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Why John Maeda Is Leaving RISD For A Venture Capital Firm

We talk to Maeda about his new job in Silicon Valley, what he regrets about his tenure at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the school's outlook for the future.

Why John Maeda Is Leaving RISD For A Venture Capital Firm

Rhode Island School of Design's visionary, digitally savvy president, John Maeda, announced Wednesday that he'll be leaving his position at the country's premier art and design school for venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he'll be a design partner.

Maeda came to RISD from the MIT Media Lab with little administrative or fundraising experience in 2007. During his tenure, he has attempted to fold digital technology into the school's stubbornly analog approach to arts education, with mixed results. At one point, he earned a vote of no confidence from the faculty. At the same time, during the six years he's been at the head of the institution, the number of students applying to RISD has gone up, as have the number of financial aid packages offered, and tuition increases have been at their lowest in decades. In 2012, the school had a 97% job placement rate for graduates.

Reached by phone the day after he announced his departure, Maeda discussed his time at RISD and what's in store for the school's next leader.

What led you to make the jump to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers?
Well, it was the opportunity of the lifetime. It seems like right now more than ever technology needs design, and that’s in my mission to bring those two worlds together in the context of business. So what an opportunity!

How do you think your six years at RISD changed the school?
I think the role of art and design has changed outside our school, and in that happening, we’ve moved along with it in so many ways. We’ve been intersecting with our classical DNA with new technologies like Square, Kickstarter, Etsy and things like that. But we’ve kept our classic core.

Do you have any regrets about your tenure? What do you wish you could have accomplished?
I think every leader asks themselves that question. For me, I think I regret that ... Give me a second. Do I have regrets today? Everyone has a regret. Let me pace for a second—could you wait two minutes as I pace?

[Whispering in the background: I don’t regret that ... I don't regret that.]

No, I actually have no regrets. I’m very peaceful. I’ve had a great time with our students. So holy cow, I will say, at least right now when you’re asking me this question, I have no regrets. Call me in a year.

I’m definitely sad to leave—I’ve been president for six years. This is like my family.

Your time at RISD has been somewhat controversial. Is there anything else you wish you could have accomplished?
The nature of leadership is to take on change. That’s what leadership’s about. And I think, if anything, I—as a creative person—learned how to lead. I have to say that I’m happy to have understood what creatives do and feel as leaders, and I hope in the long term I might be a role model for other creatives who are searching for what leadership is about.

I like to always say artists and designers are extremely agile. Agility is what I think I have learned as a leader, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.

What do you think is in store for RISD’s next president?
RISD’s in great shape. At the [MIT] Media Lab, one of my mentors was a man named Stephen Benton. He once told me, "John, the role of someone in a job is to make the job more attractive for the next person." I’ll never forget what he said to me. In that spirit, I have worked to make this job a better job for the next person.

And I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished: to raise the spirits of the school, to be known as the No. 1 design school in the world, to at the same time lower costs, so we’re no longer the No. 1 most expensive art school.

What do you think will be RISD’s biggest challenge going forward?
Oh, that’s really easy. The problem with being No. 1 is, there’s nothing above No. 1. So that’s a constant challenge—once you are No. 1, how do you stay No. 1? Not a bad problem to have.

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