A Chancellor Strolls His Campus in Disguise on CBS's 'Undercover Boss'

Studio Lambert

Timothy White became Pete Weston (below) by cropping his hair, adding a mustache, and wearing false teeth to alter his jawline.
April 24, 2011

Last month Timothy P. White cropped his hair, donned an earring and glasses, and had his normally gray eyebrows dyed a deep brown. He added a mustache and wore false teeth to alter his jaw structure. He adopted a new name, Pete Weston.

As he walked around the campus of the University of California at Riverside, nobody realized that he was the chancellor.

Mr. White is the star of the season finale of Undercover Boss, a wildly successful CBS television show in which real-life executives are disguised and then filmed working menial jobs at their own organizations. (His episode is scheduled to appear on May 1.) The show's opening sequence promises, darkly, that "they will discover the truth."

In one scene of the show, Mr. White was required to operate the projector and transcribe formulas in an organic-chemistry lecture of 250 students. He quickly became confused. "Does anybody know how to turn this thing on?" he asked the students.

He also had the opportunity to sit on a bench in the middle of the campus with a film crew and listen to what unknowing passers-by said about the college. "I could see and feel people I knew walk right by me," he says.

The disguise worked, but Mr. White struggled with was his alias, a combination of his seldom-used middle name and his mother's maiden name. At times, when introducing himself, he racked his brain­—Webster? Wilson?—and finally had to improvise.

"Well," he said. "I'm ... Pete."

Undercover Boss, even when set on a university campus, may not please the scholarly crowd. The show has annoyed critics who argue that, like all "reality" TV, it tells a fundamentally dishonest story. (Businessweek dismissed the show last year as "faux populism," and The New York Times said it echoed the wishful refrain of Russian peasants: "If only the czar knew of our suffering, he would do something.")

So what did Pete discover? Peace of mind, for one. Everybody stops to ask Chancellor White questions. "Hey, Chancellor: I've got this frickin' parking ticket," people tell him. "Hey, sir, what are you doing about this or that?" Nobody stopped to talk to Pete.

(If you're wondering how the big camera crew did not attract more attention, consider that Riverside and its fellow Los Angeles-area colleges are heavily filmed.)

Pete did not discover anything illegal. The show's audience of roughly 12 million households will not, Mr. White hopes, see any major wrongdoing.

Mr. White says he did learn that some of his messages were not getting through. He overheard one student complaining that her tuition money was being spent on new buildings instead of classes. Mr. White, who had to resist jumping in and explaining the limitations of bond revenue, says he wasn't happy.

"There's this notion that if you've sent an e-mail, you've communicated, and that's so far from the truth, as it turns out," Mr. White says.

When the chancellor revealed his identity to the campus, a few days after April Fools' Day, some people who knew him well were stunned, he says. Now he just has to worry about the lingering effects of his disguise.

"Oh gosh, I'm a 61-year-old who has a full head of hair," Mr. White says. "I hope it will grow back."