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Undercover Boss: Community College Edition

Leadership and Management

Undercover Boss: Community College Edition

Larry Johnson - Phoenix College

When you’re the one in charge, it’s not always easy to get an honest, unvarnished look at what’s really happening within your organization. People try to put their best foot forward, tell you what they think you want to hear, or come with agendas. You can become so far removed from the end-user that it gets increasingly difficult to know if you’re meeting their needs.

It’s a reality that spawned a reality television series: Undercover Boss.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Undercover Boss follows company presidents and CEOs as they go undercover to examine the inner workings of the companies they run. Throughout the 60-minute program, these high-powered executives might work an assembly line, drive a delivery truck, answer customer service calls, or sling hamburgers. Their goal is to learn more about their companies from those on the frontlines and, in the end, make improvements based on what they learn.

This fall at Phoenix College, the flagship college of the Maricopa County Community College District, there was a different type of undercover boss. Newly appointed president, Dr. Larry Johnson, Jr., went undercover in an English class. At 37, decades younger than the average age of college presidents, Johnson was able to pose as a late-add student and spent an entire class period participating in group discussion.

“I still look fairly youthful, so I thought I would assume this role to get a better understanding of what type of teaching and learning is taking place and also how the students are engaging,” said Johnson. “It allowed me to gain insight into opportunities to support our students but also to support our faculty and determine what additional training we may be able to provide them through our Center for Teaching and Learning.”

The idea to go undercover grew out of an invitation Professor Eric Berge extended to Johnson to visit one of his classes after learning that his new president used to teach English.

“I felt that it was a good way to build a bond with the faculty to show them that I am willing to come into their space to learn more about what they are experiencing,” said Johnson. “I wanted to do something totally different and outside of the ordinary.”

Although Berge was a co-conspirator, the students were caught completely off-guard. After the big reveal, Johnson spent a few minutes chatting with the class and sharing his vision.  He also encouraged the students to reach out to him via social media if there’s ever anything he can do to help them be successful.

As he wrote in his LinkedIn post following the undercover escapade, “You can imagine their faces when they learned that I serve as their President. But, most importantly, for an hour, I was able to gain a more intimate appreciation for the hard work of our faculty AND brilliance of our students.”

Meeting students where they are

Established in 1920, Phoenix College is the oldest and largest college within the Maricopa County Community College District. It has an enrollment of approximately 11,000 students, of which 54 percent identify as Hispanic, 23 percent as white, and 9 percent as black. In addition, the majority are first-generation students, attend part-time, and are under 25 years of age.

Such diversity increases the need for creating more opportunities for cross-cultural interactions among students, faculty, and administrators and creating a platform for facilitating cultural competencies.

“It’s not that the faculty don’t understand the types of students we serve, but as leaders and as faculty we have to be more attuned with the students who we are teaching and who we are serving,” said Johnson. “We have to do more with understanding the environmental landscape in which we live and work. We have to be more intentional about working with our Hispanic and African-American students, since we are a minority serving college, and really understanding what drives those students. We need to ask ourselves, what more can we do to make sure that we are providing equitable opportunities for all?”

As an African-American in a profession dominated by white males, Johnson embraces the opportunity to serve as a role model to the minority students at his school and to use his platform to advocate for those underrepresented populations.

“I come from a single-parent household where my mother was the only person who provided for us,” he said. “I understand struggle, I understand what it means to go without, I understand what it means to wear second-hand clothes and not have the best.”

With men of color overrepresented in the criminal justice system and underrepresented in higher education enrollments as well as having lower college completion rates, Johnson said it became his mission many years ago to give a voice those populations who may feel they don’t have one.

“That became the impetus for me to become a teacher and build a career where I can be an advocate for people who look like me, and not only those who look like me but those who have had similar circumstances as me—whatever the ethnicity or gender, there’s a commonality that binds us,” Johnson continued. “I share my story to help lift them and propel them. Sort of a ‘He went through this and so I can certainly get through it and be successful as well.’”

Social media is just one of the ways Johnson makes himself available to students. He’s active on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, among others. Yes, students do send him questions and, yes, he does respond personally or will forward the message to the appropriate person on campus. From directing students to the on-campus resources to sharing the title of the poem he read at orientation, the queries cover a wide range of topics. Sometimes, students reach out just to say thanks.

Indeed, it was through social media that Academic Leader learned about Johnson going undercover. His LinkedIn post about it received more than 2,000 likes and over 200 comments in just two weeks.

“I am truly humbled,” he said of the stir it caused. “I was just trying something different as a form of engagement. I did not think it would get as much attention as it has.”

Photos courtesy of Phoenix College.


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