(Appalling) must see TV!!!

2 05 2011

While most people would categorize me as a labor historian, my real interest is in employee/management relations. I study how both sides of that equation negotiate the constant tension that their separate interests create.*

That’s why I have a soft spot for the TV show Undercover Boss. Dressing up as a working man and doing blue collar jobs has a long history in this country. Whenever managers do this, they invariably learn things that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. While this show is obviously corporate propaganda, I always liked watching it as proof of how out of touch management always is. However, because formulaic corporate propaganda can get tiring, I stopped watching it this season. [Besides, my wife needed more space on the DVR.]

Tipped off by Entertainment Weekly, however, I just finished watching the second season finale. Why subject myself to this? The “boss” in question is the Chancellor of the University of California – Riverside.

The show includes all the normal executive self-abasement that you’d expect from an Undercover Boss episode. Ridiculously bad fake mustache. Physical trials that he’s too out of shape to master. It doesn’t help that the guy seems like a goof ball to begin with. Nonetheless, there’s something about this particular episode that just sent the guy from EW on the reality TV beat over the edge:

Believe me, White’s acts of kindness are heartwarming. It’s nice to see a university chancellor take the time to identify with his students and faculty as individuals. But its presentation here essentially proves that that’s the exception, not the rule. After all, the gods rarely come down from Olympus. The mortals the Undercover Bosses encounter don’t challenge executive authority but accept their subservience, showing appreciation for the tiny acts of munificence from their betters, who are proven to be just that because of their charity.

I suppose Americans struggling to make ends meet don’t revolt against this plutocratic propaganda because even the poor among us seem to believe they are just millionaires going through a rough patch. However, the particular gratefulness with which Undercover Boss’s charity cases receive their temporary financial Band-Aids suggests a depressing new acceptance of social immobility. It seems we’ve gone from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to Who Wants to Meet a Millionaire.

Jimmy Hoffa is rolling over in his cement-covered grave.

If I had to guess why this episode was particularly appalling (as opposed to all other episodes of Undercover Boss), for me it would have to be the knowledge that a public university is not a business. It’s not supposed to be operated at a profit; it’s a public service, for Pete’s sake. Therefore, when this guy described himself as a “CEO,” I knew right then that there was something horribly wrong with his management style.

Despite the help he offers up to a couple of students, as well as the track team, the guy can’t fix Riverside’s problems because he doesn’t control the revenue stream there. That’s why all the money he uses to make everyone happy at the end of the show comes from donors.

Worse still, despite the attempts to pull at the heartstrings of viewers, the whole show serves as a scathing indictment of the State of California to adequately fund its university systems. Seriously, other than name recognition, I can’t see an upside to this at all.

I could go on, but I really do have to go back to grading. If you have a strong stomach, I hope you’ll watch the whole show so that we can discuss other appalling moments in the comments below.

* By the way, a belief in this dialectic does not necessarily make me a Marxist. Just saying.




4 responses

2 05 2011
Middle Seaman

All university presidents think that they are CEOs. Like every non trivial job, it is not easy to be good at your job. So if the CEO of UCR isn’t great, that’s par for the course.

2 05 2011
Jonathan Rees


I don’t know. Do ALL university presidents think they’re CEOs? Maybe the ones from business schools, but even the sociologists and geographers? Perhaps they put this guy up to saying that, because he has all the leadership presence of a wet noodle.

2 05 2011
To Be Announced.

Unfortunately, I watch Undercover Boss as well. It seems to be a good show in theory, especially to a labor historian considering it exposes some of the awkward relationships between the boss and the workers. Yet, I feel as if it fails in execution because it exposes vital characteristics of corporate that would, in my mind, make any person quit their job then and there.

My favorite part is at the end when the CEOs are all “I’m giving you $5,000.00 to start a college fund for your child.” I understand the gesture, but that is like a penny out of their salary (when they are living in mansions and driving around Mercedes Benz). At least UC-Riverside couldn’t give out money towards college, that would have sent me even more over the edge.

My other favorite part was that the Chancellor showed that change could happen, as long as it would appear on national tv. I never thought about outside donors, but this brings up the point that institutions of higher education often blame the budget for not granting students’ wishes when there are different ways to go about it. Why didn’t White go to donors before and try to change the situation for the track team or students? Why did it take appearing on tv to change lives? Do individuals really have to get something in order to give something?

Hopefully not, but if so, I guess I am left to watching warm fuzzy giveaways for a vacation that will actually benefit the CEOs in the long run rather than the workers behind the scenes.

3 05 2011
Jonathan Rees


You make me wonder about who the donors were. Here’s a theory: It’s CBS. Seriously, $30,000 would be like one commercial break to them. It would also explain why the Chancellor humiliated himself that way in the first place.

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