Why Colleges and Graduate Schools are Closing Their Doors So Quickly for the Coronavirus / COVID-19, and Why That's a Good Thing for You (or Your Children)


I had a conversation with a college freshman the other day who was on his way home from school – on account of his school cancelling all classes and asking all students to be out by a certain day. Understandably, he was irate. He was irate because none of his friends were sick, because they were also angry, and mostly because it is at the very least an inconvenience to them and to many a financial strain.

I didn't have the words at the time to really calm him, so I mostly just listened. I  muttered something about dorms being akin to cruise ships that I had heard on TV from a doctor, which wasn't really helpful, and I knew it when I said it. But I later came across an article with the following analogy that I hope will help others in the same situation:

There’s an old brain teaser that goes like this: You have a pond of a certain size, and upon that pond, a single lily pad. This particular species of lily pad reproduces once a day, so that on day two, you have two lily pads. On day three, you have four lily pads, on day four, eight lily pads, and so on.
Now the teaser. If it takes the lily pads 48 days to cover the pond completely, how long will it take for the pond to be covered halfway? The answer is 47 days. Moreover, at day 40, you’ll barely know the lily pads are there. That grim math explains why so many people are worried about the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. And why so many other people think we are panicking over nothing.

In math class, exponentiality is a pretty easy concept to grasp. But when the pond looks like it has only a few lily pads, and everyone seems to be screaming and panicking that the pond is in trouble, it can seem very sensible to think they are crying wolf.

Colleges, law schools, business schools, medical schools etc. are categorically not crying wolf. I know this not because I have some extra special understanding of exponentiality, which I do not, but because I have spent my entire career in higher education. High order decisions are made prudently and carefully. This kind of decision, to cancel classes, empty campuses, cancel commencement and all athletic activities strains a university greatly. In doing so, it also causes an immense amount of pushback. So there is a larger picture that university presidents and deans see that has them overriding the pushback that they know is coming. It's the pond on day 47. I think most all of us can agree we don't want to be on a packed college campus when the clock turns to day 48.

I hope this analogy is useful as you go through the burdensome process of adjusting to this temporary new normal. Remember that a succesful prevention will look like an overreaction. Let's look out for one another.

– Mike