Dedman Life Sciences Building, Southern Methodist University

It is now evident that the CoVid-19 event will likely provide a Black Swan event for a vast majority of colleges and universities. As this event is just now beginning to play out, experts in the field are weighing in on possible outcomes.But as one of the pillars in Nassim Taleb’s, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007, we are reminded that it is all but impossible to fully predict the outcome based on past experience because there is no comparable past experience. Therefore, it is unlikely that we can comprehend the magnitude of the pandemic impact on the institution of higher education much less each college and university. A second pillar of The Black Swan describes both an individual and collective psychological need to find easy, even if incorrect, ways to understand and explain to ourselves and others the impact of such events. Thus, as the experts begin to weigh in on how CoVid-19 will impact higher education, they most likely will lean towards the easy, most logical progression of events based on prior experience. Although these avenues may have served us well in explaining the past, we must find new ways of understanding and designing the future.One flaw in human decision making is the tendency to be driven by our desire, or even need, to find recognizable and repeatable patterns. This process becomes flawed if we allow it to promote an overgeneralization of our mindset and decision making frameworks based on incorrect and/or incomplete mental models (Johnson-Larid, 1983). This flaw is exponentially compounded in Black Swan periods like the one we are facing with the CoVid-19 pandemic where we cannot rely solely on our previous experiences to drive decision making about our future.

Zeno of Citium

Taleb calls us to be both thoughtful and thorough in determining calls to action during and after Black Swan events. This concept is drawn from the ancient Greeks and Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. Taleb suggests in times of mass uncertainty we revert to our Stoic nature. “A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” This mental discipline should drive both our planning and actions as we look to navigate unprecedented and uncertain times.

Evidence versus Intuition

To better frame a successful path forward for higher education in the post CoVid-19 environment, we offer two tenants. The first is to place primary emphasis and weight on quantitative data to both plan and evaluate plans moving forward. The second is to stay grounded in the first principles that provide the underpinnings for all of higher education.

David Hume, Scottish Philosopher

Drawing back on the concept of induction, Hume (1748) points to the problems associated with such philosophical logic whenever one looks to advance beyond the data at hand. Hence, expert opinion and explanation that stray beyond available data are subject to significant challenges, especially in uncertain times. While it may be comforting to rely on experts with vast experience to share their “expert opinions”, the validity of these opinions depend on centrally they are grounded in evidence and not just intuition. Are there data to support the opinion or is it grounded in a previous understanding?

In his 2010 Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Future of Decision Making: Less Intuition, More Evidence” Andrew McAfee highlights five central findings about decision making and planning:

  • It takes a long time to build good intuition.
  • Intuition only works well in environments with good cues and rapid feedback.
  • It is easy to apply intuition inconsistently.
  • Bad judgments can be made very quickly.
  • We aren’t good at identifying where our ideas really come from.

McAfee further points out that these five findings don’t just relate to “knee jerk/blink” type of decision making but are equally prevalent when evaluating expert judgment. His review of over 100 research studies highlighted that data-based analytic models beat human judgement models in more than 90% of the evaluated cases. And these results held even if the human participants had significant domain expertise. Kahneman and Klein’s (2009) research highlight a similar view that “subjective experience is not a reliable indicator of judgment accuracy”.

First Principles as a Starting Point

As we struggle to move away from theories and overgeneralization of prior experiences, how do we successfully plan a road forward? One way to successfully navigate this path is to return to the concept of first principles.

“A first principle is a foundational statement assumed to be true, that can’t be deduced from any other within that system.” (Kahhar, 2019)

This concept has regained popularity with the approach to innovation of entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, and most especially Elon Musk. However, the concept can be traced back much farther to the great philosophers, like Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant (Grass, 2019) as well as innovators like Guttenberg. Albert Einstein, also a proponent of first principles thinking, once famously said:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

In looking to explain his process, Musk suggests three basic steps to use first principles thinking:

  • Identify and define all current assumptions
  • Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles
  • Create new solutions from scratch

How do we prepare and plan for post CoVid-19 Higher Education?

Both an ‘evidence versus intuition’ approach and focusing on ‘first principles thinking’ are valuable tools and frameworks for all aspects of society looking to adjust, plan, execute, and thrive in a post CoVid-19 world. But where should these principles be applied when looking to the future of higher education?

A recent article by Frankki Bevins, Jake Bryant, Charag Krishnan, and Jonathan Law from the strategic consulting firm McKinsey and Company lays out three high-level scenarios for higher education based on “opening the campus back to students”. The first of these scenarios presumes successful virus containment and a reopening of all campus offerings for the Fall semester of 2020. Their second scenario envisions campuses reopening in the Fall only to be hit with a second round of CoVid infections. The third scenario discusses a failure of CoVid containment and the resulting campus closures for the entire 2020/2021 academic year.

For each of these three scenarios, the McKinsey team suggests high-level strategic planning and preparation. But, because expert-based methods and historic analogies most likely do not apply to Black Swan events, an alternative method may be needed. We suggest an examination of the first principles that drive higher education’s mission and purpose and a rapid movement toward data collection to inform decision making.

Campuses Open Fall 2020

Mary Couts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University

In preparing for this first scenario, we suggest that the first principle that should be addressed is that ‘without students there is no institution’. Thus, each college and university should begin immediately to understand the behaviors that will drive students back to campus. Specifically we recommend the following:

  • Build the most complete at-risk models possible and then mobilize resources to positively impact those models.
  • Build a data intelligence team to develop fact-based models of students who are most likely to return and those who are most likely to attrit.
  • Provide real-time data capture and monitoring systems as campuses reopen for business.
  • Prepare student recovery programs and plans focused on known parameters.

Campuses Open Fall 2020 Then Close as a Second Cycle of CoVid-19 Emerges

In the second, more devastating scenario, we suggest two first principles. The first is the same as scenario number one where student enrollment is key. The second principle has to be an absolute focus on the health and safety of everyone who comes in contact with the institution.

University of Michigan Biological Sciences Building

We suggest that the entirety of higher education become a leader in contact tracing and other health safety policies, practices, and technologies. Similar to the work in the first scenario, it is important for each college and university to have a data driven plan in place to understand and support every campus member should an outbreak occur on or near campus. Today’s rudimentary manual contact tracing practices should be enhanced or even replaced by more effective and efficient ways to monitor and support those who may have been exposed to the virus.

The data used to drive these systems need to be readily portable to other public health and medical research entities. Similar leadership is required for establishing better and more scalable practices for testing and for isolating individuals in quarantine.

Campuses Shutter for the Entire 2020/21 Academic Year

In the third scenario, we suggest colleges and universities dig deeper into their first principles and the data systems required to support them. Scott Galloway suggests in his No Mercy/No Malice blog that institutions may regress to just broadcasting (or narrow casting) a collection of online video class sessions. This scenario might be referred to as the “zoomification” of the college experience.

Let’s lay out a simple data-driven example that presents the challenges of this scenario. For simplicity sake, we can assume that a semester has roughly 151,200 minutes (15 weeks * 7 days per week * 24 hours per day * 60 minutes per hour = 151,200). Let’s also assume that each class fills 2,700 of those minutes (15 weeks * 3 hours per class * 60 minutes per hour 2,700). Thirdly, let’s assume that a full-time student takes 5 courses per semester that totals 13,500 minutes (5 classes * 2700 minutes per class) of teacher contact time. So what happens during the other 137,700 minutes of the semester? The answer to this is where generalization becomes flawed. Is the college experience solely about the time a student spends during a lecture or is there value in the experience of activities and college-life beyond the classroom? Each college and university needs to have their own data-based point-of-view of the value created during those 137,700 minutes that relate back their unique first principles.

“How will colleges and universities fill 137.700 minutes for their students that relate back to their unique first principles?”

Secondly, we believe institutions should undertake a fundamental understanding of the behaviors required to be successful on their campus and to graduate on-time. This can be accomplished through the development of a data collection system used to understand student success and significantly increase on-time graduation rates. The design of such a system should be frictionless, action-oriented, and adaptable to the widest number of campus cohort groups.

The Time to Act is Now

In summary, the next four months will be a critical period for every institution of higher education to prepare for a vastly different Fall semester and years to come. To invoke another animal analogy, understanding the near term and long term impact of the pandemic is more than just the elephant in the room. It is the blue whale in the bathtub, which will cause a tidal wave of change across all colleges and universities.

Blue Whale, the largest animal ever known to inhabit the earth at 440,000 pounds

Previous models of things like application yield, retention risk, and financial budgeting need to be completely rethought. The use of real-time data will be critical to act and react. Now is the time to define the variables, build the data collection and reporting systems, and build a variety of action plans based on the widest variety of use cases. This will take a new type of leadership. One that does not react based on history or prior knowledge but one that is able to collect, analyze, and act on new data that emerge between now and September 2020. In this situation, there will be winners and losers and the distinction will be dramatic.


Dr. David Palumbo, Ed.D — Chairman at Degree Analytics

Aaron Benz — CEO, Founder of Degree Analytics

Allison Palumbo, PE  — Iteris

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