Looking back to April 2020: losses, gains, and checking on my futuring work

A year ago this month I was engaged in trying to help higher education anticipate the next year as COVID roiled the world.  Today I’d like to check back and see how I did.

(“A year ago”: just writing that phrase brings to mind such a sweep of experiences, emotions, and memories.  My family hunkered down with a deep pantry, lots of masks, and getting used to the front porch as our new border/interface with the world. My face-to-face business evaporated and me scrambling to relaunch it online.  Adjusting to a vegan diet.)

I have posted several times about last year’s futuring work, with the goal of being honest and transparent about my research (here and here). Partly this is from professional self-interest, in trying to improve my work by learning from mistakes.  I try to be up front about things I get wrong, like this. It’s good futures practice.

So, April 2021 looks at April 2020.  tl;dr – I got one big thing right, missed another, and it’s too early to tell about the others.

One correct forecast: the pandemic clobbered higher education

In April 2020 I wrote and spoke quite a bit about the pandemic.  I offered my three big scenarios for fall 2021, and each played out.  I offered opposing scenarios for April 2021, and the reality was smack right between the two.

The preceding sounds egotistical with plenty of “I”‘s, but it wasn’t just me.  The Future Trends Forum held session after session on the topic, with thousands of people collaboratively exploring what the pandemic was doing and where it was heading.  On the community’s behalf, I’m very proud of this.  There weren’t many other such venues.

Forum COVID-19 and Kristen Eshleman QForum COVID-19 and Kristen Eshleman Q

Throughout these posts one theme rose consistently: a forecast of tough economic times for higher education as a result of the pandemic. My forecasts were quickly borne out as campuses ramped up cuts over the next few weeks.  Over the next year higher education cut and cut again.

The cuts continue even now, across the country.  Mergers are still in the air, as we see in Pennsylvania.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a powerful analysis and reflection of what occurred.  Here’s the stark opening:

Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March of 2020, institutions of higher education have shed a net total of at least 570,000 workers, according to preliminary, seasonally adjusted figures from the U.S. Labor Department. Put another way, for every nine workers employed in academe in February 2020, at least one had lost or left that job a year later.

Please be sure to read that carefully.  One in nine workers.  This has been, and remains, a human catastrophe.

Dan Bauman carefully identifies who was hit hardest by class and race:

Mirroring trends in the larger economy, certain workers in higher education have endured a disproportionate share of the losses. Workers with limited labor protections, like those providing administrative support or working in food service, were particularly hard hit. So were employees of color, who saw outsized losses relative to their share of the overall work force.

academic job losses 2020-2021 by race_Chronicle

Recent progress is heartening, but listen to how deep the hole is that we’re just starting to crawl out of:

Despite a significant increase in recent months, the net loss in jobs remains so large that it’s erased more than a decade of job gains for the sector, with higher ed’s work force now matching its size in February 2008.

And yet I thought it would have been worse.  What did I fail to anticipate?

One miss: the federal government CARES

In March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, the United States federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the hugest stimulus package in American history until that point.  This poured the then-astonishing amount of $2.2 trillion into the national economy. Within that bill was substantial relief for colleges and universities.  That didn’t save us from cuts – see the preceding paragraphs – but did a lot to staunch the bleeding, both for academic institutions as well as students.

How did I fail to anticipate CARES? I think one reason is falling victim to simple partisan models of American politics.  The Democrats are the party of increased social spending, they aver, and the Republicans the engine of cutting.  Since the GOP led most of the government in 2020 (the presidency and Senate, while the House had flipped to the Democrats) I naively expected a Hoover-like response to the pandemic’s social costs.   Instead the party of tax and budget cuts fired off an enormous money cannon.  Heck, a battery of cannons.

I should have known better.  Trump had run on some form of populism and was keenly attuned to the economy as his core claim to reelection, then only eight months away.  Republican senators and representatives were similarly thinking of their polling.  Meanwhile, the economy was cratering into depression territory.  Popular cries for relief appeared alongside industries’ flailing.  Some form of federal investment was unavoidable.

For me, a lesson learned.

Several forecasts too early to call

There were other forecasts which are harder to assess. I called for the “COVID curriculum” to grow, wherein enrollment and offerings in the full spectrum of allied health care would take off.  Nearly 9 months later NPR called this the Fauci Effect, which is pretty much the same idea.  Yet I haven’t seen any good data yet to determine to what extent this played out.

A bunch of us argued that asynchronous teaching would and should outpace synchronous for a variety of reasons, including convenience and the digital divide.  This is very hard to determine, given the distributed nature off American higher education and the difficulty of getting data about teaching practices.  I haven’t seen convincing accounts one way of the other.

In April 2020 I also looked into what I thought of as marginal stories, odd events which might have pointed to some emerging futures.  One was about COVID testing fraud, and while that hasn’t borne out, we’ve definitely seen vaccine frauds and concerns thereof.  Another concerned conspiracy theories linking 5G and the pandemic; the past year has certainly seen kookiness rampant, if not always focused along that particular pairing.  A third marginal note featured religious leaders holding gatherings in defiance of public health measures, and that kind of thing has, sadly, persisted.

One more marginal story was that of mordant humor, and that’s certainly persisted.  But let me pull out one prescient moment from Frankie Boyle’s bitter column, which started thusly: “2020 began with Australia on fire and a billion animals dead. It’s sobering to think that will be the feel-good story of the year.” Oof.  What interests me today is where he ended up:

you have to wonder if the virus is so very different from extractive capitalism. It commandeers the manufacturing elements of its hosts, gets them to make stuff for it; kills a fair few, but not enough to stop it spreading. There is no normal for us to go back to. People sleeping in the streets wasn’t normal; children living in poverty wasn’t normal; neither was our taxes helping to bomb the people of Yemen. Using other people’s lives to pile up objects wasn’t normal, the whole thing was absurd. Governments are currently busy pouring money into propping up existing inequalities, and bailing out businesses that have made their shareholders rich. The world’s worst people think that everybody is going to come out of this in a few months and go willingly back into a kind of numbing servitude. Surely it’s time to start imagining something better.

This reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s contemporary and not at all funny call for us to think of COVID as a portal:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

I think Roy and Doyle were onto something from their respective approaches, comic and literary.  They pointed to aspirations for improvement and reinvention, not just recovery. And we saw such hopes appear over the past year, from the national awakening to antiracism to the Biden administration’s willingness to spend vast amounts on improving America beyond the pandemic’s immediate needs.

I don’t know to what extent higher education is thinking about walking through the portal lightly, ready to imagine a new academia.  There’s definitely a hunger to return to fall 2019, what one writer has nicknamed a “snapback.”  Will students, faculty, and staff want to snap right back, or will we try to recreate higher education in a new form?  For me, that is the open question we’re answering right now.


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2 Responses to Looking back to April 2020: losses, gains, and checking on my futuring work

  1. Bryan – You referred to the contraction of higher education employment as a human catastrophe. Certainly, the effects of the pandemic on this industry can be framed in those terms, but I would like to suggest that the role of the pandemic was simply as an accelerant to an inevitable correction that HE was going to experience: the demographic cliff, the unrelentingly increasing costs of a college education, the persistent political attacks against the “educated elite,” and the over-reliance on non-education revenue to sustain residential campus based colleges.

    The ingredients for the decline had already been set; the pandemic simply poured gasoline on top of it. My point here is to suggest that the human catastrophe in this situation was likely going to be a slow, painful burn, if it were not an explosion. In the larger analysis, the pandemic is somewhat innocent in this demise in comparison to the other factors working against HE as a going concern.

    Looking forward, I am seeing more of an interest in developing professional skills for PK-12 teachers to teach online, which I imagine will have the collateral effect of producing more public school graduates inclined to enroll in HE in online degree programs. In higher education, as in the corporate world, the only barrier to considering (most) online education options has been cultural. Right now, there are tons of empty office buildings in New York City because corporate America is now discovering what some industries (video post-production, for one) already knew: You can get work done without the overhead of campus/office infrastructure.

    Last, the higher education industry, high school graduates, and the professional workforce are all co-defined. This means that if the workforce environment favors workers who are able to work remotely, it will mean that students will be inclined to prepare for that context, which will, in turn, cause higher education to modify their offerings to provide programs and readiness for those students to serve those industries.

    The pandemic may have decimated the traditional configuration of labor, education, and employment. But it didn’t decimate anything that wasn’t already becoming archaic and somewhat out of touch with the way humans work, learn, and communicate.

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