As a group of parents and prospective students were taking part in a tour of Sonoma State University on Wednesday, they suddenly discovered a broad-shouldered man in a suit standing among them.

"Who are you?" a mother inquired.

The man explained that he was a California State University employee who just wanted to learn more about the campus.

"So, tell me why would I want to send my daughter to a CSU school?" the mother inquired.

The result was a conversation that probably included more information than she was expecting. The gentleman introduced himself as Timothy White, the head of the entire 23-campus California State University system.

White, who was making his first formal visit to the Rohnert Park campus since becoming CSU chancellor in December, is not shy about doing a little undercover work. Some may remember that two years ago, he was featured in the season-ending finale of the CBS show "Undercover Boss."

At the time, with a camera crew in tow, White donned a number of disguises while spending a week doing a variety of jobs across UC Riverside, including posing as a track coach, as a clerk at the college's science library, and, yes, even a campus tour guide. No one recognized him as the school's chancellor. His efforts included cutting his hair, wearing a false mustache and glasses and inserting false teeth. He even wore a purple earring.

"For me, it is very satisfying to know that doing this show — something of a risk and not without controversy — turned into something so powerful," White told a campus reporter at the time. He said it was a great way to tell the university's story.

It also resulted in some needed changes, including the accelerated replacement of the school's worn track. "The more we can do that, the more people will understand the importance and power of public education for the future of America," he said at the time.

After his reconnaissance efforts at Sonoma State last week, White meet with The Press Democrat Editorial Board, where he explained his comfort in spending time among students. They share a common background.

"My story is the same for so many of the students," he said.

As a native of Argentina whose parents moved to California when he was in the third grade, White became a first-generation college graduate by initially attending Diablo Valley Community College. He later received degrees from Fresno State and CSU East Bay before ultimately getting his doctorate at UC Berkeley. An academic career that started at the University of Michigan included stints as provost at Oregon State University and president at University of Idaho.

But what probably cemented his credibility among many Californians was his insistence — when he was offered the job as head of the largest four-year college system in the nation — in taking a 10 percent pay cut. This occurred at a time when UC and CSU administrators were under fire for receiving large pay increases and spending handsome sums on office and housing renovations at a time when student fees were soaring and class offerings were being slashed.

"I was looking for solutions coming into the job, not conflict," he said. "I wanted to take all that argument (about pay) off the table."

His goal now is to ensure that what happened recently when 20,000 or so qualified students were turned away from admission to the CSU system is not repeated. "I feel very responsible for not having a lost generation in California," he said.

While the CSU system needs to live within its means, he said he plans to push for the resources needed to increase admissions while assuring prospective students and parents that a CSU is still "an amazing value."

He notes that about half of the system's students — with the help of Cal grants, Pell grants and other assistance — pay no tuition at all while the average debt for other graduates is small compared to the increased earning power that comes with a CSU diploma.

Those were some of the things he was trying to explain to that mother on the tour last week, he said.

"Do you think I closed the deal with that mom?" White asked the student who had led the tour after the group had disbanded.

"Yes, I think you did," the student said before taking off on his skateboard.

Let's hope other parents and students concerned about where higher education is going in California are similarly persuaded.

<i>Paul Gullixson, editorial director for The Press Democrat, teaches an evening journalism class at Sonoma State University. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.</i>