RISD's Software

In the Spring of 2009, I wrote a profile of RISD President John Maeda a year into his tenure. It was the story of a digital media rock star trying out a new brand of leadership - one that would eschew the traditional emphasis on constructing a gleaming building or department for a focus on connectivity and vision and stoking entrepreneurship. 

I wrote this near the end of the piece:

Will the Maeda presidency be about a blog and a few corporate partnerships? Or will there be more? What edifice will he build? What academic program will he tear down?

That, Maeda suggests, is the wrong line of questioning. The president says his tenure should be measured not in bricks and books, but in something less tangible. Not in hardware, but in software.

Maeda says his charge is to forge connection, to tell the RISD story to the world — and to a campus that does not always appreciate its own talents.

"Did you notice that you have this superpower?" Maeda said. "If you're not told that you can levitate and have telekinesis, are you going to use it?"

It was an intriguing vision, but it was an elusive one. What, precisely, would it look like?

Last week, I sat down with Maeda and provost Rosanne Somerson to chat a bit about where the school has come and where it is headed. And that vision Maeda articulated four years ago began to take some shape.

Early in his tenure, Maeda said, he called 100 students who had been admitted to RISD just to get a sense for what they were thinking and expecting. One young woman spoke of how excited she was to win admission - she'd dreamed of attending RISD from a young age - and how upset she was that she wouldn't be able to attend. Tuition, she said, was too expensive. That conversation, Maeda said, helped catalyze a major scholarship fundraising drive. And the school, Somerson said, has raised more for scholarships in the last three years than in its entire history combined.

That's part of the software package.

Somerson also spoke of a push to improve cross-disciplinary practice on campus. The school, for instance, is designing some pilot "shared making spaces" that might put a textile student next to a furniture student next to a glass student. Peer learning is already a big part of the RISD culture. This effort aims to exploit that tendency and create something new at the juncture of various disciplines.

RISD is also working to build its capacity as a research engine and to disseminate what it's learned. Many corporate and non-profit partners come to the school expecting RISD students and faculty to design the poster for their initiatives. But RISD aims for something more - what it calls "critical making." Students attempt to formulate the questions that can guide a project. They look to rethink or redesign the system at its base.

A course called "Oystertecture," part of a broader, multi-agency effort to examine the effects of climate change on coastal life, put students to work creating shellfish habitat in Rhode Island's waters.

Maeda has also pushed RISD into the forefront of the "STEM to STEAM" movement. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - shorthand for a sprawling push to ramp up American education in these areas and put the country on better footing in the global economy.

Art and design need a place in the acronym, Maeda argues. After all, the iPod was a triumph not just of technology, but of design. And he's getting some traction. Recently, he was on hand for the launch of a Congressional STEAM caucus in Washington. The briefings, he tells me, were packed.

Of course, it will take time to shift the national dialogue around STEM or to fully realize the other software upgrades Maeda and his team envision. But there's something interesting happening at RISD.


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