Is Higher Ed Asking the Wrong Questions?

During a time of crisis, people are prone to focus on the tactical, but what we know already suggests we should be thinking longer term and for greater disruption, writes José Antonio Bowen.

May 19, 2020
 
 
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At the moment, colleges and universities are focused on what seems to be an important question: Will we be able to reopen in the fall? The timing is not a coincidence. With millions of students facing deposit deadlines, it was impossible to resist the temptation to reassure them that things might return to something like normal. But that is hardly a strategy.

The hope for stability is a powerful cognitive bias. With uncertainty comes fear. For leaders, that is often the fear of missteps and a bias to reassure and delay. Especially as academics, we tend to privilege data and knowledge. If we just had a little more information, we could make a better decision.

In the ever more relevant Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how even Aristotle makes this mistake. Aristotle tells the story of the philosopher Thales, who bought up all of the olive presses in the winter and then could charge what he wanted when a large olive harvest occurred the next year. Aristotle attributes this to Thales's superior knowledge of astronomy (expertise is good!) and being able to predict that there would be good weather for olives.

Taleb clarifies that what Thales really did was set up an asymmetric option: he took a fixed loss with a potential for unlimited gain. Taleb is essential reading now because he so thoroughly dismantles our bias to see the world as predictable and information as essential. Hindsight makes it worse, as we look back desperate to find who had the right knowledge that would have helped us avoid this threat.

COVID-19 is an ambiguous threat. We do not know how long it will continue, and we certainly do not know how it will change people’s behavior. This is not the time to stay the course and downplay the threat. Hope is not a strategy.

What we know for sure is that more chaos, volatility, stress and disorder will come. We like plans, but what we need is nimbleness. As we saw with milk and toilet paper, the increased efficiency of on-demand supply chains becomes a vulnerability during rapid change. We need optionality. Humans have a bias to wait for more certainty, but when new information is almost certain to be contradictory and chaotic, we are waiting in vain. More uncertainty is coming, not less.

Plans are fine, and campus committees are already drawing up various contingencies (including the University of South Carolina altering its fall schedule to eliminate fall break and end face-to-face teaching before Thanksgiving). Yet sometimes it is better to accept that you will make mistakes and still act with urgency (and honesty that you do not know the future) and then iterate. (USC’s fall schedule seems very likely to change.) In the current circumstances, universities should vastly accelerate their capacity to be nimble. Many of us who have led higher institutions have participated in emergency-response tabletop drills. These use a “typical” security situation (like an active shooter) but, in such exercises, we are not only preparing for that particular scenario but also practicing how to make decisions quickly without complete information.

During a time of crisis, people are prone to focus on the tactical, and that is often necessary at first. How will we make sure the technology works and train faculty to deliver classes online? Telling students that we plan to be open is also purely tactical. But doing so is operating according to our human bias to stay linear and avoid the existential.

What we know already suggests that we should be thinking longer term and for greater disruption. First, many conditions for the fall term are likely to replicated in the spring and perhaps longer. If students, faculty and staff are nervous about coming to campus without a vaccine, that suggests nine to 18 months (even given the Trump administration's highly optimistic prediction).

But more important, it is highly variable and still assumes only the best-case scenario. A vaccine often takes 10 or more years -- are we prepared for that? We still do not have a vaccine for HIV, and therapeutics that make it no longer fatal were also slow. That said, science has never come up with a viable treatment for polio, but we have a vaccine against it. Yet even with a potential vaccine for COVID-19, we will need to wait to determine the length of protection and whether it is safe. It will be impossible to know the long-term side effects without waiting some length of time. And even then, we will need time to manufacture and distribute enough vaccine and convince people that it is necessary and safe.

In the meantime, the same problems exist with testing: we are a long way from having enough fast tests. Assuming we develop an accurate test for antibodies, we still do not yet know if they are protective or for how long -- HIV antibodies, for instance, are not protective. If you think the federal government can solve the manufacturing and distribution challenges, will they also be willing and able to get Americans to submit to constant testing and contact tracing? Will you be able to get students and faculty members to do that? Will students even want to come to a residential campus if there are no parties? Will they be willing to pay the premium of in-person over remote instruction? If you are hoping that waiting will make complexity any clearer, it will be a long wait.

Rather than ask how to preserve the residential campus as it is, which leads to detailed yet bizarre questions (such as, how do we assign a toilet seat to every student or eliminate all the doorknobs?), here are scarier but better questions to raise when preparing for the coming uncertainty:

  • How might we cope with one, two or five years of no vaccine?
  • How might we realign our products, budgets and delivery for a radically different world where people’s behavior is changed -- perhaps forever?
  • How might we completely rethink the college experience without dorms, parties and dining halls?
  • How might we pivot to more local students and issues (since local areas will be more easily isolated and adaptable in geographically shifting infection waves)?
  • How might we use this disruption as an opportunity for more equity?
  • How might we do something distinctive with the potential for greater value?

Note that the “how might we” formation suggests possibility, which hopefully subverts our cognitive tendency to ignore, resist or deny emotionally threatening ideas. No one asks for a second opinion when the news is good.

Innovative ideas are rarely the single flashes of brilliance we imagine. They often start as subtle, awkward and unworkable concepts. But then we combine them with other ideas and accept that most of them will fail but perhaps just a version of one will break through. In a chaotic situation, it is impossible to predict which new idea or which plan may be most useful in advance. More options, more experiments and the ability to respond quickly will be essential. As variety and extreme examples become more valuable, we will need to increase our tolerance for risk and the diversity of experiments and ideas on our campuses. If it is true that education is really about asking better questions, then perhaps it is time we overcome our own biases.

Innovation, in fact, benefits from disorder. If you try adding random things to your soup, some of them will be terrible, but the one happy accident (salt, maybe?) can transform and improve. Experimentation, and its necessary failures, are preconditions for growth. Nature, too, uses disruption to improve, but only because there is also a wide range of mutations happening at every moment: nature is prepared to destroy some things to make other new things. (Creativity, options, recipes and nature all meet Taleb’s definition of “antifragile.”)

I think the language of “new normal” is misleading. We are not going to replace one set of predictable circumstances with another. The world was always less predictable than we imagined, but now we need to embrace a greater tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty -- perhaps a bit like the growing comfort with discomfort that we ask from our students.

None of us want to see higher education destroyed, and much of what we are trying to protect is amazingly good. But some is also just familiar. Are we willing to sacrifice (or at least re-evaluate) some of our sacred traditions, like courses, credits, semesters, lectures, departments, majors, grades and maybe even residential campuses, to preserve our most fundamental goal of changing minds and realizing potential? And is it perhaps possible to do that with even better new options and structures that are adapted to a different world?

Bio

José Antonio Bowen is former president of Goucher College, the author of Teaching Naked and a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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