Undercover President

By President Tom Rochon

As the leaves began to fall in upstate New York, I was 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. When I greeted the freshmen at our convocation this fall, I let the Clarke 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. After three hours of work, I had the refrigerator gleaming like new. I am thinking of providing the residents of every on-campus apartment with a complimentary can of 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 mentioned that my experience was 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 frontline tasks in the company. Based on the two episodes I watched, the CEOs come to conclusions similar to mine: People in frontline 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. The custodian I worked with in Clarke 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,” he said, “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. Experience and insight are often located at lower pay grades than is the authority to make improvements. 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.

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.

Adapted from an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 24, 2010.