Friction at RISD

December 13, 2006

The relationship between department heads at the Rhode Island School of Design and the art institution’s administration is best described as “in flux” a month and a half after a group of chairs voted no confidence in President Roger Mandle’s leadership, one department head said.

“Things seem to be in flux. I’m just not sure exactly where it will end up,” said Henry Ferreira, head of the printmaking department and president of the Full-Time Faculty Association, a union that signed a new contract this fall after what Ferreira described as “the most contentious” bargaining process in memory. The negotiations came down to the wire: Administrators put forward a salary and benefit proposal the union could accept the day before a planned strike, Ferreira said.

The group of 22 department heads voted 15 to 0, with 2 abstentions and 5 absences, in late October to issue a statement of no confidence in the administration, citing in an explanatory document a “disproportionate” increase in upper-level administrative positions, a lack of transparency with respect to finances, “adversarial” relations between the college and its art museum, an emphais on non-academic priorites for fund-raising, and a lack of confidence “that the institution’s academic integrity will be preserved,” among other concerns. In response, the Board of Trustees reaffirmed its “full confidence” in Mandle, who began his presidency in 1994, at a meeting last week, a RISD spokeswoman said.

There were 22 different sets of concerns among the 22 heads, ranging from moderate to extreme, but the one common thread, said one department head who declined to be named, was a feeling that their voices weren’t being heard. “There was a sense that we’d been cut off. That was the unifying principle – that the administration wasn’t listening to us. The thinking never got down below the dean’s level.”

That department head thinks some progress has been made on the communications front since the group released its statement of no confidence (which was not voted on by the full faculty, among whom the response to the department head action was “mixed,” the chairs say). The president has recently met with the department heads, during which time chairs discussed a need to create a structure through which they can better communicate with upper-level administration (the current group’s structure is not officially recognized by the institution). The heads also met with deans and the provost Monday night to talk about finances. Once called to task, the administration has proven responsive to the department heads’ demands for greater communication, and has shifted a process to develop a new strategic plan to incorporate greater faculty input, the unnamed source said.

However, Ferreira, who said that the union negotiations served as a catalyst for the no-confidence vote, seemed less certain of whether change is a-brewing. The meeting with Mandle was not helpful, he said: “The response in my mind was a lot of verbiage and not much substance. I wish it were different, but unfortunately I’m not sure.”

Two other department heads declined commenting for this story, and six others did not return messages.

Ann Hudner, RISD’s spokeswoman, said the college sees the situation as an “internal matter of governance,” and has no comment beyond the board’s recent affirmation of its confidence in Mandle, in which it also commended the president for the growth that has occurred under his watch. Mandle’s accomplishments include tripling the size of the endowment, overseeing an $85-million campaign that ended up raising $99.3 million, and increasing full-time faculty positions, Hudner said.

“There’s a desire for the department heads to engage in more of a dialogue; the dialogue has begun to take place,” said Hudner, who added that others in the administration would not be speaking on the topic.

“It’s a moment in time. Let’s learn from it, and move forward.”

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