UC Riverside Chancellor goes ‘undercover’ for a reality TV show

University of California, Riverside Chancellor Timothy White 'undercover' as Pete Weston.
University of California, Riverside Chancellor Timothy White 'undercover' as Pete Weston.
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University of California, Riverside Chancellor Timothy White makes his network television debut Sunday night. You’ll see him with a buzz cut and a fake moustache working as part of the university’s rank-and-file on the CBS series “Undercover Boss.”

Students are told that “Pete” will be helping out in the classroom. Oh, and those cameras?

“We’re just filming a pilot show for TV we don’t know if it’s going to go anywhere. It’s kind of a job swap thing,” Pete tells the class.

That’s the ploy White uses for the season finale of the reality show “Undercover Boss,” which spotlights a disguised chief executive working shoulder to shoulder with his or her employees. Sunday’s episode is the first time the cameras have been turned on a bustling public university.

“It was liberating in the sense that I was able to see this campus in an unobstructed view of its heartbeat,” White says. “Being right at that level with student workers, with staff and with faculty.”

White took the reins of the 20,000-student campus about three years ago. UCR is one of Inland Southern California’s biggest employers. Next year, it’s set to open the UC system’s first new medical school in half a century. For this assignment, White laid aside the tailored suits and shaved his wavy salt and pepper hair into a military crew cut, among other cosmetic changes.

“Put on a big moustache, died my eyebrows, glasses, false teeth to push the upper lip out and an earring in my left ear,” explains White. “People, when they saw the earring said, ‘Pffff! It cannot possibly be the chancellor!’”

White didn’t know where he’d be working. “Pete” got crash course in coaching track, teaching chemistry, filing library books and leading campus tours. In one clip, he took visitors across campus with UCR tour guide Christina Rodriguez — while walking backwards.

“I was just praying that he would not fall over,” says Rodriguez.

White is an accomplished researcher in the areas of physiology and aging. But in Professor Catharine Larsen’s chemistry class, he struggled with high-tech teaching equipment.

“Had I had some instruction I could have easily figured out how to turn it on, get the computer to work, but I had to figure it out on the fly in front of 250 students,” says White. “I ended up asking the students for help. I’ve been a professor for many years at Michigan and Berkeley, my level of technology was having colored chalk in addition to the white chalk.”

Despite the challenges, White never broke character. The “Undercover Boss” producers put him up at a nearby hotel to keep him away from family and nosy colleagues. White says the intensely immersive experience gave him an intimate look at and deeper appreciation for UCR students and workers. But he says it also presented a paradox.

“Every time I felt good about the future and the kind of energy and focus and work ethic that was there, it also emphasized to me that we’re in a precarious position in California right now,” he says.

UCR is facing a steep loss in state funding and a $50 million budget gap. There’s likely to be another round of program cuts and layoffs later this year. Going undercover seemed to underscore the challenges ahead for White.

“How are we gonna find solutions that can really be sustained? And if we don’t, what’s the peril for California? And what does that mean for our place in the world order economically, environmentally, politically?” says White. “So I pretty quickly can go from the one student conversation in the science library to this world perspective of what’s at stake if we don’t get this figured out sometime sooner rather than later as a society.”