By Harrison Howe
Getting the Inside Scoop
'Undercover Boss' is an Emmy-nominated primetime series that airs on CBS. Debuting in the 2009-10 season, the show features CEOs, chairmen and presidents as they secretly explore the inner workings of their companies. Working incognito beside employees, the selected individuals are provided the opportunity to witness first-hand the impact of their decisions and find out what works and what doesn't.
Enter Chancellor Timothy P. White, self-proclaimed 'CEO of Student Affairs'.
Shaving his head and donning a fake mustache and teeth, White journeyed out onto the campus of UC - Riverside as 'Pete Weston' (a combination of his middle name and his mother's maiden name). He posed as a TV personality researching public school positions in the series' finale, which aired on May 1, 2011. His goal? The same as corporate CEOs: to find out how his decisions, such as those concerning budget cuts or increasing tuition costs, have impacted the campus and student learning.
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A True Learning Experience
Chancellor White spent four days working beside employees and students of UC - Riverside, including an assistant professor of science, a campus tour guide, a science library assistant and an assistant coach for track and field. His findings were not entirely what he expected.
The science class he stepped into on his first day as 'Pete' was larger than in previous years (over 200 students); the track and bleachers were in such a state of disrepair that the school had not hosted a track meet since 2004; the library did not have enough titles of specific books; and the campus bookstore was closed during a Saturday tour. The last, White felt, was a missed opportunity to have guests purchase a UC shirt or pin that might have been used as promotional tools.
But not all was bad, and much of what White learned left him feeling proud and hopeful (and even in tears), all while finding out a thing or two about himself. 'The students have their act together better than I have my act together,' he said. Two of the working students he spent time with were overcoming financial and personal difficulties to continue their studies, the track and field coach displayed great leadership capabilities, and the assistant professor effectively utilized new and expensive technology and showed strong classroom management skills.
Had 'Pete Weston' not visited the campus of UC - Riverside, would the university's track and bleachers have gotten their much-needed facelift? Would the two working students serving as the science library assistant and campus tour guide have received the monetary aid they so desperately needed to continue their education? And would the assistant professor of science have been honored with a scholarship in her name? Likely no to all three questions.
But, thanks to 'Pete', these things did happen. So it seems that White's unorthodox approach worked. He was able to find some things around campus that needed fixing, and he fixed them. In addition to the scholarships, track repair and student financial assistance, White also plans to make sure that the science library can stock the books it needs and the assistant coach who showed such promising leadership abilities will be sent to a leadership clinic to help him strengthen the skills he needs to better prepare his student athletes.
Would the reality show approach to improving higher education programs and campus life be right for everyone? Maybe not, but judging by White's success, it seems probable that further participation by administrators in other colleges and universities across the country could yield similar results. Could a show called 'Undercover Chancellor' benefit not only students, but faculty and administration as well? Bet the chancellor of a certain university in California would say yes.
Learn how another university is struggling to close its budget gap.