IN DECEMBER 2007, the board of the 134-year-old Rhode Island School of Design made a bold choice, hiring as its new president John Maeda — digital designer, former associate director of research for the MIT Media Lab, introspective iconoclast with little experience in administration or fundraising. "I was the high-risk candidate," he acknowledged the following July, as we strolled the streets of Providence's College Hill on a blistering hot day. "But I'm not worried about getting fired. I could get another job. If you have no fear, no one has power over you." His plan, therefore, was not to lead as if he were running for reelection. "My instinct is just to do what RISD needs."
One of his first goals, he said, was to establish a more open form of leadership, in part by using digital tools to help spark conversation. An admirer of Paul Levy, the former CEO of Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess, who routinely drove his lawyers crazy by blogging about things like medical errors at the hospital, Maeda immediately launched a president's blog. To encourage people to speak out, he instituted Anonymous Tuesdays on the site, where members of the RISD community could vent, as long as they refrained from personal attacks. He was a manic tweeter, delivering a stream of poetic aphorisms on leadership and creativity in 140 characters. And he was one of a tiny number of college presidents with a personal Facebook page.
It was a risky strategy, particularly at a school as fiercely analog as RISD. He was warned that it could backfire, but he was unconcerned.
"Look," Maeda said, "in today's age, anybody could start a blog called johnmaedasucks.com. But I'd rather have a fight in my own yard and explain the truth. I have to be accountable to this whole community."
Three years, one economic crisis, an endowment meltdown, and plenty of academic turmoil later, those words have come back to haunt him. If ever Maeda needed the courage he tweeted about, it's now.
On March 2nd, following the release of a new strategic plan designed around a more interdisciplinary framework for undergraduate studies, the RISD faculty voted "no confidence" in Maeda and provost Jesse Shefrin. The vote was 142-32. The chairman of the Faculty Meeting Steering Committee, Mark Sherman, said the administration "willfully ignored" the faculty's advice in reorganizing various academic divisions.
It should be noted that no-confidence votes are a staple of academic politics. The website Inside Higher Ed returns 165 hits in the U.S. over the past six years. Roger Mandle, the RISD president who preceded Maeda, also survived a thumbs-down by faculty department heads years earlier.
In response to the vote (which represented just 36% of the faculty in the degree program), the RISD board announced that it fully backed Maeda and Shefrin. Still, it was a stunning rebuke of their vision for the school — and of their ability to sell the plan to their stakeholders. In a particularly ironic twist, the crisis came just weeks before the scheduled publication of a new book by Maeda. It's called Redesigning Leadership, and it's a meditation on the challenges of leading in a digital age.
When I spoke to Maeda a few days after the vote, he was concerned and humbled, but determined to soldier on. "I'm not going to lose my job," he says. "The issue now is how you move forward in a situation of impasse. It's a great question I'm working through."
Back in 2008, the RISD board had chosen Maeda because it hoped he could define the school's relationship with a new era of digital technology and global society, while preserving the best of the school's culture and mission. "We loved his view that art and design will influence the 21st century like no other, and RISD has a role in that conversation," says Merrill Sherman, president and CEO of Bancorp Rhode Island and chairman of RISD's board of trustees. Instead of being able to start his tenure with expansive plans for the future, however, Maeda stepped into a fiscal disaster, with the endowment dropping an alarming 30% as the nation hit the recession. "It's so much easier to change things through addition than subtraction," Sherman says. "It was enormously difficult for everyone. But we made it through beautifully."
Claudia Dreifus, coauthor of Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It, says the economy wasn't Maeda's only problem. "On campus, they talk about innovation, but if you have somebody who does it, they're going to be in big trouble," she says. "John was much too original a person not to have gotten in trouble in academe. The most bland university presidents are the most successful. It's one reason why American higher ed is in trouble."
In his book, Maeda foreshadowed the recent crisis with the faculty: "Being brought into an organization as an agent of change has been a humbling experience in balancing my dreams versus the realities presented in the economic climate I quickly encountered," he writes. "Leading often hurts because the decisions you make can negatively affect a lot more people than just yourself."
In retrospect, his cyberstyle leadership was a misstep at a conservative campus battered by the recession. "He got off on the wrong foot in a superficial way," says Kyna Leski, a RISD architecture professor. "The culture at RISD doesn't put much weight in fast tweets." Still, Leski was disappointed in her colleagues' judgment. "The faculty at RISD hasn't noticed that the world has changed over the past few years. Artists should have their eyes open to the world. John is exactly what RISD needed, and I'm ashamed of my peers right now."
Maeda acknowledges that he now understands that social media can only take you so far in redesigning leadership. All those great hopes for leading by blogging, tweeting, and emailing proved inadequate to the gritty business of persuading an actual living, breathing constituency to follow his direction. "Now I talk about 'when digital doesn't do it,' " he says. He's frustrated with everything he learned — and taught — at the Media Lab. "I ate the Jell-O, I drank the Kool-Aid. But now I realize that what I thought could work in the digital era doesn't have the same impact locally as it does globally. People don't want more messages; they want more interactions. There's no perfect memo where you can press send and get connected, or Facebook group you can join to be committed."
Maeda has scaled back his blogging. He accepts that the big Samsung screens he installed as a way to bring students together digitally, by allowing them to post new work, notices of events, and messages, never caught on. "Technologists believe that if they impose a solution, people will adopt it," he says. "But buy-in can't be bought."
Instead, he says, he's going about leading in the old-fashioned way: building relationships one at a time, having coffee with faculty, jogging with students late at night, offering free pizza as an inducement to get them to show up and talk. These interactions are time-consuming, high-bandwidth, interactive, fiscally expensive for a busy president, and unscalable. "It's like Elmer's Glue and toothpicks versus spray glue," he says, in a typical Zen-like riff from Planet Maeda. "Elmer's is messy and wet. In digital, it's all spray glue. But Elmer's holds fast, and spray glue has no permanence. Toothpicks make real community happen. There's no spray glue for trust building."
He has continued to tweet, despite the fact that it annoys some RISD faculty, because he views Twitter as a public notebook, a way to learn out loud. "I take what I've learned and send it out there," he says. "It's a Twitterfly effect."
Minutes after we get off the phone, a Maeda tweet hits the ether: "When you know where you're standing and know where you want to stand, it's time to walk there together." It's a digital olive branch, if anyone's listening.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.