It’s clear to me now that every visit to a NECHE institution will enlighten and surprise me in some way, but today’s trip to the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD, took the proverbial cake. For one thing, we don’t accredit many art schools, much less one of RISD’s reputation and caliber. We were greeted by David Proulx, RISD’s interim President (a position he is handling in addition to his day job as CFO and his days-and-weekend post as a NECHE Commissioner). A new President will be announced soon and while Dave has certainly enjoyed his time as interim president, I got the sense he won’t be unhappy to have his normal life back again. During our visit, we were joined by Provost Kent Kleinman and Vice Provost Daniel Cavicchi, and their collective pride in their institution was undeniable.
Let’s start with a quote directly from RISD’s website:
That’s all true, but there’s also a palpable, intrinsic cool about RISD and its students that is unmistakable. Some of it has to do with its urban campus, located right on the river: sixty buildings, representing almost two million square feet of space in the heart of Providence. A remarkable sixty percent of the students are full pay, at over $70,000 a year, because they really couldn’t imagine themselves anywhere else. Well-known graduate hipsters include the founders of Airbnb, Seth McFarlane, Nicole Miller, and David Byrne.
I’ve known of RISD almost forever, as an iconic arts and design school that nurtures and develops incredible talent. Apparently, the whole world knows too, because nearly 40% of its students are international. (And only a few dozen were unable to come back to campus for the fall semester in person.)
So, having visited hundreds of college campuses in my thirty-plus years in higher education, how much would I be surprised by another college visit? Well, a whole lot is the answer. I’m not sure where to start. Maybe with the Nature Lab, where more than 80,000 specimens and staggering state-of-the-art imaging systems provide students with unmediated access to authentic natural history objects that support their inquiry into biometrics, biophilic design, ecology, and climate change.
Students learn about design in nature while exploring connections between artistic and scientific research, guided by the Director of the Nature Lab, Jennifer Bissonette, who was so on fire to share the treasures within the Nature Lab, I was worried she might spontaneously combust. And did I mention the Bones room? Bones, bones, and more bones.
A few steps away, The Metcalf Building which serves as the core “making” facility was immense, impressive and gritty, with wide-open spaces for furniture making, welding, painting, architecture, sculpture, photography, apparel, jewelry, ceramics, and glass-blowing. The dusty furniture lab was filled with workbench after workbench of students who were hand-building chairs, stools, and tables. All during COVID, RISD students still showed up to create their masterworks, although half the gargantuan tables were hauled off to storage and the floors marked off by tape to ensure workspaces were safely socially-distanced. (It was noted that RISD removed 27 tractor-trailer loads of furniture and equipment, laid 30 miles of tape, and posted over 4,000 signs around campus to help with de-densification of campus).
Even the residential facilities at RISD are remarkable. Soaring above the venerable elegance of The Fleet Library, accessed by luxe Art Nouveau elevators, are nine floors of student housing. The Fleet Library, which has been recognized by several sources as one of the most beautiful in higher education, sits in a repurposed former grand bank building complete with marble pillars, and a hanging Grand Central-esque clock.
There’s an energy at RISD that’s hard to explain. I heard one of our guides say that RISD is a place for unbounded thinking and that felt like an apt description, even with only a few hours’ visit. One thing I can say for certain: it’s a distinctive, one-of-a-kind institution that makes you want to know it better. We’ve already decided another visit is in order, with a leisurely stop at the renowned RISD Museum (and of course a return trip to the Bones Room).