May 6th, 2011
“Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.” Oscar Wilde said that, among many other wise and witty things.
I am reminded of this by fresh news at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where their “genius” president, John Maeda, is the subject of loud and really interesting controversy. By all accounts, including his own, Medea was hired not for his long record of administrative experience but for his demonstrated brilliance, especially in the field of new technologies. Plucked from M.I.T., where he had served as associate director of their dazzling Media Lab, he assumed the office of the president of RISD with absolutely no deep management experience—zilch, not even as a department chair.
Some risks are well worth taking, of course, and one can imagine why a hiring committee and even a board of governors would have recognized in Dr. Medea an attractive, visionary 21st century thinker, someone especially well suited to an institute dedicated to art and design. In the hope of branding their institution as an edgy, exciting destination of the future, they would have seen in this candidate the perfect inspirational leader.
But as the example now shows, creativity or even genius does not necessarily carry over into effective management practice. Reading through reports of the current campus calamities, one tries to get a sense of where the truth lies, and as an administrator I want to give the guy the benefit, or some benefit, of the doubt. True, Medea was hired at a moment of severe budgetary constraints, and hard decisions about cutting programs and staff had to be made by someone. That would be enough to incur wrath and damnation, sure. But the focus of so much of the faculty and student unrest seems to be on how (poorly) Medea has been communicating.
There are several layers of irony here. As a 21st century communications guru, the fortuitously named president arrived with the expressed aim of opening up a very public conversation, one managed through social media. Normally, college presidents don’t blog, text, tweet, or text. Not yet, anyway. Medea might be the first active user of such communication modalities, and in that role he is, perhaps, a test case for the benefits and hazards of such media. The tension between the immediacy of electronic communication and the need for more extended, thoughtful dialogue about change, especially in academic life, seems to be informing a lot of the RISD unrest. I am not sure our campuses are ready for presidents who repeatedly express themselves in no more than 140 characters, although I admire the attempt to do so.
Complaints about Medea highlight his witty, aphoristic style of expression and his obvious inability to listen. Does a tendency to reduce one’s thoughts to sound bites diminish one’s capacity to engage in extended dialogue? This is what many online comments about his leadership suggest. One recurring theme is that he has failed to “cultivate” relationships with faculty. A tweet or blog might mark your voice and even humanize your personality, but it does not a relationship make. Medea might be the victim of his own hipness, reaching everyone instantly in ways university presidents rarely do but failing to connect. This seems particularly obvious when the Institute faced severe program cuts. An aphorism a day did not keep the pain away.
Back to experience. If one thing is obvious in all the noisy accusations it is that Medea came to the position completely untested. Without ever having had to face a serious administrative crisis or manage a large budget or even deal with conflicting demands from a range of disciplinary interests he could not really be expected to have handled the pressures of office too gracefully. It is not all clear whether he understands that, but perhaps this experience is teaching him that effective communication is way more complex than rapid keypunching.
Remotely related to this subject is the election of several new Members of Parliament from the province of Quebec. As most news-reading Canadians know by now, many of these startled New Democratic Party newbies are students, undergrad and graduate students, who no more expected to be earning $160,000 a year as elected members of government than I expected a majority Conservative election result. Experience? They’ve barely earned their driver’s license. Good luck to them. Let’s hope their admittedly limited experience as students will have prepared them at least a little for the demands of political life. For that matter, they are probably better prepared for their new roles than the tweet-dependent president of RISD was for his.