Outgoing RISD president Rosanne Somerson reflects on five decades of change

How the influential furniture designer made an impression on the college

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In late December during her sixth year as president at the Rhode Island School of Design, Rosanne Somerson announced she would be retiring. The furniture designer arrived at RISD as a freshman in 1972, returning a decade later to run the MFA Graduate Program in Furniture Design and co-found the Furniture Design department. She served as interim associate provost for Academic Affairs from 2005 to 2007, interim provost from 2011 to 2012, provost from 2012 to 2013, and interim president from 2014 to 2015 before becoming the 17th president in 2015.Today she is president emerita.

Throughout Somerson’s time at the institution, she’s witnessed both changes and constants. “The core values of RISD are still very true to the mission of educating the world’s most creative future leaders and artists and designers, as well as helping the public to understand arts and design,” Somerson says. “But we’ve got far more breadth in our curriculum. The world has changed, and our design has changed dramatically.” Somerson notes that when she was a student, she and her peers mainly wanted to practice their crafts and discipline. Now, students are looking at what they can do to impact the world and to solve problems being faced by their generation.

During her tenure, Somerson placed a particular focus on helping the school’s fundraising, increasing scholarships and financial aid for students. “We have the highest level of financial aid fundraising in RISD history and the highest level of financial aid awarded by far in our history,” Somerson says. She is also very proud of developing the school’s social equity and inclusion plan, which has led to RISD having a more diverse student body than any time in its history.

RISD has named David Proulx, the recent senior vice president of finance and administration, its interim president. Somerson said that she has not been involved in the search process for her permanent replacement, but is very happy with the choice of Proulx as her temporary successor. “I have enormous respect for him. I hired him, actually. He’s a terrific administrator with a lot of higher education experience.”

“I hope that RISD’s future allows the most talented students to attend, regardless of socioeconomic capacity or capability,” Somerson said. “I want RISD to help them to thrive so that they can go out and be the next influential generation of creative leaders.”

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