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The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Published in October of 2018

What would you name as the top 5 risks for higher education?

Lewis asks this question to former government employees from the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce about their agencies.

The former chief risk officer at Energy answers: 1) a broken arrow (a lost or damaged nuclear missile/bomb), 2 and 3) North Korea and Iranian nuclear aggression, 4) the vulnerability of the electrical grid.

It is the 5th risk that Lewis focuses on, and it where the book’s title comes from. That risk is bad project management.

Most of what the government does, as Lewis points out, only makes the news when things go very badly. The real work of government involves dealing with enormously complex challenges that can’t be managed by the market.

These challenges include everything from ensuring that the food supply is safe to guarding against a dirty bomb going off at the Super Bowl. Much of our modern economy depends on the data that the federal government collects, analyzes, and disseminates.

In a surprise to exactly nobody, the Trump administration has demonstrated zero knowledge, curiosity, or interest in what the federal government actually does. Lewis’ description of the transition from the previous administration read like are harrowing. Trump’s political appointees are either unqualified or actively hostile to the missions of the organizations they are meant to run.

The degree to which the Trump administration will succeed in derailing the unglamorous but essential work of the federal government remains to be seen.  The Fifth Risk does an excellent job of highlighting the quiet dedication of most government workers, and the incuriosity and ineptitude of their new political bosses. What the book does not do enough of is examine the resiliency of the structures and systems of government from the Black Swan type event of a Trump presidency.

Before reading The Fifth Risk, I’m not sure if I would have put bad project management on my higher ed list of worries. Now I will. The complexity of the government’s business that Lewis describes mirrors the complexity of a modern university.

For those of you who are not audiobook addicts, The Fifth Risk will allow you to read the Department of Commerce materials that were originally included in the audiobook only The Coming Storm.  

If you have already listened to that Audible only production, The Fifth Risk is still very much worth the investment.

I’d be willing to wager that the readers of IHE and the readers of Michael Lewis’ books largely overlap. The next book that Lewis should write is the story of the new higher education.

What are you reading?

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