The Dirty Business of the Undercover President

October 24, 2010

As the leaves are falling in upstate New York, I'm tempted to take up my rake, not least because of what I learned last summer from the three days I spent working in the facilities department at my college. My goals were to get to know more of those staff members and to better understand their work. It is, I told myself, too easy to overlook their role. They keep our mechanical systems in working order. They keep our buildings clean and our grounds beautiful. They make sure tables and chairs and tents appear where needed and disappear when no longer required. Reflecting on those things, I realized that I had only a hazy idea of how such tasks got accomplished. After two years as Ithaca College's president, I knew it was time to fix that.

I spent the first day working with the grounds division. In the morning, we laid out irrigation pipe to water one of the athletics fields and moved on to repair some bare spots on the lawn of the Upper Quad. After we saw a guest walk across a naked patch of ground on which we had just been working for an hour rototilling, raking, seeding, and mulching, one of my colleagues called out to me: "Know what we call that, Tom?" "What?" I replied. "Job security," he said.

That afternoon, I watered trees and weeded the beautiful flower beds on the Academic Quad. A passer-by who recognized me and stopped to say hello commented that, as president, I am probably not accustomed to working while on my knees. Grateful for the straight line, I paused to select from among several possible responses before replying that he was clearly not familiar with the fund-raising process.

On my second day, I worked with custodial services, whose staff members clean the 78 office, classroom, and residential buildings on our campus. In the morning, I helped clean bathrooms and kitchens in one of our first-year dorms. When I greeted the freshmen at our convocation this fall, I let the Clark Hall residents know that the president had cleaned their shower stalls.

In the afternoon, I joined a crew working at one of our apartment-style residences for juniors and seniors, getting it ready for fall occupancy. We chatted easily as we walked up to the building, but as soon as the crew was in the door, its members fanned out with military intensity and precision: one to the kitchen, one to the bathroom, and one to the bedrooms and living room. After a horrified glance at the bathroom, I exerted presidential prerogative and joined the kitchen detail. Three hours later, the refrigerator gleamed like new, as did everything else in the apartment. I am thinking of providing the residents of every on-campus apartment with a complimentary can of tub-and-tile cleaner.

On my third and final day, I joined a crew from setup-and-events services. We answered a request to tighten some tent ropes, and then moved furniture from a nearby lobby into a remodeled office. Later in the morning, I helped take sofas and chairs out of some residence-hall suites to be replaced with new furniture before students returned. I was told that the replacement furniture would be much lighter than the butcher-block chairs and sofas we'd maneuvered down the stairwells. Future moving crews will be grateful for that! The old furniture—which looked to be in better condition than the furniture I owned before I became president—was most likely going to be donated to a nonprofit service organization. I felt pride in my college.

A number of friends and colleagues whom I told about my plans had mentioned that my experience would be like the TV show Undercover Boss. In that show, the chief executive of an organization grows a beard or dons some other disguise to work in various front-line tasks in the company. Based on the two episodes I watched, the CEO's come to conclusions similar to mine: People in front-line production or maintenance positions work very hard. They take great pride in their jobs. Grounds personnel love working outside; custodians care about the upkeep and appearance of their buildings; and the setup-and-events crews have a "can do" swagger as they race to fill service requests on time.

Pride in craftsmanship was evident everywhere during my three-day odyssey, from the way mulch is efficiently spread over an area being reseeded to the speed with which an office desk is disassembled and then reassembled in another room. The custodian I worked with in Clark Hall told me that he can always tell after a vacation whether his replacement has been diligent in mopping the floors. "They may look clean, but the mop has a heavier drag when the floors haven't been mopped for a couple of days." It is so easy for faculty and staff members and students to take the cleanliness of our buildings for granted, but clean does not come without professionalism and commitment.

Like the undercover bosses, I learned that some organizational processes and priorities look (I'll be polite here) suboptimal when viewed from the front lines. I'm not sure why we do some things the way we do. Experience and insight are often located at lower pay grades than is the authority to make improvements. I now plan to investigate why we lay out and pick up irrigation pipe from our athletics fields every day during the summer, when automatic sprinkler systems set for the predawn hours would economize on both labor and water. In the future, I hope to use my new relationships and continued presence around campus to ease the flow of suggestions up the chain of command.

I was not, however, a true undercover boss. The facilities staff members knew I was coming and quite likely adjusted their behavior. I got a hint of that when the associate vice president dropped in during a morning break and asked my co-workers if they were keeping their language clean. I suddenly realized that the total absence of swearing might not be entirely representative of the everyday ambience.

Indeed, my experience probably most resembled China's former Hsia Fang movement, literally the "sending down" of leaders in the Communist Party and the government to work in rural fields or factories. Chairman Mao had issued a directive in 1957 that "the leadership in the party, the government, and the military should devote part of their time to engaging in physical labor with the workers ... [in order to] become closely knitted with the masses." Hsia Fang did not involve just a few days, either—leaders were expected to participate in physical labor for several weeks, a month, or more per year.

Hsia Fang turned out to be an idealistic dream. The purpose was to check bureaucratic tendencies and reinvigorate the ideological commitment of the urban elite. Many Chinese leaders sent out to do manual labor, however, avoided any actual work, thereby earning the contempt of workers. It was said that the leaders would "examine flowers on horseback," meaning that they moved among fields without stopping long enough to get their hands dirty. I thought about that expression as I knelt among the flower beds on the Academic Quad, pulling weeds.

Those Chinese leaders never knew what they were missing. After a few days of facilities duty, I see the campus and those who work on it with new eyes. I pause to admire flower beds and notice that they are perfectly tended. I know where the mechanical rooms, the storage and supply rooms, and the break rooms are to be found—so cleverly hidden from the sight of those whose business does not take them to such corners of the campus. I wave to crews in their light-duty trucks and get a wink and a wave back.

I belong to the campus more fully than before, a relationship transformed in only three days.

Thomas R. Rochon is president of Ithaca College.