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Higher Ed’s Next Black Swan?

Preparing for the next low-probability/high-impact event.

September 14, 2020
 
 

Reading Bryan Alexander’s "Imagining the Pandemic Continues Into 2023" posts (part 1 and part 2) has me thinking about black swans. These are the low-probability/high-impact events that Nassim Nicholas Taleb identified in his 2007 book.

The idea of black swan theory is that the future is mostly made by things we didn’t see coming. Given that we are unlikely to accurately predict the cause or timing of the next major system shock, our best approach is to focus on resiliency and antifragility.

What might be higher ed’s next black swan?

One low-probability/high-impact event that comes immediately to mind is a COVID-19 vaccine failure. On April 30, The New York Times published an opinion piece called "How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take?" That piece is informative, as it allows potential times to an effective and widely distributed vaccine to vary based on several variables.

Most of us, including myself, have been operating on the assumption that a vaccine will be coming sometime this academic year, allowing us to plan to “get back to normal” for the fall of 2021. What if this assumption is wrong? To quote the New York Times piece:

The grim truth behind this rosy forecast is that a vaccine probably won’t arrive any time soon. Clinical trials almost never succeed. We’ve never released a coronavirus vaccine for humans before. Our record for developing an entirely new vaccine is at least four years -- more time than the public or the economy can tolerate social-distancing orders.

Perhaps events have overtaken the analysis from this Times piece (I don’t know). Still, it is difficult to read that article without coming away thinking that there is at least a probability that a vaccine will take longer than most of expect. Based on the history of vaccine development, testing, manufacturing, distribution and adoption -- it may be reasonable to ask if we should be planning for social distancing, de-densification, testing and masking on a scale of years rather than months.

What I don’t know -- and don’t know how to figure out -- is what we in higher ed should be doing with that possibility?

Higher ed may be good at thinking in time scales of the immediate (what we are doing now) and the long run (our children and grandchildren). I’m not sure we are well equipped to think about big changes in the medium run.

What would we do differently if we knew that the next four years will look -- from a public health perspective -- much like the fall of 2020?

If this is the new normal, what changes would we make so that the entire academic career of a freshman starting college today would be as productive, impactful and transformative as possible? I don’t know.

If a long-running pandemic is not enough of a low-probability/high-impact higher ed event, we could think of others. If the Western wildfires are any indication, the impact of human-caused climate change may be coming sooner than we expected. How many colleges and universities are vulnerable to extreme weather? Flooding, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes?

Can we imagine a scenario where international students stopped coming to the U.S.? Some combination of pandemic, policy, and geopolitics result in a complete cessation of the global student flow. What would be the impact?

Should every college and university employ an in-house higher ed futurist?

Will COVID-19 spawn new academic leadership roles, such as vice provost for low-probability/high-impact events?

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