Interim ICEO Alyce Johnson reflects on her time at MIT

‘We need to hone in on specific solutions instead of general platitudes’

Alyce Johnson, who has served as interim Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO) this past year, has been leading collaborations between different departments, helping to decide the future of inclusion at MIT, and defining the role of ICEO. She first began working at MIT in 1991 and will be retiring from MIT this summer.

The Tech sat down with Johnson this week to discuss her experiences.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tech: What drew you to MIT?

Alyce Johnson: I was in human resources. MIT was one of the very few places that offered workplace flexibility, and I was a single parent who needed flexibility. We lived in the neighborhood too.

The Tech: From 2009 to 2018, you were the manager of staff diversity and inclusion. What are you most proud to have achieved in this role?

Johnson: I think in 2013 or 2014, we created what’s called employee resource groups. It is for people who are sharing an identity or an interest in an identity. They come together as employees. The organization comes together. The group gives back to the organization, working on policies that support the Institute.

The Tech: What made you decide to take on the role of interim ICEO?

Johnson: Are you kidding? It’s an honor to take this job on. I think it leverages the fact that I’ve been doing this work for about 10 years. I’ve been in human resources for most of my career. I’m just very excited. It’s a way to support the ongoing mission of making MIT a more inclusive environment.

The Tech: What responsibilities did you have as interim ICEO?  

Johnson: Broad buckets: a thinking partner to and with senior leadership, a collaborator and partner with the other diversity and inclusion efforts and being a resource for those initiatives. I spent a lot of time thinking about how you address issues of inequity, how you think about inclusion for different constituencies. The ongoing work is around those kinds of topics, though we are also trying to provide some kind of a framework around current diversity and inclusion initiatives that are going on.

The Tech: Can you give some examples of current diversity and inclusion initiatives?

Johnson: Through the provost’s office, there is something called a Department Support Project that helps departments think about their climate and inclusionary practices. I thought about that with Maryanne Kirkbride, [executive administrator of MindHandHeart]. We thought about helping areas enhance their practices. I’m also part of groups that bring different groups to speak on campus.

The Tech: Do you think the position of ICEO is an effective one?

Johnson: I think the position is evolving. It’s grown in its effectiveness. This office has provided visibility, dialogue, information. I don’t think you’re ever done with this kind of work. A checkbox? That’s not how you work with people. Is it important to have this role? Absolutely. It’s critical in any role to have a leader in these kinds of topics. Some of it is having the content, knowledge, and expertise to support the work.

The Tech: What would you like to change in the next year about how MIT currently handles diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Johnson: We currently leverage the organizational culture in being very decentralized. We should leverage the local efforts more. A lot of work is already going on, but we should bump that up a little. Greater partnerships, centrally and locally. Having individuals in departments, in schools, where that’s their full-time job. Thinking about equity and diversity. That’s a big job because there are several different departments within each section. How that comes together is key. I think having point people who are thinking about this intentionally is important. It’s not a change that happens overnight but an evolution.

The Tech: What do you think are the most pressing challenges for diversity, equity, and inclusion at MIT in the future?

Johnson: Some of this work is being flexible, adaptable, thoughtful, and intentional in thinking about how people belong. Why did I come here in 1991? Workplace flexibility. If you had asked me this question then, I would say that we need to have the space for people to decide for themselves what they need. MIT needs to step back and say, “Are we paying attention to what students are saying?” “Are we paying attention to what staff are saying?”

I think you have to see the specific issues based on the different constituencies. Postdoc needs might be very different from grad students. What are the challenges for postdocs? Let’s talk to the postdocs and find out. How about grad students of color or international grad students? I’m sure in each constituency there’s different things they need. We need to hone in on specific solutions instead of general platitudes. I think we have offices that are doing just that.  

The Tech: Do you have any parting thoughts?

Johnson: I would like everyone else to have the experience I had working here. I had great mentors, great opportunities. I always felt like I belonged. That’s a very enriching feeling.