The Practical Advice I Give To All New College Presidents

John Maeda
3 min readJul 19, 2022
Commencement at RISD where we honored Sir Jony Ive, Sir Ken Robinson, Caterina Fake with doctorates. That’s me on the right.

“Manage by your outbox. Not by your inbox.”
—useful advice given to me by President Bacow of Harvard University

The morning light was creeping in as I quietly lay in a dorm room bed at Harvard while another college president typed fervently on his Blackberry in the bed next to me. We were roomies both attending the week-long “Presidents Camp” offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education for new chief executives of educational institutions. It’s a known rite of passage for a tiny group of folks each year that I certainly had never heard about, but it’s definitely a thing.

At this Hogwarts-style learning experience that felt very Harvard, a variety of knowledge gets passed on that includes important bits like how to attend a social function and get seen by everyone there. The secret? Make a slow path to all four corners of the room by traversing it through its two diagonals.

But like all things in life that can never be learned in books or at a Presidents Camp, the reality of running a college is something that needs to get lived firsthand. My roommate was already a year into his tenure as president, and given how he began each morning silently typing on his Blackberry while horizontal and with a furrowed brow, I soon came to understand his agitated state shortly after I took on the mantle of president.

Running a long-standing “business” that is extremely inefficient in nature, and that can be literally crumbling apart (take a closer look at those old, beautiful buildings on campus <smile>), is an uneasy task that isn’t getting any easier these days. Knowing what I know today, I’m a true believer in what the late HBS professor Clayton Christensen proclaimed in 2018: “50% of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the US will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.”

There are a few fundamentals to know in the business of running an educational institution that I wish someone told me at Presidents Camp — and that was especially the case having started in the year 2008 on the precipice of the global financial crisis of 2008–09…

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John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Currently VP Design and A.I. at MSFT.