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New CSU chancellor undercover

October 6, 2012

One of the first things I read about Timothy P. White, the new chancellor of California State University, was that in May 2011 he appeared on the hit reality show Undercover Boss. So I watched the episode. There’s a preview on the website of UC Riverside, where Dr. White has been chancellor since 2008, and I found the full episode on both amazon video and iTunes.

Undercover Boss portrays high-level executives who go undercover to work for a week among their lowest paid employees. Disguised in ordinary clothes, the bosses learn quickly. They pick up trash and clean toilets; they struggle under irrational policies and uncaring middle-managers. These minor humiliations bring enlightenment. Each show ends with the boss first revealing the ruse, and then eliminating selected hardships, announcing reforms, and bestowing favors on individual employees.

One reviewer points out that Undercover Boss reenacts an old fantasy of the powerless: if only the powerful understood our plight, they would help us.

The boss walks a mile in the worker’s shoes. The boss attains wisdom, and the worker gets a new pair of shoes. The basic model is noblesse oblige and corporate charity, not workplace democracy and social justice.

The show’s obsession with personal experience obscures the political causes of the harsh working conditions it portrays. We’re told that workers suffer because the boss is “out of touch,” not because investors demand large profit margins and the workers lack effective legal protection and union representation. As one critic puts it, “The idea that the soul journeys of CEOs can redeem or restore American industry in an age of ruthless globalism makes for an enchanting bedtime story, but it’s hard to conceive of a goofier approach to—or a more misleading account of—What’s Actually Going On Out There.”

In most respects, the episode with Dr. White follows this standard script. White amiably goes through the requisite indignities. In front of a chemistry class of 250 students, he fumbles nervously with a microphone and mispronounces words while a student openly yawns; while sorting books in the library, he falters over the proper ordering of the letters o and p; at the university track, he awkwardly drops heavy equipment; and during his day as a campus tour guide, White repeatedly stumbles while walking backwards in front of a group of visitors.

The episode ends with White revealing his identity to the university employees who graciously showed him their jobs, followed by heart-felt conversations, hugs, and lots of tears. White and his new friends share personal stories that are truly moving, for an instant, before they wilt in the glare of publicity. Nothing real can stop the cynicism machine that is reality television.

Between the hugs and tears, White hands out presents like Santa Claus: loan forgiveness and scholarships for the student employees, a training opportunity and brand new track for the coach, and a Women in Science Scholarship named after the chemistry professor. These gifts differ in the breadth of their impact, but they’re all funded by private donors and remain within the basic narrative of the show.

White’s appearance on Undercover Boss thus reinforces the ongoing diffusion of a top-down, feudalistic, corporate management style in higher education.

But maybe there’s more going on here.

If White’s goal was simply to learn about his campus, he could have gone undercover privately. By doing the show, White may have been trying to educate not just himself but also the viewers.

If you subtract the bullshit associated with the show’s basic premise, what you see in this episode are talented, dedicated, hard-working students and faculty who truly care about public education and public service. The episode challenges the typical image of public universities as party schools, escapist ivory towers, or leftist indoctrination camps.

After revealing his identity to the chemistry professor, White tells her, “I was so impressed by the respect that these students have for you.” She later says, “It feels good to know that . . . if I work here until midnight . . . it means something.”

Yes, it certainly does. Welcome to the CSU, Chancellor White.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ben Hoyt permalink
    October 7, 2012 3:15 AM

    Very interesting. I’ve read a little on White now as well, and I think that you’re right in saying there is something more going on here. For example, it looks like he taught at UC Berkeley (in human biodynamics) at one point, so you would think he would be able to handle a chemistry classroom.

    It appears that he worked to increase the prestige of UCR (he added a medical school, in fact), and I would imagine that Undercover Boss was probably great PR for everything he was trying to accomplish. The CSU’s statement said in his time at UCR he increased the diversity of the campus, and their academic ranking. All I can say is they are still in the 40’s in terms of history graduate programs nationwide.

    Now though, he is going to the middle child of Clark Kerr’s three pronged approach to higher ed: the non-PHD granting universities. There aren’t any medical schools to be built here, and diversity, in particular when it comes to economic background, is already pretty well established. His first test, one which shares little in common with the standardized ones we discussed a while back, will be to see if he can use his panache for PR to advocate for Prop 30.

    Part of the joy, I would assume, of Undercover Boss is how out of touch the bosses are. It is only amusing to watch a person walk a mile in someone else’s shoes if we think they are unaccustomed to walking or the other person’s shoes. Every article I have read about him has drawn attention to his $421,500 annual salary (and $30,000 bonus). This makes for great TV, as the hapless rich guy learns how the working stiffs have it. However, it is a pretty poor position to begin from when you’re trying to convince those same working stiffs that your enterprise is underfunded.

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