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Will Model UN Survive COVID19? Here are the Chances

Written by Frank Pobutkiewicz

I'm the founder/Managing Director of the All-American Model UN Programs! If you have any questions, please email [email protected]. Happy MUNing!

May 24, 2020

Will Model UN Survive COVID19? Here are the Chances

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Two words will soon begin to reshape the world if they haven’t already: new normal. Daily life after the coronavirus pandemic will noticeably differ from the way in which we used to live. Restaurants, gyms, and office spaces will be redesigned. Grocery stores and retail outlets will have new operating procedures. Education as we have known it since the 1950s may finally be disrupted. But of all the industries in this country, two may never again look the same: conferences and travel, both cornerstones of how we think of Model United Nations in the United States.

Up until February 2020, Model United Nations conferences would bring together hundreds, if not thousands, of students from around the and from all corners of the globe. Packed into conference rooms in classrooms, gymnasiums, and hotel ballrooms, upwards of 400 student delegates would work together to pass international legislation. Facemasks or not, it’s hard to envision a quick return to this setup. Which begs the questions: will we ever?

This is a daunting question to ask, and one that many conferences and secretariats may be blissfully ignoring– perhaps at their own peril. Leading epidemiologists, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, expect the coronavirus to have a resurgence this fall. Some colleges, such as the California State University system, have announced they plan to conduct all classes online in the fall. Others, such as Notre Dame and the University of South Carolina, have rolled out plans to welcome students back to campus in September and shut down at Thanksgiving break.

With the era of uncertainty continuing, many Model UN conferences in the fall seem to be moving forward with business as usual. WUMUNS, hosted by Washington University in St. Louis every October, has posted no updates on its website with regard to COVID-19. Neither has VAMUN (University of Virginia), SMUNC (Stanford), or WMHSMUN (William & Mary). BUSUN (Brown University) has posted an alert saying that “…as of now, BUSUN XXIV is still expected to be held during the weekend of November 6-8, 2020.”

The decision to postpone or cancel a Model UN conference has long-lasting implications for the hosting institution. I cannot blame Secretariats for being hopeful that the current global health crisis will subside– an optimism many of us share. By canceling a conference, the hosting school may lose a year’s worth of operating capital used to fund its own travel team, lose relationships with schools and teachers, and destroys the chance for seniors to have one last chance at Model UN glory. Not to mention, hotel contracts and other vendor relationships cloudy the waters.

So again, will Model United Nations survive COVID-19? In an amusingly short answer without qualification: yes.

The community that Model United Nations creates and nurtures will not disappear. The strong ties that form relationships across school, state lines, and generations will not quickly fray. In any great crisis, there follows a period of transition: a new normal. Here’s what the new Model UN normal could look like and the percentages that I’ve assigned to each possibility given my 18+ years of involvement in the community.

In-person Conferences in the Fall will be Canceled, Postponed, or Go Digital

Chance of Happening: 95%

Even if universities and colleges open their doors and campuses this fall, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where large group events will be permitted to take place. Hotels conference centers are likely to remain closed, and likewise, universities likely won’t permit events from happening on campus. Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that in-person Model UN conferences will take place in Fall 2020.

This period of time will be painful for all members of the community, but my heart goes out to the senior class of 2021, especially Secretariat members, who will miss hosting their last in-person Model UN conference. There’s a chance that some conferences will try to postpone to the Spring, but it’s more likely than not that Spring conferences will also not happen.

In-person Conferences in the Spring will be Canceled, Postponed, or Go Digital

Chance of Happening: 75%

Baring a breakthrough therapy or vaccine, which most experts do not expect for another year, it’s unlikely that Model UN conferences will take place during the Spring semester in 2021 (January-May). If the coronavirus follows the flu-season progression, then the country will be on high alert until April 2021.

The best option now for conferences is to start planning a digital transition, which starts my answering some difficult questions: how will Model UN work in the virtual world? What technology will conferences use to run committees (please, not Zoom)? How do you train staff and teachers for online Model UN? What procedure will Model UN simulations follow?

Virtual Model UN Conferences will be as Popular as In-person

Chance of Happening: 45%

The transition to virtual Model United Nations will be as smooth as tree bark. There will be challenging, though not insurmountable, growing pains. Technology and media literacy will be put to the test. New skill sets will have to be developed. The value of participating in Model United Nations must be more narrowly focused.

Let’s face it, plenty of students go to Model UN conferences for an extra day or two off of school. The “back of the room” delegates are unlikely to jump into the world of online Model UN. What scares me most about this transition is the number of students who otherwise would have gotten hooked on the activity if it still took place in-person. I expect attendance in all Model UN conferences to lag for the foreseeable future, meaning conferences will have to design new ways to engage and draw-in students.

Model UN Conferences will Expand Pre-Conference and Post-Conference Projects

Chance of Happening: 65%

The trend of project-based learning being incorporated into Model UN conferences began long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. As conferences make the digital transition, Secretariats will start looking for new opportunities to engage students and teachers. YMUN (Yale University) and NAIMUN (Georgetown) have been ahead of the curve, leading as examples of how to design and implement pre-conference projects and essays. Expanding Model UN beyond the conference weekend has been the centerpiece to organizations like MUN Impact.

Model UN Procedure for Online Conferences will Drastically Change

Chance of Happening: 50%

The chance of this happening should be higher than 50%, but knowing how entrenched conferences are in their ways, I’m going to give it the same chance as a flip of a coin. Rather than trying to simulate Model UN procedure as we knew it, the most successful conference will dramatically redesign the way a committee simulation works.

Unmoderated caucuses as they operated in the pre-COVID world are unlikely to return until 100+ people can gather in a closed space. Forcing students randomly into Zoom breakout rooms is a recipe for awkwardness and likely will push people away from Model UN. Every conference should devote serious time to talking through the new normal of Model UN procedure.

Canceled Conferences will End Permanently

Chance of Happening: 25%

Throughout the United States, there are hundreds of Model UN conferences hosted by high schools, middle schools, NGOs, nonprofits, colleges, universities, and the United Nations. 2019 may go down as the year of “peak MUN.” While I think most conferences will figure out a way through the current global pandemic, the reality is that some conferences will likely come to an end. Contractual issues, budgetary constraints, addition University oversight, startup expenses, and shrinking demand will doom some portion of conferences– plan now so that your conference isn’t one of them.

What Do You Think?

What will the future of Model UN look like in the post-coronavirus world? How will the conference experience change? Can Model UN make the virtual transition? How is your conference adjusting to the new normal? Share your thoughts by email me at [email protected] and I’ll include some of my favorite responses in the next Gavel Drop newsletter.


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