Coronavirus and higher education resources

I currently maintain several resources concerning higher education and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

  • A list of resources for keeping track of the virus, including dashboards, official sources, experts on social media, open access content, libguides, etc.
  • A spreadsheet listing information about colleges and universities closing because of the virus.
  • A range of posts about COVID-19 and its impact on academia.
  • Live video events: Chronicle of Higher Education; EdSurge; Future Trends Forum.
Posted in coronavirus | 21 Comments

FTTE report: special and open COVID-19 edition

FTTE logoToday I published the April 2020 Future Trends in Technology and Education report to all subscribers.

I’d also like to share an open, free edition with you all.

To recognize that not all readers can afford to subscribe to FTTE, or aren’t affiliated with a subscribing institution, I’m publishing this special report:

FTTE 2020 April – COVID-19 edition

You can download and read it right now.  It’s a pdf without any DRM, so you can also share it with those whom you think could use it.

All of its content is focused on the pandemic’s impact on the trends reshaping education.

If it is of any assistance to you and yours, terrific.  Please do consider supporting it with a subscription here, if you have the means.  Individual subscriptions, Patreon signups, and institutional subscriptions are all grand. As an independent futurist, there’s a stark limit to how much content I can produce for free.  And any support is deeply appreciated.

In the meantime, I’ll try to do this again for the May edition, the June edition, and so on, as long as the pandemic crisis persists.

Let me know what you think.

Posted in FTTE report | Leave a comment

Two pandemic scenarios for March 2021

I presented these short scenarios to an online event in March, and would like to share them here.

They are based on two different models for how the COVID-19 pandemic could play out over the next year, drawing on my virus scenarios (Hubei for the first, waves and long plague for the second).

To be clear: I do not endorse any of the outcomes sketched out in what follows.  They represent a range of options based on certain drivers. As always, these scenarios are part of my work in trying to describe possible futures, rather than to prescribe certain paths forward.  Readers, on the other hand, are quite free to apply them as they see fit.

For Olaf Stapledon

Take 1: It’s April 2021.

People are celebrating one year since the Great Pandemic.  We share stories about the huge shock, the months of agony, the recession, the colossal reboot, getting the vaccine over winter.  There are TikTok festivals, songs, augmented reality exhibits, alternate reality games, documentaries from Disney and Netflix, and ostentatious, live action social distancing reenactments.  Some wear last year’s masks.

Allied health professionals celebrate more somberly.  They paid a heavy price to contain the contagion and are still recovering.  They keep after everyone else to please, please get your COVID-19 shots already!

People have gotten used to face to face lives again, after an initial phase of delight, awkwardness, and rediscovery.  Colleges and universities are back to their face to face ways, although enrollment is lower and their finances aren’t good.  More people have more respect for science than they did a year ago.

The economy struggles back from recession.  President Biden is enjoying the White House.  He makes few public appearances, like many senior citizens now; vice president Harris is increasingly the face of the administration.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Donald Trump and various members of his administration.  Trump himself runs a new and generously funded cable tv channel.

Take 2: It’s April 2021.

COVID-19 has been raging for a year, coming and going in waves and more virulent mutations.  35% of the human population has now been infected.  The death toll approaches one million, at least according to WHO.  Multiple vaccines are in trials worldwide, but none have truly succeeded.

Intergenerational culture has splintered.  Some increasingly revere senior citizens as precious elders, at times connecting with traditional societies’ practices.  In contrast others celebrate the Boomer Remover for political and cultural reasons.  These two populations loathe each other deeply.

The medical profession has been churned up badly.  A majority have been infected and deaths amount to 20% of allied health staff.  Students, volunteers, and others have been pressed into medical service to various degrees of efficacy.  Civilians regard most medical workers with deep respect or reverence.  A growing body of stories (film, tv, books, games, XR) feature heroic and often martyred medical staff.

Education is entirely online.  A broad range of technologies are in use, from the older and simpler (email, texting, mailed DVDs, TV broadcasts) to the more ambitious (virtual reality, AI bots).  There are fewer schools, colleges, and universities, as their physical requirements are no longer viable and their finances have been badly hit.  Some have been taken over or retaken by nonprofits, businesses, churches, and governments.  Institutional education has shifted its curriculum towards a deeper focus on allied health and economic reconstruction.  Older faculty and staff are less active and visible than they used to be; a significant number have died of the virus.

A number of faculty teach independently, the most prominent supporting themselves through YouTube ads, podcast sponsorships, and crowdfunding.   The rest do what they can.

Most national economies are a shambles.  Globally economic growth has ceased.  Unemployment statistics are unreliable, but about 25% seems to be close. Some number of people have exited the formal economy and either retire or work informally.  Digital businesses and allied health care are the main industries that thrive.  Books about the 1930s are widely read.

Politically, the world alternates between conservatism and instability.  In the United States Donald Trump is still president, after last November’s election was marked by low participation, dubious tallying, and acrimony.  Elsewhere, some nations experience governance failures while others are in open civil war.  Various forms of authoritarianism are in place from localities to nations.  Face-to-face protests are rare, driven by desperation or arrogance.  Online unrest is continuous, driving targeted offline protests and other actions. Individual acts of violence occur worldwide.

Culturally, science is very controversial, as some associated it either with the pandemic or the failure to stop it.  There is a steady trickle of protests, property damage, and acts of violence against scientists and scientific enterprises; the FBI debates classifying them as hate crimes.  Multiple religions are growing worldwide, from ancient ones enjoying rebirths to new movements.  Snake oil sellers are a smaller industry, dominated by Alex Jones and Gwynneth Paltrow.  On the other hand, a good number of people quietly blame religions for aiding COVID-19’s spread and dun believers for not supporting mitigation efforts.

Coming up next: higher education scenarios.

(thanks to the Online Rager, Tom Haymes, and other friends; photo by Shantanu Dutta)

Posted in coronavirus, scenarios | 13 Comments

And now for something different and less dire

For weeks I’ve been posting about dread, decline, and death.

I know that’s hard and heavy.  So I wanted to cheer you all up.

Here’s a story about goats.  Many goats, stomping into a Welsh town:

This may have inspired an English vision:

coronavirus Dalek

One friend imagines them chanting: “Inoculate! IN OC U LAAAAAATE!”

Another friend and epic Whovian waggishly observes:

You may now return to your lockdowns – but watch the streets for unusual visitors.

Posted in cheer | 4 Comments

COVID-19 versus higher ed: the downhill slide becomes an avalanche

How might the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately impact higher education?

In 2013 I introduced the peak higher education scenario.  I’ve developed it further since. Alas, American higher education has generally fulfilled that forecast.  Now that COVID-19 has hit, things are getting worse, and faster.  Imagine peak higher education on steroids and with the fast forward button jammed down.

tl;dr – it could be bad.  Very bad.

In this post we’ll identify the various pressures the pandemic exerts on colleges and universities.  Let’s focus on the financial dimension.  For sake of (relative!) simplicity I’ll focus on the United States.  Reader can carry some findings over to other countries’ post-secondary systems, depending on local conditions.

Condor Coffee Break

Preparatory notes: the economic hit may be severe and complex, with many moving pieces and interlocking elements.  As you read on keep in mind those connections.

Pandemic: I’m going to refer to my previous scenarios about how COVID-19 could play out, short, long, and wavy.  My assumptions about the broader economic picture will stem from those futures.

Apologies for being telegraphic or clipped in what follows.  I am running low on time.

Cuts to public higher education American states have reduced per-student funding since the early 1980s, generally.  Recessions have accelerated this tendency, as reduced state economic activity cuts tax revenues.  The American economy is hitting a recession for at least one quarter this year, so we should expect at least a 2008-2009-level reduction in support.

If COVID-19 follows my other scenarios (long, wavy), we’re looking at multiple quarters of recession.  We could also call this a depression.  Whichever terminology we use, state governments will have less to spend on higher ed.

To expand on that point a little: think of how unemployed people make less, so pay less in state income taxes. They also spend less, which means a smaller amount of sales tax reaches state coffers.  State governments may also see certain budget lines forced to grow.  Think of publicly supported health care as the pandemic sickens residents.  Think, too, of state infrastructure work becoming more expensive: extra cleaning of certain sites, funding to public medical systems.  Recall that states have community obligations as well.

Combine that with the very low regard most states have for their public colleges and universities (see this story) and imagine just how far public appropriations can fall by fall 2020.

Endowments For the relatively small number of campuses that have significant endowments, those are in serious trouble now.

Three-quarters of the $630 billion in endowment funds at U.S. universities and colleges is invested in equities, or stocks, according to the most recent available accounting, at a time when share prices have plummeted since the start of the coronavirus.

This may rebound or even recover at some point, depending on how long the pandemic rages and just how far it ruins the economy.  In the meantime, those colleges and universities will likely suffer a hit.

Families spending less As the overall economy sours many families will have less to spend, and still less desire to.  They will hunker down for safety and survival.  Not all – some will be profligate on cheap credit, while others maintain or expand their resources.  But a good and growing number will lack the stomach to put out for college.

One result is down-shifting which institution they attend.  Instead of a research-I, a state school.  Instead of a state school, a community college.  Rather than a liberal arts college, a wholly online enterprise.

Another result may well be holding off on going to university at all.

Now, there’s a strong counter to this, namely our habit of increasing enrollment during economic crises.  Community colleges should see a spike upward, as they did in 2008-2009.  Online-only schools may as well.

Charitable giving Gifts, donations, and alumni support may drop as well.

Paul Friga observes:

Philanthropy, especially annual campaigns, will decrease as individuals lose jobs and personal net worth. Overall giving in 2008 dropped 11.7 percent from the previous year, and donations to education also experienced similar double-digit drops. Endowment returns will decrease in correlation to stock-market performance; in the year following the Great Recession, endowment returns dropped on average by 23 percent, according to a survey of more than 400 universities.

Enrollment decline During this semester we may see some students disengage from classes for a variety of other reasons: personal stress, family health, economic crisis, bad experiences, technological issues, and more.  They could take incompletes or withdraw from classes.

What happens to them in summer?  How many will take classes then?  Will that odd season see an enrollment drop?

But summer pales in importance next to fall term.  As I’ve said, much depends on how the pandemic plays out.  If COVID-19 is done by August – or, more importantly, if we perceive it as beaten by then – we could see students return to campus in full force.  Some might not.  They could fear infections, either from insufficiently cleaned sites or from risky classmates.  Others might prefer the online experience because of its convenience or the safety of doing it from home.  A gap year might look appealing. Overall enrollment might tick down.

And if COVID-19 continues to rage, or comes roaring back during fall term?  How much further will enrollment slide?  Art & Science Group polled high school seniors and found some who are rethinking college this fall, either considering attending a more local and cheaper campus, or who are pondering skipping this fall term entirely. And recall Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King’s aphorism from How to Run a College (2018): enrollment means revenue.

I’ll return to this below.

cliff Michael Coghlan

Refunds Several universities have issued partial refunds to students for room and board.  For example,

At the University of Wisconsin system, which encompasses the state flagship in Madison and 12 regional campuses, officials estimate they are paying out about $78 million for refunds of room and board charges after clearing students out of residence halls.

“We decided to refund this because we thought that was simply the ethical thing to do,” said system President Ray Cross. Students and families need the money, he said. “Of course, this is a huge revenue hit.”

Refunds could go beyond room and board.  Fees are a likely target, as we can see in this petition, which calls on the University of California San Diego to reduce fees that the author deems to be no longer appropriate:

Since UCSD decided to put all the classes online, then the school fees, like

Spr Qtr Campus Activity Fee 73.06
Spr Qtr ICA Activity Fee 259.04
NonRes Supplemental Tuition Sp 9918.00
Spr Qtr Recreation Facil Fee 117.00
Spr Qtr College Activity Fee12.08
Spr Qtr University Center Fee 101.46

Should be lower or cancel. Please support please. A lot of students still suffer from the student loan.

The bigger target is tuition.  It may well be that many students find the digital experience to be of lower quality than the face-to-face instruction they had recently received.  Beyond student opinion, stories could circulate through mainstream and social media of badly designed classes, slow response times, awful video interaction, etc.  How many will request partial refunds or reduced tuition prices?  How many will do so informally versus filing lawsuits (Americans do love litigation) versus lobbying states legislatures?

Campus medical costs The majority of college and university costs are compensation to staff.  Custodians to presidents, professors to librarians, paying for people is typically the lion’s share of a campus budget.  And that may shoot up.  Medical costs have already been rising, as insurance costs rose and institutions were unable to pool resources for improved economies of scale.

The pandemic should make this worse.  As more people get sick insurance companies will have to pay out more, which puts pressure on them to realize more revenue through fees.  And as more academics get sick, ditto.  It may well get more expensive to operate a campus – just as revenue starts dropping.

International student numbers These may decline worldwide for obvious reasons: fears of infection and official travel restrictions.  How long these fears persist depends on how long the pandemic lasts and with what severity.

Some American colleges and universities have relied on international students since around 2000.  Their absence is another financial blow.

Campus sports The NCAA is paying Division I campuses much less than they expected, as games get canceled:

Two weeks after the event was canceled, the NCAA announced it will be distributing $225 million to its approximately 350 Division I members, much lower than the $600 million it was set to dole out in installments had the tournament been played.

This isn’t a great deal of campuses – precious few actually make money on spots – but points to ripple effects throughout American academia.  Some schools offer sports to boost recruitment.  What happens when those games are no longer played?  How long does fondness for and awareness of teams last when they’re mothballed?

Put all of these together and what happens to American higher ed by this time next year?

One academic thinks one fifth of these institutions are staring at a cliff:

I think in the short term, it’s not 10 percent that are in real trouble, it’s 20 percent. That’s not to say 20 percent are going to close. But it ups the possibility. We’re now going to have upward of 20 percent really terrified. If this crisis is going to take out all of next academic year, that bottom 20 percent may never come back.

Let me flesh out that death’s head a little more.  Think, first, of queen sacrifices.  As enrollments slide for some, doing a cost-benefit analysis is going to be very appealing for quite a few administrators and trustees, not to mention making sense for legislators.  Departments that bring in the lowest number of students – and also fail in institutional politics – are likely to face cuts or mergers with other departments.  The same goes for other units: programs, schools.

Campuses can also merge.  This can be voluntary, when a healthier college or university absorbs one on the edge of extinction (really “acquisition” is a better name than “merger” for this reason).  It can also be involuntary if state governments get involved.

Closures are now more on the table than they have been for the past decade.

Alongside these measures all colleges and universities have some tested tools in their toolbox:

  • Nudge faculty and staff out the door with buyouts, early retirements, and other inducements or maneuvers.
  • Cut faculty and staff compensation through furloughs, reduced medical support, reduced retirement support, cuts to salaries.
  • Increase tuition and fees, expecting students to go further into debt.  When will we reach the $2 trillion mark, fall 2021?  Spring 2020?
  • Double down on adjunctification after an initial wave of not rehiring adjuncts.  Who will be able to fill open tenure lines, much less create new positions?
  • Cut all kinds of budget lines: professional development, building maintenance, salaries.  Campus politics will heat up as units and individuals jockey to avoid the next swing of the ax. I expect academic libraries will be in some cross hairs.
  • Expand online offerings.  After all, these can’t give you coronavirus.  And there’s little expectation of tenure among online instructors.
  • Keep trying to tell the story of higher education’s value in more effective ways.
  • Deny that there’s any crisis.  Seriously, people will do this… and they’ll tend to have tenure.

I do wonder if we might not see some new construction, since interest rates are effectively zero and campuses can borrow… unless their credit ratings are too low for banks.

About those cuts: back in 2001 and, less so, in 2008 there was talk of “cutting the fat.”  I’ve heard some of this since, usually from Republicans complaining about some of higher ed.  Yet as Chris Newfield acidly and correctly notes:

We’re out of fat.  We’re cutting sinew, muscle, and bone.  Hence my forecasting of queen sacrifices, mergers, and closures.  Peak higher education on steroids.

How higher ed can best navigate this terrible crisis is… the subject for another post.

PS: The title of this post is a reference to a classic line from the great science fiction tv series Babylon-5.

For more reading consider Paul Friga’s recent article.

(thanks to Todd Bryant, Michael Horn, and more friends for links and thoughts; cliff and birds photo by Derek Bruff; cliff by Michael Coghlan)

Posted in coronavirus, future of education | 11 Comments

Higher education is already feeling the first effects of COVID-19

As I write this COVID-19 continues to gnaw on the human race.  Data is increasingly dubious for a range of reasons (politics, testing, etc.) but the range looks like between 630,000 and 720,000 infected and around 30,000 dead, with both registers rising (WHO, New York Times, Worldometer)*.  In the United States the CDC reports 122,653 infections and 2,112 dead, while the Times estimates more, “at least 135,738” infected and  “[a]t least 2,391” dead.

Did I mention rising?  Here’s the Johns Hopkins dashboard‘s worldwide case graph:

coronavirus comfirmed cases 2020 Jan 21-March 29_JHU

How will that takeoff curve hit higher education?  I’ve been tracking this since the start, and will have much more to say this week.  Right now I’d like to start with evidence of impact.  And I don’t mean campuses migrating face to face instruction online.  We’re already there, mostly, with a few exceptions.

Several campuses have taken drastic steps over the past week, citing COVID-19 as what pushed them over the edge.

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) decided to close.  COVID-19 was the final straw:

The final straw for the faltering institution was when discussions to merge with a local university collapsed after the coronavirus sent the Bay Area into a lockdown. Pam Rorke Levy, the institute board’s chair, estimated the university’s total debt was around $19 million but likely to increase because the school is not earning revenue during the health crisis.

According to the official statement:

SFAI’s leadership has no clear path to admit a class of new students for the fall of 2020. Given our current financial situation, and what we expect to be a precipitous decline in enrollment due to the pandemic, we are now considering the suspension of our regular courses and degree programs starting immediately after graduation in May of this year.

SFAI was already in financial trouble.  The pandemic pushed it over the edge.

Further north, Central Washington University (CWU) declared financial exigency.  This is a very precise term that frees up a campus administration to take all kinds of drastic measures, including terminating tenured faculty members.  At Times Higher Ed forecasts, “it’s likely to make layoffs…”

The official statement makes the pandemic’s economic impact very clear through a detailed breakdown:

CWU anticipates that measures required to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 will reduce overall enrollment through the erosion of retention as well as the recruitment of new students… CWU anticipates the absence of students, employees and visitors will result in a significant loss of revenue that supports bond payments, “System” revenue that is realized through the use of dining services, the Wildcat Shop, residence halls, and other services… the required cancellation of university-sponsored events will result in the loss to the university of revenue associated with conferences, camps, and many other student-life and academic events…

In California Notre Dame de Namur University (founded 1851) announced it would stop admitting new students.  And they are canceling sports!  It’s not a closure per se but really sounds like one.

NDNU intends to remain in operation through the spring 2021 semester.. We are working diligently to build pathways for our students to finish their degrees while we evaluate options for the university’s future.

Why?  They were already in the kind of trouble I’ve been telling you all about for years:

In the face of sharply rising costs in the Bay Area, we have a very modest endowment and limited resources at our disposal. At the same time, we have experienced our lowest enrollment in 30 years, a decrease of 33% since 2013. This has created a dramatic decrease in net tuition revenue while the cost to educate students has increased by several thousand dollars per student.

A 33% decline!  Their official announcement doesn’t mention the pandemic, but it seems likely to have contributed to their decision.  Their classes are already online.

East of Washington, the University of Arkansas Little Rock (UALR) is considering cutting the numbers of its campuses from 5 to 3.  Enrollment and financial pressures have been squeezing that institution lately, and now the pandemic is playing a role:

[Chancellor Christina] Drale expects more money will be cut as a result of fewer expenses, such as lapsed salaries for people who have left but not been replaced and decreased travel amid the covid-19 outbreak. “Of course we don’t know how much this crisis will affect this year’s budget,” Drale said.

Meanwhile, an Illinois liberal arts college announced it would closeMacMurray College (founded 1846) determined that it “had no viable financial path forward amid declining enrollments, rising competitive costs and a small endowment.”  The pandemic played a role in this determination:

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic disruption were recent factors that complicated MacMurray’s financial condition, but they are not the principal reasons for the Board’s decision to close, according to [Board of Trustees Chair Charles] O’Connell.

On the east coast, Quinnipiac University decided to cut faculty and staff salaries because of the pandemic:

“The far-reaching disruptions caused by Covid-19 have resulted in significant additional expenses for our university and lost revenues from programs that were canceled,” [President Judy] Oilan wrote in an email to staff members on Monday, March 23.

Is it unsurprising that Moody’s downgraded higher ed’s overall outlook to negative?

As a final thought, here’s the latest epidemic curve graph from WHO:

coronavirus epidemic curve 2020 March 29 WHO

Let me pause for now.  This is a post about evidence, not forecasting.  Forecasting is up next.

Are there other examples out there?  Should I track them?

*Here are the latest numbers from those sources.  Infections: 634,835 – 720,117 – 721,412.  Deaths: 29 957 – 33,925 – 33,956.

Posted in coronavirus, higher education | 2 Comments

Reflecting on higher ed in the pandemic

As higher education continues to grapple with COVID-19 I’ve been talking with various kind interviewers.  It’s a good way for me to think through my analyses.

Here are two.

First, Howard Teibel and a colleague talked with me on his podcast.  They asked good questions, aimed at futures work, sustainability, and organizational change.

Second, Doug Lederman at Inside Higher Ed asked me to reflect on this question: “What is your emerging vision for post-crisis higher education in general?”  My compressed answer is in his column, and also copied here:

Much depends on how the pandemic plays out.

If nations like the U.S. can burn through all or the worst of COVID-19 in a couple of months, as China did, the impact will be intense but short term. If the coronavirus and our response persist for a year or more, academia will be redefined.

I fear many of the financial costs will clobber our budgets as state appropriations to publics reduce even further, as campus costs mount, international enrollment drops, endowments wither and families are just able to spend less on education. All of that occurs in the short-term scenario. If COVID-19 gnaws on nations for semesters on end, that will gut higher education’s finances. Given recent institutional history, we should expect an expanded adjunctification of the faculty and “queen sacrifice” cuts to programs (especially the humanities).

Our shift online could take several forms. First, if bad-experience stories circulate and have influence, we could see participation and even enrollment decline. Second, given equity issues worsened by recession, open education resources and open-access publishing could triumph. We may also see inequality drive different technology uses, with wealthier communities using more demanding technologies (virtual and mixed reality, telepresence) while poorer ones turn to tools with lower infrastructure demands (asynchronous video, audio, images and text).

Third, as entirely online pedagogy continues, certain pedagogies and support structures should win widespread attention. Colleges and universities might compete for students (as well as faculty and staff) based on how well and prominently they carry out these teaching methods. Fourth, if the pandemic persists unevenly, coming and going in waves over a long period, we might get used to alternating between face-to-face (i.e., really blended) teaching and wholly online instruction.

Research is experiencing a stall now as faculty remove themselves from on-campus resources. An attenuated pandemic could depress scholarly output for a year or more. At the same time, some faculty members may play an increasingly public role for their research, from work in health care to analyzing COVID-19’s impact through the lenses of sociology, political science, culture, media, urban studies, etc. This may appear both in formal scholarship, research and development, or public advocacy.

Read the whole column, which interviews other people.  Interestingly, it’s a sequel to a first column, which is rich by itself.  George Station and others critiqued it, and Doug responded seriously.  Bravo to all.

And thank you to Howard, Doug, and their teams for interviewing me and sharing the results.

Every day I’m researching and reflecting on how the academy is rapidly changing.  I try to blog about it for a bunch of reasons: to spur discussion, to get feedback on my thinking, to share information, and to document this extraordinary moment in history.

More to come!

Posted in coronavirus, interviews, podcasts | 5 Comments

COVID-19 in 2020: several scenarios

For nearly two months I’ve been tracking the coronavirus outbreak.  I’ve been sharing forecasts, examining analyses, and collecting forecasts here, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, and Facebook.  Now I’d like to share some scenarios for how the pandemic might turn out.

A scenario is a futuring artifact, a story about the future, shaped by certain key forces and events.  Each scenario below is based on different understandings of COVID-19 and the human response to it.  Each scenario also responds to the others.  #2, for instance, can be caused by a nation failing to implement the policies of #3, or thinking the situation is more like #1.

These are not predictions but ways of thinking ahead.  So what can you do with them?  Their purpose is to help spur the reader’s thinking and planning about the next few years.  Some will follow a given scenario and imagine themselves in that future, envisioning their professional and/or personal lives in such a world.  Others will trace an institution, nation, or other entity along that track.  Still others will see a world formed by the combination or intersection of several scenarios.  And some will be inspired to craft their own.  All of these are excellent; I’d love to hear how you use them.

A note about scope: my analytical unit here is the nation.  The United States is the one I know best, but these scenarios should be applicable to many others, given some particular integration.  They may also apply to sufficiently large localities, such as provinces or states.

Caveat1: I am not an epidemiologist nor a sociologist or political scientist.  As a futurist I seek information across multiple domains and disciplines and weave the results into models and forecasts.  The following are based on that kind of research; I welcome corrections and other amendments in comments below and will gladly edit this post as necessary.

Caveat2: this post is only about the pandemic itself.  I’m saving commentary on educational implications for a subsequent post.


In this scenario COVID-19 appears, courses through a nation, then ceases, all within several months.  The relatively short time span may be due to aggressive public health measures: social distancing, surveillance, quarantines, travel bans, etc.  The virus may also not be as virulent in practice as was once feared.  Its mutations do not prove additionally dangerous or may actually prove less sickening. By winter 2020-2021 COVID is close to the flu in impact, if not its nature.

As evidence of this possibility, biophysicist and Nobel laureate Michael Levitt finds that the virus’ growth rate is lower than many estimates believe.  We can also look to the Chinese experience, specifically the outbreak, surge, and ultimate control in the province of Hubei in the course of roughly three months.

coronavirus China 2020 Jan-March Wikipedia

Bill Gates recently made the case for this scenario, provided a nation takes Hubei-style measures.  “If a country does a good job with testing and “shut down” then within 6-10 weeks they should see very few cases and be able to open back up.”

Italy might, hopefully, be about to realize this scenario:

This scenario is the most desirable of the three.


In this scenario COVID-19 surges through a population, retreats, goes quiet, then returns again.  It may repeat the pattern in successive waves over time, striking again and again.

Several factors  can drive this scenario.  Significant mutations of the virus could yield new forms that prove dangerous and difficult to treat.  A nation can reduce its anti-coronavirus measures too early, leading to a rebound.  As the recent Imperial College report observes, “Once interventions are relaxed… infections begin to rise…”

coronavirus in waves Imperial College report

One United States government report posits this scenario, imagining a “pandemic [that] will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.”

India might give us an early sign of that, attempting a “Janta Curfew (peoples’ curfew)” for just 14 hours.  Or US president Trump might offer another, if he shuts down containment measures too quickly, as some think he might.

Changing seasonal conditions could push down infections, then yield a fresh spike.

This scenario could also occur in local or regional settings, as successive viral waves move into a given population.  One nation could successfully experience a short infection, Hubei style, then get hit ahead by a wave transmitted from a neighbor or the right travelers.

Benign version: a vaccine tamps it down to being akin to the seasonal flu.  The warning then will be “Don’t forget to get your COVID shot!”


In this scenario a COVID-19 pandemic lasts for a year or two.  Biologically, the virus may prove to be just that virulent, possibly through mutation into different and/or more dangerous forms.  Politically, a state may decide to maintain anti-virus measures for that long a period through a combination of analysis, caution, and political will.

In particular, a government may choose to maintain aggressive policies until vaccines are found, determined to be effective, and available for widespread distribution.  The Imperial College report notes that

[t]o avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccine are available to immunise the population – which could be 18 months or more.

The American report noted in the preceding scenario also cited 18 months.

This may not be the best outcome for human life.  Neil M. Ferguson tells a New York Times columnist that his best case scenario for a long plague costs 2 million dead Americans. Think about what this could do to seniors, who are especially vulnerable.

For social and economic life this may be devastating.

…and so over to you.  What do you make of these scenarios?  How do you see yourself, your family, your professional world in each?  Which do you see as most likely (as opposed to most desirable) where you are?

Next up: using these scenarios to drive scenarios for higher education.

(thanks to Phil Komarny, Tom Haymes, and my wife, among others)

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Reading for the plague: a syllabus

As a futurist I spend most of my time looking ahead to understand what might happen next.  Sometimes this means drawing on my background as a literature and book person, hunting literary sources that help illuminate the future.


“Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron published in Venice”

So once the coronavirus outbreak began, I started thinking about readings.  My list grew into a kind of sprawling syllabus, which I’d like to share.

My goal was to assemble a good range of texts from a diverse set of authors.  These come from across seven centuries, although they’re biased towards the past hundred years.  They stem from a variety of genres, including realism, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magical realism.  Some focus on preventing a plague, while others explore the course of a disease or its aftermath.  Several are concerned with storytelling itself.

I started with novels, but things grew from there.  Now there are novel-ish book length narratives, short stories, short story collections, a play, and a diary.  I’d like to add nonfiction, if folks can help me create a good list (EDITED TO ADD: here’s one.  Thanks, Vanessa!).

For each item I offer a very brief note about why I picked it.  Each also links to a relevant Wikipedia article.  There are links to free and open content, as available.


Boccaccio, The Decameron (1353).  One hundred stories about being human, told by people fleeing a plague.  (Decameron Web; one Project Gutenberg English language translation; another one; Librivox recording)

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722). The narrator reflects on his experience of a 1665 bubonic plague outbreak in London.  An unusual novel, containing a lot of evidence alongside a personal story: data tables, official documents.  I have an introduction here. (Project Gutenberg edition; Librivox recording)

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826).  Another science fiction work from the genre’s founder.  The story takes place in the late 2000s, and concerns a plague that wipes out the human race.  Several characters are clearly analogues for people Shelley knew, such as her husband and Byron. (Project Gutenberg text; Librivox recording)

Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi (1827); English translation, The Betrothed.  Known for chapters describing a seventeenth-century plague centered on Milan.

Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1912). An old man, survivors of a plague that set human civilization back millennia, tries to tell kids about the world he recalls.  (Project Gutenberg edition; Librivox recording).

Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947); English translation, The Plague (1948). A much-interpreted vision of a plague striking a North African town, seen as an existentialist classic.  It’s become popular of late: Alain de Botton in the New York Times; Jonah Raskin in Counterpunch.

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949). A work of ecological science fiction, this traces the collapse of human civilization after a horrendous plague.  Our point of view character studies changes to the natural world and the shift of society to a hunter-gatherer existence.

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain (1969). An early techno-thriller about stopping a plague before it could go viral.  The story is immersed in science, the military, and technology.

Stephen King, The Stand (1978; revised edition 1990). A devastating plague created by the American military wipes out most of the human race.  What follows is a fantastic struggle between two societies of survivors.

Frank Herbert, The White Plague (1982).  After his family is killed in a terrorist attack, a biologist creates and unleashes a disease that devastates the human race.

DoomsdayBook(1stEd)Samuel Delany, Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985). A linked short story collection taking place in a fantasy world, where a plague breaks out and gradually draws the narrative to contemporary New York City.

Gabriel García Márquez, El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985); English translation, Love in the Time of Cholera (1988). One conceit parallels love and disease. I haven’t read this one yet, but that’s a good reason to create a syllabus.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992). We follow two plagues as they strike Britain in parallel, the Black Death in the 14th century and a new disease in the 21st.

P. D. James, The Children of Men (1992). Humanity is stricken by infertility and civilization changes for the worse.

José Saramago, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995); English translation, Blindness (1997). A plague of blindness strikes a city and its society falls apart.

Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001).  An exploration of the 1665 London plague.  I actually haven’t read this one, but am intrigued.  Apparently it responds to both Defoe and Camus.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). An alternate history, wherein the Black Plague utterly exterminates Europe, and the following centuries develop differently.  There is also a religious/fantasy plot, as several characters are repeatedly reincarnated.

poe_masquereddeath Rackham

Rackham illustration for Poe’s “Masque”

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), MaddAddam (2013). Three visions of the same, shared story, wherein a corporate scientist launches a plague to wipe out a dystopian humanity.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). Follows two timelines: the outbreak of a horrific flu and what’s left of civilization, years later.  The latter plot focuses on a traveling Shakespeare troupe.

Short stories

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). Classic vision of decadence and power versus a plague.  Back in college I used to host Red Death parties. (Poe Museum text; multiple Librivox recordings)

Thomas Mann, “Der Tod in Venedig“; English language, “Death in Venice” (1912). An older man’s attraction to a youth is paralleled with a disease outbreak.

Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr., “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” (1969). A biologist crafts a plague against humanity.  (Lightspeed copy)


Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991, 1992). Multiple intertwined plotlines explore the AIDS epidemic, connecting politics, religion, urban life, gender, and more.


Samuel Pepysdiary (1660-1669). During this decade Pepys recorded his daily life, including encounters with a plague.  One list of plague-related entries. (Project Gutenberg texts; Librivox readings)

Jill Lepore reflects on some of the books in this post.  Here’s a list of books I mostly haven’t read.

What to do with this

I’d love to learn about other readings, since this isn’t an exhaustive list.  Please add in comments; I can edit this post.

Would anyone like to read into this list together, online? Some folks expressed interest via email and Twitter, like Monica Bilson, Tony D’Angelo, Paul Bond, Norm Friesen, and Chris Lott.  We could have a pandemic book club!

(thanks to Thomas Burkdall, Lucy Guerlac, and Vanessa Vaile)

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The moment for a partisan pandemic

Someone soon may call this The Blue Plague.

Why?  The largest urban clusters of coronavirus infections and deaths are, as of this writing, New York City, Seattle, and the Bay Area.  Coming up in a second tier are Detroit and Chicago.

We can see this clearly in current data.  Here’s the New York Times’ map:
coronavirus US spread 2020 March 20 NYTimes

Yes, there are nodes in Appalachia, the south, and the west, but the biggest ones are clearly deep in blue territory.  NYC and San Francisco are bedrock Democratic towns.

We can also see this blueness reflected in state level data.  Here’s the latest CDC release:

coronavirus US spread 2020 March 20 CDC

Again, New York and Washington in the lead, followed closely by New Jersey and California.

The New York Times offers a related list:

coronavirus infections deaths by state 2020 March 21 NYTimes

Blue states clearly dominate here, led by the urban areas noted above, plus New Jersey swept in due to its long-standing and deep connections with New York.  As Ronald Brownstein remarks in the Atlantic,

each of the four states with the largest number of coronavirus cases is a Democratic-leaning place along the coast: New York, Washington, California, and New Jersey. Florida, a coastal, internationally oriented state that leans slightly toward the GOP, ranks fifth. Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, each with at least one big urban center that functions as a gateway for tourism and trade, come in next.


with only a few exceptions, the states with the fewest number of confirmed cases are smaller, Republican-leaning ones between the coasts, with fewer ties to diverse populations and the global economy. That list includes Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

To be clear, the epidemiological reasons for this divide are important (think of these as global cities).  I am certainly not at all arguing that these cities somehow caused their infections or deaths, or that they deserved them.  Instead, I’m wondering if some Americans will make those arguments.  Here I’m interested in the political and cultural ways we might interpret and make use of the coronavirus plague’s appearance so far.  Recent political polarization should play a role, especially when heightened by a general election season.  And the deep psychological and social dynamics of pandemics historically play out socially and politically.

There are already signs of this.  Raw Story offers a survey of conservative snark on Twitter.  Folks there complain about: left wing Democrats using COVID-19 to push for Medicare-for all; media bias; blue policies driving disease.  It’s a useful and disturbing index.  Elsewhere we can find conservatives proclaiming American strength in dealing with the pandemic or slamming progressive gender concerns as inappropriate for the crisis,

One way the blue-red COVID-19 political-cultural divide may be playing out is in terms of different state policies.  For example,

blue cities and states [are] moving more aggressively – and more quickly – than more conservative communities. New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has taken a number of steps, including banning gatherings of 50 or more people and most recently, on Wednesday ordering businesses to cut on-site workforces by half (people could work from home). San Francisco is under a “shelter in place” order, while Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, a Democrat, ordered a statewide shutdown of bars and restaurants.


Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, was castigated on social media for tweeting a photo of himself going out to dinner with his family – and for saying he would continue to do so despite the outbreak.

Herbert White PlagueI’d add Alaska’s Republican Representative’s recent recommendation to senior citizens that they not worry about the virus (!).

That policy difference is in turn based on differing ideological approaches to government’s role.  Ronald Brownstein observes that “[w]ith a few prominent exceptions, especially Ohio, states with Republican governors have been slower, or less likely, than those run by Democrats to impose restrictions on their residents.”  He goes on to note:

Of the states that have taken the fewest actions to restrict public gatherings or limit restaurant service on a statewide basis—such as Texas, Missouri, and Alabama—almost all have Republican governors, according to research by Topher Spiro, the vice president for health policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, where he directs a program that examines state health initiatives.

In addition to a difference in state policies we may also see coronavirus attitudes divide most clearly in terms of a rural-urban split.  Generally, of course, Democrats tend to succeed in cities while the GOP’s base is in the countryside.  As the pandemic is so far focused on urban areas, we can expect political arguments to follow. For instance,

[Christopher Mooney, professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago]: “We’re really seeing this in Illinois – downstate, they are thinking of this as a Chicago problem,” Mooney says. People in conservative areas of the state think, “This is an urban problem. This is a foreign problem,” he adds.

Note that association of city with foreignness.

Ed Kilgore agrees:

there’s a chance it will simply reinforce small-town and rural hostility to the culturally alien influence of big-city folk aligned with foreigners, given the more cosmopolitan (demographically and economically as well) nature of Urban America…

There’s a demographic and policy angle to the country-city split which matters a great deal:

[Eva Kassens-Noor, a professor in the global-urban-studies program at Michigan State University] believes that U.S. communities will experience the coronavirus in contrasting, but complex, ways: While the disease will probably spread more rapidly in urban areas, she says, more of the population there is young and healthy. And while outbreaks may not be as pervasive in rural America, they could still prove very damaging because the population is older and has less access to quality health care.

Another driver for casting COVID-19 as the Blue Plague may come from Trump-era class politics. Brownstein again:

[Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern Republican Party:] “The feeling increasingly is that experts and the media are all part of this elite class that is self-dealing and is looking down on less-educated and less-fortunate people, and [that] they can’t be trusted to tell the truth.” He adds, “That dynamic … has been reinforced” by the emergence of the “conservative media ecosystem,” which unstintingly presents “elites” as a threat to viewers.

Note the part about the media.  Long-standing Republican dislike of (some) media plays a role here, as shown in a recent Pew poll:

Republicans give the news media lower ratings than Democrats for COIVD-19 coverage but rate their own news sources higher

That media attitude goes further, connecting with a party divide about the seriousness of the threat:

Majority of Americans think the news media have exaggerated COVID-19 risks at least slightly; Republicans more likely to say so than Democrats

So much of this is the present and very recent history.  How might it unfold in the near future?

Brownstein offers two possibilities based on a scenario wherein “the virus never becomes pervasive beyond big cities.”  First, that outcome “could reinforce the sense among many Republican voters and office-holders that the threat has been overstated.”  Second, racism and nationalism could ramp up, as

it could also fuel the kind of xenophobia that Trump and other GOP leaders, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have encouraged by labeling the disease the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”

Kilgore adds another twist: “it’s also possible heartland insularity will feed on itself and embitter endangered people even more toward the godless, elitist mongrels of the East and West Coasts and the pathogens they breed.”

What if another scenario occurs, and the pandemic breaks into red as well as blue precincts? Kilgore sees a resulting drop in GOP fortunes: “It’s possible confidence in Trump and his administration will flag in Red America as the pandemic ceases to be mostly a blue-state, big-city phenomenon.”

Let me offer a third option, a different possibility in addition to the Masque of the Blue Death.  The red-blue divide is not, nor has it ever been, a total description of American culture or even politics.  It has always downplayed bipartisan agreement and policy areas that don’t play out in neatly nonpartisan ways, from privacy to intellectual property to a lot of foreign affairs.   It papers over the enormous complexity and diversity found in a nation of 325+ million people stuck with only two political parties.

And in this case we’ve already seen similar variations.  Ohio’s governor is a Republican, and that’s a newly minted red state, but DeWine took the lead in driving that state’s stay at home and institutional closure policies.  Moreover, there are many ways for politicians dyed the deepest blue to work with a hated president. “Democratic governors have been in the unusual position of urging cooperation with a president they’ve spent their tenures battling and even suing.”

At another level we can recognize that for all of the cries that the GOP hates science, red states are as much consumers of health care as their blue competitors.  At the same time we’d do well to remember progressive medical quackery (cf Goop) and the fact that antivaxxers are non- or bipartisan.  For conservatives, being against evolution, say, does not mean one avoids antibiotics or ventilators.  Hating pointy-headed intellectuals doesn’t keep conservatives away from pharmacies and hospitals.    Call it cognitive dissonance or mental compartmentalization, red state folks get sick and turn to allied health for help.  As a result they can view the coronavirus pandemic as, well, a dangerous virus, and call for a range of expanded services.

Such a call could well emphasize the private sector and nonprofits (think of religious groups) over state support, but that ideological divide could also fall away thanks to another aspect of Republican and conservative thought.  Note that Trump referred to the national drive against COVID-19 as a war.  That’s a carefully chosen term.  The post-Vietnam War GOP prides itself on its support of the military, and a good number of its members seem likely to support having the federal government organize society along warlike lines, especially if such an effort was led by one of their own.

This can lead to positions that cut against the normal red versus blue narrative.  A casual trawl of Trump’s recent Twitter emissions shows him celebrating a landlord telling tenants not to pay rent, a blow against sacred contracts.  He praised a Republican senator’s support for telemedicine – not exactly the actions of anti-science zealots.  And he just claimed to be using the hated federal government to… give money to small business and workers?

I’m not saying Trump has suddenly had a radical change of heart and embraced the tenets of modern progressive thought.  He’s also pushing drugs that medical authorities seem to say won’t work.  I’m also not saying both Dems and GOPs are equal; my own politics are to the left of the Dem mainstream.  I’m not calling for bothsidesism. Instead I’m arguing that red versus blue is a clumsy analytical tool, and using it will cause us to miss a good chunk of reality.  That’s a bad move in a pandemic.

To sum up: we could see America acculturate the COVID-19 pandemic in culture war terms, with political implications.  On the other hand, this Blue Plague moment might be a brief one, depending on the virus’ progress and how Republicans respond.

If the former occurs, what does a COVID-ized culture war look like?  Much depends on how far the pandemic goes. If the course is brief and we all heave a sigh of relief in late April, virus arguments could just become part of the general political discourse.

The longer the pandemic lasts, though, the deeper the pressure on and damage to American life, and the greater the odds of civil unrest.  Unemployed people living in desperation and fear for their lives are fine candidates for insurgencies and violence.  Social breakdown can make room for countervailing structures, which might not be so benign.  We could see official or DIY barriers of all kinds put up between red and blue area, within or between states.  Imagine people launching online attacks, mail threats, or in-person assaults on those they deem unclean or enabling the plague.

For education, I will have much more to say in following posts.  For now we can think of political pressure to cut support to academia in many forms: state funding for public universities, federal research programs, political laws aimed at curtailing or supporting certain campus behaviors, and so on.  If this plays out in terms of the culture war, we should expect increased Republican and rural resentment of colleges and universities.

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Anticipating a pandemic

Here’s one thing about being a futurist.  Sometimes the world confirms one of your scenarios or models, but it’s not something to celebrate.  That’s because what you foresaw isn’t good news for anyone when it actually enters the real world.

Academia Next coverCase in point: my newest book, Academia Next, came out from Johns Hopkins University Press in early January 2020.  I wrote it in 2018-2019.

If you read chapter 14, the most forward-looking section, you’ll see pages of me anticipating a wide range of global changes that could hit higher education.  Some of them appear fairly likely.  Others, less so.  On page 212 I offered some options:

…black swan possibilities also lurk. Historical examples abound, such as a leader’s sudden death by accident or assassination that unravels a political order. A new religious sect or the vigorous reformation of an existing faith can win adherents and upend societies. Beyond political and social causes, a pandemic that exceeds our medical containment capacity could not only constitute a humanitarian disaster but also sap regimes, shock economies, and electrify cultures. (emphases added)

I don’t think a reader mentioned this to me until February, once the coronavirus terrorized Hubei and began reaching out to the world.

Yet that passage is not the most telling bit.  Much earlier in the book is a longer meditation on disease and higher ed.  It appears as an example of futures thinking within chapter 1.  I invited readers to use their imaginations in order to see how academia could change under certain conditions.  As an example, I offered this on page 23:

…imagine a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great Influenza. To envision the institution under such pressure, we would have to think through multiple disciplines and domains. We would have to consider, first, how such a thing would occur. This could involve delving into the history of disease, a look into graph theory for models of contagion, and a reflection on contemporary public health. We would then apply that learning to colleges and universities, a process that can ramify extensively depending on our awareness of the sector. Would distance learning grow rapidly as people fear face-to-face learning because of perceived contagion risk? Similarly, how would we take conferences and other forms of professional development online? Depending on the disease’s death toll, should we plan on depressed demographics within a generation, or would the birth rate bounce back? Would athletes refrain from practice and play from fear of contagion, or would both institutions and the general public demand more college sports as an inspirational sign of bodily vigor in the context of sickness and death? Which academic disciplines would be most likely to grow in the disease’s wake?

Note that I used the word “pandemic” in both instances.

evil eye Quinn DombrowskiSince COVID-19 seized our lives more than a few readers have asked me about these passages.  They have all been kind and refrained from making warding off the evil eye gestures in my direction.

My students last summer were similarly kind when I posed a pandemic to them as a design challenge for the future of the university.

But please don’t think I’m bragging.  I don’t mean to claim some oracular title for myself.  As demonstrated last week, working through disease outbreak futures is an established, long-running scenario practice, both by professional futurists and those who don’t use the name.

Here’s the thing.  Futurists generally want things to get better in their chosen domain.  I want academia to thrive.  But we have to look ahead across a full range of possibilities, from utopia to dystopia, as I like to say.  We can’t avert our gaze from negative or even horrible futures in the hope of salvation.  We have to consider the future as a whole, as objectively as possible, with an open mind.

I just hate getting this one right.

PS: Johns Hopkins University Press, this book’s publisher, made my book and many others available for free online, as a response to the pandemic.  I’ve linked to the appropriate chapters up above.  Kudos to them for doing this!

(thanks to Remi Kalir, who requested it; evil eye by Quinn Dombrowski)

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