Agustín Rayo looks ahead to new role as Dean of SHASS

Rayo previously chaired SHASS committees and served as associate and interim dean

9781 agustin rayo
Professor Agustín Rayo ’01 was named Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Jan. 25.
Courtesy of Jon Sachs, MIT SHASS Communications

Philosophy professor Agustín Rayo ’01 was named Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) Jan. 25, after having served as the interim Dean following former SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles’s appointment to the Chancellor position. The appointment went into effect Feb. 1. 

Rayo has been an MIT faculty member since 2005, and served as associate Dean of SHASS from 2016–19. His work lies at the intersection of the philosophy of logic and the philosophy of language, and seeks to understand the relationship between our language and the world it represents, clarify the connection between logic and mathematics, and investigate the limits of communicable thought, according to his faculty page

Rayo is devoted to campus leadership and service, chairing the SHASS Faculty Diversity Committee, the SHASS Educational Advisory Committee, and the Digital Humanities Steering Committee while associate Dean. He was also housemaster of Senior House from 2010–14.

A detailed biography, description of service, and comments from administrators can be found on MIT News.

The Tech communicated with Rayo via email. His responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

The Tech: What do you hope to accomplish in your time as the dean of SHASS, especially with regards to the school's focus on research, critical skills, and international education?

Agustín Rayo: I want to continue to highlight the core role of the humanities, arts, and social sciences at MIT.

To solve the world’s problems you have to understand how the world works. Our School can help students acquire that understanding.

SHASS also empowers our undergraduates to develop the whole of their multidimensional selves. It gives students who are focused on STEM the freedom to delve into speculative fiction, performance, music technology, ethics, logic, the ancient world, justice, policy-making — or dozens of other explorations.

TT: Can you elaborate on the direction in which you are hoping to take SHASS? 

Rayo: Rather than thinking of SHASS as a single entity, I think of it as consisting of three parts: a house of humanities, a house of arts, and a house of social sciences. I’m hoping to support the growth of all three.

MIT’s humanities programs are ranked among the best in the world. They teach critical thinking and a deeper understanding of the world’s history and culture. I’d like to empower our distinguished humanists to continue doing what they do best. And I’d like to convince our students to take more humanities classes. Alumni often tell me that their most meaningful experience at MIT came from a humanities class. I wish I could give this insight to students just starting out. The performing arts based in our School are an important part of the MIT experience. Our acclaimed Music Program — which includes a conservatory-level music track — is among the reasons students choose MIT. The 2024 opening of our new music building will usher in a new era of programming, classes, and events. And the recently opened theater building in W97 has created unparalleled opportunities for theater arts.

MIT’s social science fields are problem-solving engines, with superb graduate programs and research that informs national and international policy in sectors ranging from healthcare to jobs to democracy. I want to support this research and empower students to integrate these powerful methodologies into their studies.

Finally, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives allow MIT students to develop as respectful, knowledgeable global citizens. It gives them the skills they’ll need to become international leaders.

TT: What is the importance of an education in SHASS, especially to students at a tech school?

Rayo: The humanities, arts, and social sciences are crucial to understanding the human condition and our complex social, political, and economic institutions. MIT’s SHASS classes help develop powerful career, leadership, and problem-solving skills. They also help develop core values, a moral compass, and a more nuanced perspective of the world.

TT: How will you help promote further diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within SHASS?

Rayo: I will continue advancing our DEI efforts, reflecting our commitment to shared values of excellence, collaboration, kindness, and mutual respect. I care deeply about the mental and physical well-being of our students.

We are seeking to further diversify our faculty and student cohorts. In our hiring and teaching, we work to ensure underrepresented groups are afforded as many opportunities as possible. Tracie Jones, Assistant Dean for DEI, is leading these efforts.

I’m worried that DEI conversations at MIT have become increasingly polarized and people are more ready to disparage the other side of the debate. This is partly a reflection of our state as a nation. But I hope we can do better in SHASS. I hope we’re able to give others the benefit of the doubt.

TT: Given that you are also a professor in the philosophy department, how does that play into your role and how do you hope to see the department grow in the near future?

Rayo: Philosophy will always be my first love. But I’m the Dean of all of SHASS, not just of philosophy, and I’ll try not to forget that while I’m in this role.

TT: Consensus shows that MIT has one of the best humanities departments in the country, and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings often ranks it highly in comparison to its peers. To what do you ascribe this success?

Rayo: As is often the case, it’s about the people. Our school attracts some of the world’s finest scholars and artists. Our students are incomparable. And our staff are absolutely amazing.

Editor’s note: Yeabsira Moges ’25 conducted the question-and-answer email exchange for this article.