Coronavirus is not a Black Swan

21 March 2020


The Internet is full of folk talking about the unprecedented pandemic we are all experiencing and how its "Black Swan" character has meant the necessity to be agile and develop responses in reaction to the new and unexpected demands it is making on our societies, systems and on Universities. We have all seen a flood of newly developed advice from experts, vendors, agencies and leadership teams aimed at helping academics, professional staff, students and the wider community respond effectively. These are in the main excellent and helpful crisis responses, its just a shame that so many are in response to issues and needs that were entirely predictable, easily able to be addressed by ordinary good organisational practice. This event is not a Black Swan, at best it was a Gray one, and we need to take a hard look at how we can be better prepared for the next one as well as real Black Swans.

"Black swans by their very nature cannot be planned for. The only viable strategic response is to build resilient organisations that can dynamically cope with the unexpected." (Marshall, 2018a p. 417)

Nicholas Taleb (2007) defined the Black Swan in the preface to his book as:

" is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable." (p. xvii-xviii)

Black Swans exist in contrast to Grey Swans:

"A Grey Swan is a highly probable event with three principal characteristics: it is predictable; it carries an impact that can easily cascade; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that recognizes the probability of occurrence, but shifts the focus to errors in judgment or some other human form of causation." (Sikich, 2016)

and White Swans:

"A white swan is a highly certain event with three principal characteristics: it is certain; it carries an impact that can easily be estimated; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that recognizes the certainty of occurrence, but again, shifts the focus to errors in judgment or some other human form of causation." (Sikich, 2016)

The thread that runs through these is a fallacy of thinking known as the "normalcy bias" (Omer & Alon, 1994). This is the common human tendency to underestimate the extent of disruption caused by unexpected events and to over-estimate the ability of individuals and organisations to respond effectively to the consequences. This leads us to where many universities find themselves today.

Pandemics are entirely predictable disruptions that clearly fall into the category of Grey Swans (Ross, Crowe, Tyndall, 2015). The CV-19 virus is very similar to the MERS-CV14 virus noted in that 5 year old paper, and the education systems of many countries have had to deal with the impact of SARS on their operations (Feast and Bretag 2005). Notably, many of the issues and concerns in the Feast and Bretag paper are entirely relevant and apparent in the current situation, with the difference that we have rapidly moved beyond the concerns of transnational and international education to those of domestic - a classic example of the cascade that typifies Grey Swans.

Looking at the Ross et al. paper I was struck by their focus on the need to build systemic capability in the health systems of developing countries (does one include the US in that group these days?). They are making a clear argument for the global public good that results from such investment in resilience in those countries.

Resilience is a well-known concept but is used differently across the disciplines. In psychology, it is how individuals respond to a psychologically disruptive event (Bonanno et al. 2010). In education, it is how an individual is able to learn through adversity (Downey 2008). In the disaster risk reduction realm, it is how individuals and communities maintain or return to ‘normal functions’ after a crisis (Stephenson, 2010).

For universities we need to take a hard look at the practices and systems that need to be more resilient. We need to identify where our failure to respond to the entirely predictable situation we find ourselves in by making proactive change has contributed to the challenges we now face. As with all risk management, it is critical to emphasise that this is not an exercise in blame, but rather to help us move to a better culture:

"progressing from explicit risk controls to a risk-aware culture in which risk is managed in a coordinated way across different interests, organisational units and external relationships." (Mohammed & Sykes, 2012)

It is well established that mitigation of Grey Swans, like pandemics, is the only viable strategy to reduce the consequences (Pike et al., 2014). Some low hanging fruit for risk mitigation and change include the over-dependence on the international student market in our normal operations that has led to many distractions and issues over the last few months. Arguments over student mobility between VCs and governments are a symptom of this risk which has been diagnosed for years (Feast and Bretag 2005; Marshall, 2018b). International engagement is an important part of a modern university education but we have to uncouple the financial dependency this has created by establishing more sustainable funding models for what is a key social infrastructure. We would sack a government that created a water system that can only operate when we sell water overseas, similarly we need a higher education system that can operate well without an export market.

Other obvious responses include a sustained investment in modern learning and teaching infrastructure and the capability to realise this through responsive pedagogies enacted by staff familiar with their use. Business as usual is how resilience is sustained and we are now experiencing the price of allowing too many decisions to be driven by conservative approaches in our universities. The staff whose students are being best served currently are those who had already taken the time to design courses with effective use of online content and activities, with assessments that actively used modern collaboration tools, and who used face to face time to motivate and engage with students. These same academics are similarly engaging well with peers to continue their work as researchers and scholars.

After a crisis it is normal to return to the practice of that earlier time. We need to start helping our universities embed mitigation approaches that sustain resiliency. Certainly we will not keep some of the emergency changes to assessment that are necessary, but we should be challenging default approaches, such as the dependence on exams, that have defined many of our courses and programmes.

This pandemic was a Grey Swan. It was predicted, it will cascade, but we cannot allow it to be seen as something that we could not have prepared for in a more systematic way. There will be other pandemics, we will experience large scale natural disasters, human actions that disrupt our work, and other problems such as political change that influence student choices. Unless we build greater resilience through the learning process, in essence becoming "anti-fragile" and strengthened by crisis (Taleb, 2012) we will be unable to cope when a real Black Swan occurs, and then blame really should fall on us all.


Bonanno, G. A., Brewin, C. R., Kaniasty, K., & Greca, A. M. L. (2010). Weighing the Costs of Disaster: Consequences, Risks, and Resilience in Individuals, Families, and Communities. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 11(1), 1–49.

Dalziell, E., Brunsdon, D., McManus, S., Vargo, J. (2005) Improving Organisational Resilience. Toronto, Canada: 15th World Conference on Disaster Management, 10-13 Jul 2005.

Downey, J.A. (2008) Recommendations for Fostering Educational Resilience in the Classroom, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 53:1, 56-64, DOI: 10.3200/PSFL.53.1.56-64

Feast, V., & Bretag, T. (2005). Responding to Crises in Transnational Education: New Challenges for Higher Education. Higher Education Research & Development 24:63–78.

Marshall, S. (2018a). Shaping the University of the Future.

Marshall, S. (2018b). International education: An analysis of enrolments in Australian and New Zealand universities. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education.

Mohammed, A., & Sykes, R. (2012). Black swans turn grey: The transformation of risk. London, UK: PwC.

Jamison Pike, J. Tiffany Bogich, Sarah Elwood, David C. Finnoff, Peter Daszak Economic optimization of global pandemic strategy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2014, 111 (52) 18519-18523; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1412661112

Omer, H., & Alon, N. (1994). The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(2), 273–287. BF02506866.

Ross, A.G.P., Crowe, S.M. & Tyndall, M.W. (2015). Planning for the Next Global Pandemic. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 38:89-94.

Sikich, G. (2016). Black Swans, Grey Swans, White Swans.

Stephenson, A.V. (2010). Benchmarking the Resilience of Organisations. PhD Thesis University of Canterbury.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. London, UK: Allen Lane.

Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. London, UK: Penguin Books.