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Strategizing in the Face of Uncertainty

Planning for an unpredictable future.

August 2, 2021
 
 

Uncertainty is life’s only certainty. How, then, do we prepare for an unpredictable future?

The business literature offers much practical advice about how to strategize in the face of uncertainty.

  • Track trends
  • Conduct a risk assessment
  • Identify driving forces and critical uncertainties
  • Plan proactively
  • Prioritize agility and adaptability
  • Diversify
  • Undertake contingency, scenario and mitigation planning
  • Seize opportunities as they appear
  • Cultivate a culture of improvement, innovation and experimentation

But colleges and universities aren’t businesses, and long-term planning isn’t our strong suit. Too often, we leave such strategizing to senior administrators.

So let’s ask ourselves: How can we benefit from the insights of business consultants?

In a couple of weeks, my department will hold a retreat to brainstorm about our major, collective future: our hiring priorities, curriculum, course offerings, modes of delivery and the balance of graduate and undergraduate offerings.

The theme: History 2040.

A retreat -- a collective effort to take stock, assess needs and reflect on past failures -- is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. It’s our one chance to collectively brainstorm.

But my crystal ball is opaque, and blind spots mar my powers of prognostication.

I certainly can’t see two decades ahead. It’s not simply that I’ll be retired, if I’m still alive, but I truly cannot fathom what higher education will look like that far in the future.

What I can do, with some level of confidence, is think five years ahead. I suspect all of us can likely agree that our students:

  • Will be even more diverse.
  • Will arrive at college with an even narrower familiarity with history.
  • Will be even more doubtful about the value of the humanities in general and academic history in particular.
  • Will be less interested in the mainstays of a history education: the close reading of primary and secondary source texts and the writing of term papers.

So what, then, would I recommend, in light of the likely trends? We need to recognize that:

  1. Coverage, chronological and geographic, will be more necessary than ever, but less affordable and attainable given likely resource constraints. Perhaps a level of cross-institutional course sharing will make sense.
  2. A strictly national and even regional focus will make less sense, and certainly needs to be supplemented with a greater emphasis on comparative history, which will require far-reaching shifts in how doctoral students are trained.
  3. Insular, self-contained, self-referential disciples, especially in the humanities, are unlikely to thrive, and departments like mine need to be better aligned with the pre-professional disciplines that attract the most undergraduates.
  4. Enrollments are likely to hinge on a perception of relevance, meaning that more classes will need to address big, timely issues or topics of high student interest.
  5. Our offerings need to be more developmental, in terms of skills building (including written and oral communication), more skills and outcomes focused, less course-centric, and more experiential (giving students many more hands-on learning opportunities).
  6. The department needs to be closely aligned with the institution’s mission and priorities (e.g. diversity, civic engagement, cross-cultural understanding and a liberal education that addresses enduring moral, philosophical, existential and political issues).

Practically speaking, what would I suggest?

  • Don’t put our eggs in one basket. Pursue multiple strategies. Prepare future educators. Engage students who are interested in the digital future. Embrace training of archivists, museum professionals and public historians, but also documentarians, historically minded journalists and researchers who are interested in longitudinal studies.
  • Build on existing strengths. Historians are writers; many are public intellectuals and public speakers and consultants. Ask how you can exploit those strengths, for example, by training nonfiction writers and critics and consultants of all sorts.
  • Leverage institutional priorities. Stand at the front of the line in helping your institution meet its diversity goals and its renewed emphasis on ethnic studies.
  • Seize new and emerging opportunities. Work closely with K-12 schools on early-college programs and collaborate with neighboring community colleges to create seamless degree pathways.

One word of caution: resist temptations that might benefit our department at students’ expense.

You no doubt have heard of elite universities’ scandalous pursuit of master’s programs that lack a clear return on investment, prey on student insecurities and leave large numbers deeply in debt. No institution should offer such programs, and faculty who are complicit richly deserve the opprobrium they will receive.

Strategizing needn’t be a synonym for cynical calculation.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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