the historical blow.

Truth is, the faculty is not "uncomfortable"," disappointed" and "generally unsatisfied" with John Maeda. They hate him. They have lost all respect for him as a leader and as a person. And they want him out.

Maeda's made so many enemies and done so many wrong-headed things in such a short amount of time that I am reminded once again that IQ and intelligence are not the same thing. He's made many sweeping administrative errors, but it is this that bothers me: he thinks himself more intelligent than those who surround him and those who have gone before him. And since he believes himself more intelligent and advanced than the people that went before him, he assumes that what they believed is not true anymore, is outdated. This is a false syllogism.

John Maeda may think that because he has a smartphone and can process the video he is taking of you (while you are trying to converse with him) through html 5 and make it interact with objects in a cornfield in real time or some such thing, that somehow his vision of what art education is and should be is "more advanced" than that of the rest of the faculty at RISD, but in this thinking he is also mistaken. This logic is roughly equivalent to your saying that you can bake a better cupcake than I can because you use a silicone pan. The recipe and quality of ingredients, the baking time or general talent of the baker seem to have nothing to do with it.

We believed that Maeda could do for us that which we were too lazy to do for ourselves. We wanted him to somehow make what we teach seem new and shiny in the current era, without our really having to do anything about it. But we expected way too much from one man, and we did not understand that his great talent seems to be that of the person who first sees a shiny object in the marketplace and runs to get it. He is the earliest of adopters, the bell-weather of early adopters.

We wanted bright, shiny things to be part of what people saw at RISD. So we took a chance on Maeda. And we learned something. Crows like to find shiny objects and build nests with them, but they continue to be crows. Real education in the arts must look to the past as well as to the future. The new is not "better" than the old. Techno-revolutions need to be included, not pandered to. Teaching artists is about much more than trumpeting the technological revolution's continuing cry to forward motion.

My nephew is not going to RISD because he wants to join Maeda in his wholehearted technological run for the roses. My nephew lives in the techno-present, as do all 19 year-olds. He went to RISD because he felt cozy in the Nature Lab. Honestly. That's what made the decision for him: the cozy feeling of the Nature Lab. It kept him from accepting a HUGE scholarship to MassArt. He wants to make prints. He has enough shiny objects.