A well-delayed note…

On September 24, 2020 I shared a post on why I’m leaving the Publicis universe — learn more if you’re curious.

I received an unexpected and kind email from a RISD parent who I didn’t know was at the same workplace as me at Publicis. It’s their recount of an event that happened seven years ago! <3

When I arrived as President of RISD in 2008, I had heard there was some incredible ritual of parents who drove to drop off their student — a column of cars that were lined up to the freshman quad. And there were volunteers and grounds staff folks moving each of their boxes into the freshmen’s rooms. It sounded like a wonderful thing. So I put on my tennis shoes, walking shorts, and got one of the volunteer T-shirts so that I could participate in move-in day.

I would walk through the column of cars to say hello to parents — and also to get a sense of where they were from. Many of them looked tired and proud. Not to mention they were very sad because they were soon going to say goodbye to their beloved student.

Moving in the students was extremely useful if you wear a “customer research” lens. I was able to get a sense from parents as to their WHY of sending them to RISD, and I could also get a vague sense from the students themselves (super introvert-y like me so not so talkative) as their own WHY as well.

I also remember being unpopular for doing this as it seemed “unpresidential.” At the time I didn’t think about this at all — and just made it my yearly habit.

It helped me understand the needs and concerns of my own staff, and also the students themselves working as volunteers. I always learned A TON from the process.

I recall one year how I was finished with the move-in, and was walking back to the main headquarters building when a Providence police officer said in a loud voice, “Hey!”

I immediately turned around and replied, “Yes, sir.” I knew that we hired Providence Police that were off the clock as extra detail for security on move-in date. That said, because he wasn’t one of my own Public Safety Officers I was concerned that I might be headed for the slammer.

He said, “Are you the president of this place?” As he eyed me from head to toe wearing a T-shirt and walking shorts …

I walked up to him and said, “Um. Yes.”

“Well, I’ve gotta tell you. You have an unusual university. You know. Me and my partner, on any given night, we’re breaking up parties at Brown, Providence College, U.R.I. … it’s really all the time. But we never break up any RISD parties.”

I smiled and asked him to tell me more.

“We will be driving through your campus like at 3AM, and all the lights are on in your buildings. What are they doing?”

To which I shared how there’s a fallacy in the popular media where art and design folks are portrayed as lazy, flaky, and unproductive. In reality, however, they are the hardest working people I’ve ever met. That’s because they are putting their own selves at stake when they create. And at RISD, it’s not like they are getting 1 or 2 hours per month of it like they did in high school with art classes. They were getting to do it 24/7. I likened it to thoroughbred horses that were never able to run beyond the confines of a closet, and now they had all the room within which to run as far and fast as they’d like. And even better: with likeminded individuals who had been waiting to roam and run freely.

The police officer said back to me, “Oh! I see. Carry on.”


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