Leadership and Social Media: Rhode Island School of Design President Receives “No Confidence” Vote

The future isn’t always friendly. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, received a “no confidence” vote from his faculty. What role did his active – and some say trailblazing – use of social media play?

The future isn’t always friendly. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, received a “no confidence” vote from his faculty.  What role did his active – and some say trailblazing – use of social media play?

Before he became Present of RISD, John Maeda was not a dean; he was simply an academic professional at the top of this game, known for his forward thinking interactive arts and his thoughts on technology. He was approached by RISD, recruited by a head hunting company, and after an interview, scored the position of President. Even before his official tenure began, Maeda turned to social media, blogging about his presidency. When he was hired in June of 2008, he turned to YouTube, Twitter and blogs, keeping a constant dialogue between the staff, the student body and himself.

He even created unique opportunities to interact with students. Not only did he tweet about everything from leadership to mistakes at the University’s hospital, he also used his blog to reach out. He created “Anonymous Tuesdays” where users could write in with complaints that Maeda promised to respond to.

In 2011, he has more than 1750, 000 followers on Twitter, and is, without a doubt, one of the most technologically savvy President’s of any university anywhere. He has even written a new book called Redesigning Leadership which talks about his use of social media during his tenure at RSID. So, what went wrong?

Some might guess that it was Maeda’s social media innovation in the rigid climate of a university that was the cause of the problem. It seems this is only half true. Ironically, those most involved in the situation suggest it was a lack of communication. In an article title “A College Unfired Its Social-Networking President” posted on Chronicle.com, students and faculty seem to agree: constant communication doesn’t necessarily mean open communication. In the article, March Sherman notes: “There’s been a growing gulf between the administration’s rhetoric and its practice.” Students have also shown signs of unrest, posting anti-Maeda stickers around campus.

Maeda notes that he doesn’t expect to lose his job (in academia, no confidence votes are more politics than anything), but that he is trying to learn from his mistakes. In an interview with Linda Tischler he says: “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.”

It is very rare that academia is a microcosm for anything. However, the case of Maeda raises intriguing questions about how social media and leadership can be balanced in large scale institutions. Social media can be very effective for businesses and advertisers. It can be a great way to rally interest around charities, but how can it be used in more rigid institutions? What is perhaps most interesting about the Maeda case is that it seems to suggest that what works for communicating between an institution and those outside it, may be less effective when communicating within said institution. It is the difference between a public address and a one on one meeting. How can universities – and other large institutions – use the power of social media not to broaden a network, but to strengthen existing connections?