Strife at RISD

No-confidence vote in president and provost sheds light on tensions within schools of art -- and higher education. How interdisciplinary can an institution be without strong disciplines?
March 16, 2011

Each unhappy faculty is unhappy in its own way.

This is true at the Rhode Island School of Design, where faculty members voted overwhelmingly last week to register their verdict of no confidence in their president, John Maeda, and provost, Jessie Shefrin.

To be sure, many colleges these days are seeing tensions between administrators who want to reshape programs in tight budget times and faculty members who question some of those ideas. But at RISD, the tensions leading up to the vote -- which passed with 147 faculty members expressing no confidence, 32 voting against the measure and 15 abstaining -- are unique to the institution and the personalities involved. The dispute at RISD, which enjoys a prominent reputation among colleges of design and fine arts, also highlights larger tensions felt at many peer institutions -- tensions between training students for specialized work and giving them broader education and preparation. The conflict in Providence also parallels strains between practical and liberal education that are playing out at other types of colleges, as students worry about their employability after taking on debt (the sticker price for a year at RISD is more than $53,000).

“It is important to note that this was not a quick or emotional response to anything that occurred in the previous three weeks,” wrote the authors of a “short history” of the conflict, which summarizes the collective concerns of the 25 petitioners of the no-confidence motion. This history, which is part of a packet of information that has been circulating around campus, recounts the reasons for what the authors call “the severest rebuke the faculty can register against its leaders."

“That vote,” the authors continued, “is best understood as a response to an accumulation of actions and behaviors that the president and provost team undertook or exhibited ever since they took up their positions two and a half years ago in June of 2008.”

Many of those accumulated actions and behaviors may be familiar to observers of strife between faculty members and administrators. Maeda has been accused of governing by fiat and fear, and of forcing out longstanding employees who were insufficiently loyal. One such employee is Hope Alswang, who was ousted as director of RISD's museum because of policy differences (she and Maeda disagreed over whether the sale of some of the museum's art ought to be considered) and personality clashes (Maeda accused Alswang of being disrespectful). Shefrin is alleged to have been less than forthcoming about changes in personnel and departmental structure -- such as merging, allegedly without input from faculty, deans and department heads, the divisions of fine arts and architecture and design into a new division of undergraduate studies.

Maeda said he was disappointed by the vote and that he had been grappling with how best to respond. He said the vote was a clear sign that he had to redouble his efforts to build a strong relationship with faculty members. On Wednesday, he began holding open office hours for faculty members, and he said he would continue hosting breakfasts for them at his home. “I can see a need for an ongoing dialogue,” he said. “I definitely realize I have to work harder.”

Maeda, whose biography describes him as an artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and educator (and whom the London Evening Standard called “the 21st century’s cleverest man”), was previously associate director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Lab is known for its highly experimental, cross-disciplinary approach, and for its entrepreneurial bent (its projects have hatched such products as Amazon's Kindle and the "Guitar Hero" video game). Maeda said he realized that the cyber-dependent relationships to which he had grown accustomed at MIT did not translate well to the culture at RISD. “You can’t break bread over the Internet,” he said. (Shefrin was not available for comment).

A programmatic factor that triggered the conflict was a draft of a strategic plan, titled “Connecting the Dots,” whose development Maeda and Shefrin led, and which was unveiled in January.

In his introduction to the plan, Maeda outlined areas of risk facing RISD both internally and externally: economic stress; competition from other institutions; decreased emphasis on art at the K-12 level; declining numbers of high school graduates from areas, such as New England, that feed RISD; and past expansions by RISD that were inadequately funded. He also offered an acronym that he sees as a necessary corollary to the broader focus on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He called it IDEA, which stands for intuition, design, emotion and art. “Great art and ingenious design are human necessities,” he wrote, “and the case must be made now more than ever.”

Faculty members say they generally embrace change, and they have acknowledged that many of the goals of the plan are worthy, such as bolstering information technology, boosting money available for scholarships and improving operations. The process of creating the plan was thoughtful and deliberative, several said.

But other concerns loomed large; faculty members wondered how resources would be allocated and how departments -- and the institution -- would be altered. On Feb. 23, the faculty rejected the draft plan, with 82 percent of the 175 votes cast lodged against it. Mark Sherman, an English professor, wrote in a letter to the board of trustees that the faculty rebuffed the plan’s “facile notions of interdisciplinarity amid a real institutional environment in which studio departments are denied the resources to provide the core curriculum for their majors, and we rejected the plan’s breezy attitude toward academic standards, suggesting that minimum accreditation requirements are sufficient to meet RISD standards.”

Worries about how best to pursue an interdisciplinary approach have occupied many in academe. For every embrace of a bold new paradigm, such as “convergence science,” there is the concern that institutions -- and careers -- are still organized according to traditional disciplines. The danger, some say, is that interdisciplinary departments and scholars, sooner or later, will find themselves academically so specialized as to be esoteric, or wind up departmentally homeless. In design and the fine arts, the perceived risk of an interdisciplinary approach is that it will leave students without enough time to truly master their disciplines.

Many schools of art and design are wrestling with the notion of interdisciplinarity, said Bill Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (and a RISD graduate). At the same time, he added that many subjects in the fine arts and design are already interdisciplinary in nature. This is true not just of design fields, which more obviously pull together disparate disciplines (industrial design, for example, might involve sketching, model-making and fashioning full-scale prototypes). “A huge amount of what goes on in fine arts is almost by definition interdisciplinary,” said Barrett.

Among schools of art and design, said Barrett, adopting an interdisciplinary focus is meant to make curriculums more flexible and less compartmentalized, and render administration better able to support such efforts. This focus is intended to make it easier for departments to work together and break down the silos separating them. “Most people in our association think this is a good idea,” he said. “But they also acknowledge that there will always be students and faculty who like silos.”

At RISD, anxiety about promoting interdisciplinary studies has more to do with the sense that such a move will not train students in sufficient depth. RISD undergraduates spend their first year studying what the institution calls foundational courses -- drawing, design and spatial dynamics -- as well as the liberal arts. The three subsequent years are spent chiefly within one’s departmental major. According to the draft of the strategic plan, the number of credits required within a major would be reduced by an unspecified number. Credits needed to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts would decrease from 126 to 120, in order to ease the stress on students during winter sessions.

"On paper that looks really wonderful,” said Rachel Berwick, head of the glass department, who expressed caution about the larger effects of the plan. “What we’re doing is cutting away at the core curriculum of the program.” Berwick said that the steep learning curve involved in truly mastering glass-making -- and in learning how to express oneself originally in the medium -- makes it inadvisable to reduce the number of credits in the major.

“Interdisciplinarity is fine,” Berwick added. “We cross over with digital media and industrial design. We love that and invite that dialogue.” The real risk, she said, is that by diminishing the number of credits in favor of more interdisciplinarity, RISD would start churning out dilettantes.

Some students want more interdisciplinarity and less subject-specific training in their fields. Two students appear in a video taken during a strategic planning meeting in which they say they’d like to have the chance to branch out of their majors more instead of feeling isolated. “When people choose RISD, it’s because it’s the preeminent school of art and design, not the preeminent school of glasswork,” one student says.

A desire among students to experience different programs makes sense given the expectations and experiences that many of them bring to RISD, said Dennis Hlynsky, chair of the film, animation and video department. Many students grew up using the web, he said. “We have a situation where students have been given a promise of being able to pick and choose,” he said. “Limiting them to a single selection becomes problematic because they’re used to bouncing from thing to thing to thing.”

Privately, some observers acknowledge that a cultural rift is also at play at institutions like RISD. Design is sexy. Designers work in offices that interact with -- and are hired by -- businesses. As such, design fields are enjoying a certain allure, not to mention the benefit of a clear, direct application to the wider world. The fine arts, on the other hand, are typically carried out in solitary fashion, and their methods are, in many cases, centuries-old.

A parallel can be seen, some say, in higher education more generally, as the humanities and liberal education fight for the interest of students and the viability of their departments, while practical majors such as business claim higher enrollments than other disciplines.

Faculty members in the fine arts who worry about the viability of their departments should be consoled by recent history, said Barrett. The number of students majoring in fine arts and crafts has increased very slightly over the past decade, he said, while the number of those focusing on design and media areas has gone up slightly more than in the fine arts. As a result, the ratio of students is tipping toward design. “Given the increasing emphasis on design and new media (animation, game design, etc.), this is all probably understandable,” Barrett said in an e-mail.

But he added that in virtually all the schools he’s seen, the introduction of an interdisciplinary orientation or emphasis has not translated into the closure of individual departments or majors -- fine arts or otherwise.


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