LOS ANGELES -- USC President Steven B. Sample, who dramatically boosted the university's academic prestige, financial resources and civic engagement during nearly 19 years as its leader, says he will step down from the post next summer.
Sample, who turns 69 this month, said he will end his presidency in August, allowing university trustees ample time to choose a new president for the 34,000-student campus near downtown Los Angeles.
"It's a time for fresh leadership. I don't mean to sound self-congratulatory, but we've had a good run. And so, why not quit while you're ahead?" Sample, an electrical engineer who previously headed the State University of New York at Buffalo, said in an interview in his campus office.
"I think I'm still pretty high-energy compared to most university presidents," he added. "But I think a new president might bring a lot more energy, and that would be great."
Diagnosed eight years ago with Parkinson's disease, Sample has a noticeable tremor in his right hand and walks somewhat stiffly, although his voice remains steady and strong. He said that his health is stable and that the illness was not a major factor in his decision. Yet he also spoke of life's unpredictability, noting with sadness that his predecessor, James H. Zumberge, was diagnosed with a brain tumor soon after he left the president's post and died within a year.
Sample told The Times about his plans ahead of USC's formal announcement, which is scheduled for Monday. The Board of Trustees will then launch an international search to find a successor by May.
Although it is unusual at most universities for an insider to become president, many on campus said they expect USC's executive vice president and provost, C. L. Max Nikias, to be a strong contender. Board Chairman Edward P. Roski Jr. confirmed that Nikias would be a candidate but emphasized that the search would be open and thorough.
"We are going to search the whole gamut of individuals who would qualify," said Roski, chairman and chief executive of Majestic Realty Co. Becoming USC president "after someone like Steve is a daunting task," he said. "We've made great strides under him, and we want to continue those."
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,600 colleges and universities, praised Sample as "a towering figure" in U.S. higher education who has helped catapult USC into the upper ranks.
"I think Steve is just about the perfect example of the benefits to a university that derive from long, continuous service by a leader, and that doesn't happen very much anymore," said Broad, a former president of the University of North Carolina.
When Sample steps down, his presidency will have lasted more than twice the length of the current average tenure of an American college president. The 10th president since the University of Southern California was founded in 1880, he is its second-longest-serving leader, bested only by Rufus B. von KleinSmid, who filled the post from 1921 to 1947.
More significant to Sample's legacy, education experts said, are the improvements made to the academic quality of the undergraduate student body and major increases in the university's endowment.
Numbers tell part of the story:
Since 1991, USC has climbed from 51st to 26th in U.S. News & World Report's rankings of U.S. research universities.
Its number of freshman applicants more than tripled, while the portion accepted dropped from 70% to an exclusive 24%. And the average SAT score of incoming freshmen rose 28%, to 2,068 this year out of a possible 2,400.
USC's endowment grew from $450 million to nearly $4 billion before the recession, then fell to about $3 billion. (The figure is still relatively low for a top-ranked research university with such a large student body.) On Sample's watch, USC received five gifts of at least $100 million; the largest, $175 million to the cinema school, was from the foundation of "Star Wars" director and USC alumnus George Lucas.
USC's international presence -- particularly in Asia -- grew as Sample helped start a consortium of Pacific Rim universities. USC became the U.S. campus with the most foreign students, a position it has retained in recent years, with about 7,000 in attendance last year.
Morton Owen Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and a former USC vice president and dean, said only one other university, New York University, has so transformed itself in recent decades.
Sample understood that university leadership involves both improving substance and marketing the change, Schapiro said. "The brilliance of Sample is that he does both," he said. "The good news is that Steve's successor is going to inherit an institution much stronger than Steve did. The scary thing is: How do you replace Steve Sample?"
Sample's time was marked both by tumult and achievement: a financial crisis early in his term that led to 300 layoffs; the 1992 riots that came close to campus but left it unscathed; USC's first Nobel Prize, to professor George A. Olah in chemistry in 1994; two national football championships and a new basketball arena but also scandals involving academic fraud by athletes; improvements in nearby neighborhoods, along with street crimes against students.
Sample also cracked down on excessive fraternity partying and banned alcohol sales at the Coliseum during home football games.
A less public debate came during the period after the riots, he said, when Orange County partisans urged him to move the entire campus to the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
"Any time anyone makes an offer, you have to think about it," he said. But the idea died because of Orange County's 1994 bankruptcy and the many advantages of Los Angeles. "It was a very right decision for us to stay in L.A," he said.
Sample said he was proudest of the improvements made in USC's undergraduate course offerings and the academic quality of its students, the latter achieved partly by cutting the size of the freshman class by 25% and boosting selectivity.
The school also began to lure bright students with merit scholarships -- aid that is not linked to financial need, a tool that some universities avoid. And as SAT scores rose and more National Merit scholars enrolled, more top-notch faculty became interested in teaching at USC.
His aim was "to get a curriculum and programs going that would really appeal to excellent students from around the country and around the world," Sample said in his folksy manner, which belies what employees describe as his demanding management style.
Asked to cite his biggest setback, Sample said it was "a major, major, major disappointment" that he could not persuade transit authorities to place the Expo Line light-rail route fully underground along Exposition Boulevard between USC's main campus and the museums, sports facilities and gardens in Exposition Park. He said the line will create physical and psychological barriers, and dangers for pedestrians.
He also expressed some regret about decisions surrounding the firings of two football coaches: Larry Smith in 1993 and John Robinson in 1997. Sample said he probably should have kept Smith on for another year while the campus looked for a new athletic director and allowed that person to choose Smith's replacement. And Robinson's messy firing could have been handled better, he conceded.
USC has been widely praised for its programs to improve education, health and safety in the low-income neighborhoods nearby. But critics say the university has not built enough dorms for the growing number of students from other states and countries. So in areas near the campus, landlords have replaced older houses with high-rent apartment complexes for students.
The resulting displacement of some longtime neighborhood residents "is the worst part of [Sample's] legacy," said the Rev. Brian Eklund, a Lutheran minister and community activist.
USC's 2008 decision to stop offering a major or minor in German because of low enrollment also drew rancor. Jennifer Appleby, who led protests against the change, said it helped persuade her to transfer to the University of Oregon. USC, she said, runs "like a business. and that often means going for the most financially viable operations rather than what's best for the students."
In response, Sample said such cuts can be "an important part of building a better university -- to be more selective and more focused."
Sample, whose salary is about $800,000 a year, earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, taught at Purdue, was second in command at the University of Nebraska and then, at 41, became president of the State University of New York at Buffalo. A specialist in electromagnetic theories, he is an inventor of control systems in microwave ovens but does not hold the financial rights.
He and his wife, Kathryn, college sweethearts, have been married 48 years and have two grown daughters and two teenage grandchildren. The Samples live in USC's presidential mansion in San Marino and will soon begin shopping for their own home; they plan to stay in the Los Angeles area, he said.
After he steps down, Sample said, he wants to continue teaching at USC part time, possibly the leadership classes he now shares with management expert Warren Bennis or a literature course on Willa Cather, his favorite novelist.
Sample said he and his wife had long discussed his retirement. "We just have a feeling about what's right for Kathryn and me and our family," he said. "And this feels right for us."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times