LONG BEACH — A Chaucerian scholar became a traffic cop for a couple of hours this week.
And why not? One night a couple of weeks ago, he emptied waste baskets with custodians. Soon, he hopes to clip hedges with the gardeners and replace fuses with the electricians. As if that isn't enough, he also plans to teach a class on Chaucer.
Curtis L. McCray holds none of those jobs for more than a few hours at a stretch. The only title that sticks is president of Cal State Long Beach.
He has become the George Plimpton of university presidents. On the opening day of the semester Monday, he dashed from unsnarling lines of cars to an information booth where he could help direct students to class.
McCray said his stint directing traffic--both vehicular and human--drew some surprising reactions from students, faculty and staff alike.
"There were a couple of double takes," the new president admitted with a grin. The frustrating hunt for parking spaces gave some student motorists plenty of time to ponder the identity of that slim, snow-haired guy who looked faintly familiar.
One puzzled student asked, "Are you the president?" from his car window, McCray said. And later, when McCray tried to help students find their classes, he was recognized by a young man who introduced himself by saying, "I'm one of your students."
McCray, 50, said he was pretty adept at telling students how to find buildings on campus. But he said he was baffled by such first-day problems as a student who appeared desperate for a quick meal and another who was in a panic to sign up for classes.
McCray's man-of-the-people campaign comes in stark contrast to the more aloof posture of his predecessor, Stephen Horn, who resigned and ran an unsuccessful race for the Republican nomination for Congress in the 42nd District in June. McCray has even eschewed Horn's expansive office, which is being converted into a conference room. McCray has opted for more modest digs a couple doors away.
The former president of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville says he has time to roam the campus and mop floors with the janitors because "I really don't think presidents do anything." That is McCray's way of saying that the vice presidents handle the day-to-day affairs with the president in charge of major policy and direction.
So far, the new president's personal diplomacy appears to be winning him friends. And for that matter, he isn't bad as a traffic cop either.
"I'm impressed with the man. Nobody ever made that effort," said campus Police Chief Brian Flynn.
At least they haven't around Cal State Long Beach. But McCray is borrowing a tactic that has worked well for some politicians. Former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. gained both political and actual mileage by scooting around the state in a plain Plymouth instead of a limousine from 1974 to 1982.
And in Florida, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham won his current job and two preceding terms as governor with a strikingly similar campaign of spending "workdays" at jobs that put him alongside the voters.
But even if McCray's technique is borrowed, it has effectively gotten him off to an upbeat start.
Student affairs adviser Rowland Kerr, who joined the new president in the information booth, said McCray "is seeing what the problems are, all these people and all this activity."
McCray also wins accolades from the faculty, which had a tempestuous relationship with Horn. The new president scored big points by announcing his intention of teaching a Chaucer class during the spring semester.
"I am very impressed that he is a classroom teacher and intends to continue to teach," said Academic Senate Chairman Ben Cunningham. "That impresses a lot of us who feel for too many years the classroom teachers were ignored by the previous president. It's the first time I really feel appreciated as a classroom teacher."
Cunningham said he believes McCray intends to consult with faculty and staff on proposed changes, rather than taking unilateral action.
McCray was given a standing ovation by faculty and staff last week during a meeting in preparation for the new semester, Cunningham said.