In his first address to the community, Bryan Thomas Jr. (Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) outlined his plan for building and maintaining a transformative space at MIT Sloan for students, faculty, staff, and alumni. “We will achieve this by continuing to support and trust one another,” he said. “The strides we are taking show me what MIT Sloan is becoming.”
For Thomas, Austin Ashe (Senior Associate Director, Belonging and Culture), and the MIT Sloan Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), creating such a space is vital. They hope to accomplish this and more by expanding on the work of Ray Reagans (Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Management; Professor, Work and Organization Studies) and Fiona Murray (Associate Dean for Innovation and Inclusion; William Porter (1967) Professor of Entrepreneurship; Co-Director, MIT Innovation Initiative; Faculty Director, Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship). Thomas believes that their “startup” character is key to meeting these goals.
“We’re a startup within a school, which provides us with a very unique way to think about our work,” says Thomas. “We’re building so many new things right now—and it’s important for us to reflect on this, as everyone is interacting with and trying to understand one another across many different dimensions.”
We spoke with Thomas and Ashe about their work in the MIT Sloan Office of DEI.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR TOP PRIORITIES?
Thomas: Our main priority is understanding what we are doing well, what we can do better, and how best to communicate this to the MIT Sloan community. We want to help them understand what our narrative is as an office and as a school. To accomplish this, we need to expand our institutional knowledge to increase transparency so that everyone knows what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why. In addition, we need to make these contributions systemic, so they connect with everything else in the MIT Sloan ecosystem. Otherwise, it will not have the impact it should. This is more of an offensive game than a defensive one. Progress in higher education is typically reactionary, and we’re working on becoming proactive. We want to understand this and act on it.
Ashe: We have also talked a lot about the different experiences of the MIT Sloan community. What I mean by this is, while most people are excited and happy about coming to work and going to class, there are pockets of people who have different experiences and feel invisible because they carry an identity or identities that are not represented in abundance at the school. We want to find ways to listen to those who may feel unseen and unheard. The more identities you represent, the greater the likelihood of being challenged in ways that might be inequitable. For example, a woman who is a person of color working in an entry-level position will experience MIT Sloan in ways that are very different when compared to a faculty member or senior-level administrator. So how do we make those people and others feel seen and heard? How can our office provide them with the platform to communicate their experiences to the greater MIT Sloan community?
WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT THIS WORK?
Thomas: I do not think people realize how significant it is for a business school like MIT Sloan to build a team like this. Our work can be a model for others. What we are doing here provides our students with a framework for moving forward in their careers. They are already generational talents who are going to be responsible for making generational change, but now they have access to learning and coaching through MIT Sloan. You can have extraordinary talent, but everyone needs coaching. And now that they are in this space seeing how an entire ecosystem can work together, I think even more possibilities will open when they go into the corporate world.
Ashe: We have a real opportunity to set the tone for what it means to be an inclusive community. Schools like MIT Sloan make the world go around, and we can play a part in making sure it spins the right way. What I also find exciting is what motivates me—commitment. Dean Schmittlein made a commitment by appointing Ray and Fiona as the associate deans of this work. Then we were able to grow the office by recruiting an incredible leader and visionary in Bryan. We are still growing with the addition of my position and hopefully others. Also, there appears to be a meaningful commitment from our community. The sheer number of messages wishing us congratulations that we have both received has been overwhelming—and it reflects a hunger for this kind of work by the MIT Sloan community. People are curious about how they can be helpful. We are only as good as our diversity of thought. So, if we are going to be a diverse community capable of making momentous changes for industry and for the world, we need that kind of interest and hunger for this work among the staff, faculty, students, and alumni.
HOW CAN ALUMNI GET INVOLVED?
Ashe: Alumni are incredibly important in helping us connect our practice to the student experience and life after graduation. We are really going to need their support going forward. They can help us chart a course for success by sharing anecdotes from their student experiences and careers—specifically, stories that provide pragmatic examples to students and to us about what challenges and opportunities we should be on the lookout for. Relationships are so important. It’s especially important for students to have access to first-rate alumni who work in their chosen fields. We also hope alumni who return to campus to spend time with students will come by our office to say hello and brainstorm some DEI case studies with us. We want them to have a specific place where they can feel at home.
Thomas: Alumni are especially critical to this work—and will continue to be a critical component of it going forward. The alumni councils, like the MIT Sloan Affinity Group Alumni Council, have been fantastic thought partners. They are very driven and have been doing this work prior to our arrival. I always want our relationship with alumni to be proactive like this, and I love it when they tap on the office door to visit and see how things are going. Whether they want to mentor students, offer internships, or host events, we will always have a space for our alumni to create these opportunities. We want them to feel valued here. We want to accomplish something they can engage with and be proud of.