Zumberge, USC President for a Decade, to Step Down


James H. Zumberge, a former Antarctic explorer who has been president of USC for a decade and is credited with improving the institution's academic stature, announced Wednesday that he will retire as soon as a successor is chosen and takes office.

"There is a time to come and a time to go, and I think the time to go is now," Zumberge, 66, said in an interview. "I'd rather make a decision myself than have my doctor make it or the Board of Trustees make it or the good Lord make it."

Zumberge stressed that he has fully recovered from his 1985 surgery for prostate cancer and his decision is not prompted by health concerns. Rather, he said, it is a good time to retire because USC recently topped its goal in a $567-million fund drive, one of the largest in American academia. And Zumberge said he wants to work on a ninth edition of his well-known geology textbook and possibly teach at USC.

On and off campus, educators described Zumberge as a capable chief executive who helped raise an enormous amount of money to beef up academic programs and construct new buildings at USC. He is also commended for leading the school out of football recruiting and ticket sales scandals that he inherited in the early 1980s, and for easing tensions with USC's neighbors.

However, he is criticized by many students and faculty members as aloof and as too corporate in his administration of the university. Also, opposition by Zumberge and the USC Board of Trustees to complete divestments of USC-owned stocks in companies that do business in South Africa has been controversial.

University trustees said a national search for a successor to Zumberge may take up to a year. They clearly want to avoid a repetition of the fractious, 15-month search that brought Zumberge to USC after several other leading contenders dropped out of consideration.

Candidates to succeed Zumberge already at USC include Cornelius Pings, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; Robert Biller, vice president for external affairs, and Scott Bice, dean of the law school, administration sources said. But there is believed to be no preference for someone now at USC.

Forrest N. Shumway, elected Wednesday as Board of Trustees chairman, said he regretted Zumberge's decision because administrators with his combination of credentials are "rare birds."

"A lot of college presidents have the academic and intellectual credentials. But you need a business sense also. I think he was very well qualified in that area," Shumway said of Zumberge, who was president of Southern Methodist University in Dallas for five years before coming to USC.

Zumberge said he hopes he helped USC "become known for being more than just a place that consistently fields a strong football team. I like to think that we are gaining academic respectability without losing our tradition of being competitive in intercollegiate athletics."

Among his regrets are that tuition and fees have risen much faster than the general rate of inflation: from a total of $5,310 in 1980 to $13,446, excluding room and board. He blamed the increases and similar ones at other private universities mainly on faculty and administrative salary increases. And, he said, he is worried about a drop in black student enrollment, which has plunged from 7.3% of freshmen in 1981 to 3.9%, although there have been increases in Latino and Asian students.

"Many in Los Angeles still look at USC as a school for rich white kids. That is another one of the myths we have to keep working at to dispel," Zumberge said. "And I'm sure that that's not going to be an easy task."

During his tenure, USC's student body grew 6%, to 29,157, while full-time faculty increased 18%, to 2,196. Meanwhile, the school's annual operating budget doubled to $1.3 billion, partly because of substantial increases in federal research funds. USC's endowment grew from $154 million to about $460 million, although it is still considered small for a school of USC's size.

Since 1980, USC has started or completed 20 new buildings, including the Norris Cancer Hospital, a new bookstore and an activities center. The university began programs in neuroscience, molecular medicine and urban planning, but killed what was thought to be a marginal school of library sciences.

Many on the USC faculty worry that undergraduate programs remain weaker than those in the well-regarded graduate and professional schools. When the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges accredited USC for another 10 years in 1987, examiners said the campus appeared to lack "intellectual excitement and vitality," but they praised the school for making "striking improvements overall."

Zumberge is known, and sometimes criticized, for delegating authority--especially to Pings concerning academic matters. Zumberge, who earns $205,000 a year as USC president and also is paid for serving on several corporate boards, estimates that about 80% of his time is related to USC fund-raising.

Because of the time spent away from campus wooing contributors, he is described by many students and faculty members as uninvolved in day-to-day campus activities.

"Most faculty and students never see him at all," said one long-time faculty member who asked not to be identified. "No one knows him well enough to hate him. He doesn't evoke strong feelings on either side." Another professor said he offers students $5 for a Zumberge sighting and rarely has to pay the wager.

A slim, white-haired man with a resonant voice, Zumberge acknowledged that some people consider him aloof. "As a scientist, my world was a thing world," Zumberge said. "I'd knock on rocks, look at a piece of ice or measure a lump of snow. They didn't talk back and I didn't have to impress them. But as I moved from the thing world to the people world, I had to be more conscious of inter-personal relations."

Friends, however, say that Zumberge has a fun-loving side. Some recall that he sometimes would play the accordion and dance on tables during three expeditions to Antarctica, which he led.

Zumberge was chief glaciologist for the U.S. Ross Ice Shelf project in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) and was president from 1982 to 1986 of an international research group on Antarctica. A cape and a coastline on the continent are named in his honor.

Robert B. Kaplan, a linguistics professor and president of the USC Faculty Senate, described the period during which Zumberge has been president as relatively quiet: "This was not the late '60s, and we were not having anti-war protests or pot smoke-ins."

The stormiest incident, Kaplan said, was Zumberge's 1985 firing of Irwin C. Lieb, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the largest campus division. Because Zumberge refused to publicly explain the dismissal of the popular Lieb, some teachers remained distrustful of the president for years afterwards. Most attributed the firing to personality conflicts between the outspoken dean and other top administrators.

On the issue of South Africa, campus anti-apartheid activists criticized Zumberge and the USC trustees for adopting a divestment policy that was much more conservative than that of California's public university systems. In 1987, USC began selectively selling holdings in firms considered not to be working toward racial equality in their South African enterprises. Complete divestment, Zumberge argued, would hurt both South African blacks and USC's financial health while doing little to dismantle apartheid.

Zumberge won praise for trying to shed USC's image as a party school that is ideologically conservative. For example, he killed a campus economics research center affiliated with the Reagan Administration.

As soon as he arrived on campus, Zumberge became embroiled in a controversy sparked by disclosures that many USC football players were unqualified for regular academic admission and that few had graduated during the 1970s. As a result, USC placed more controls on the admission of athletes. In 1982, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. banned USC football from bowl games and live television for two years as punishment for the sale by an assistant coach of players' tickets. Zumberge tried to fight the costly bans, but USC eventually served the sentence.

Another big issue for the Zumberge administration has been efforts to improve the surrounding neighborhood and to link the campus to the downtown business district. A USC real estate corporation was founded two years ago to plan office buildings on the Figueroa Street corridor and faculty housing on side streets north of the campus. USC's mainly low-income neighbors have long feared displacement by the school. In an attempt to ease distrust of the university, Zumberge fostered creation of a council of area residents and businesses to discuss development.

A Minnesota native and former geology professor at the University of Michigan and Duke University, Zumberge held a series of administrative jobs between 1962 and 1980: founding president of Grand Valley College in Michigan; dean of the College of Earth Sciences at the University of Arizona; chancellor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and then president at Southern Methodist. He became the ninth president of USC in August, 1980, succeeding John Hubbard, who had held the job for a decade.

In addition to writing and teaching, Zumberge said he wants to spend more time away from campus pressures at his Wyoming cabin.

As president, "you do have to be conscious all the time that you are the chief representative of the university and your behavior, your decorum, your dress, your language is all something critically examined every time you step out in public," Zumberge said. "And that's how it should be."


James H. Zumberge, 66, is the ninth president in the 110-year history of USC. He served in the Marines and earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees in geology at the University of Minnesota. Zumberge led scientific expeditions to Antarctica and was the U.S. delegate to the international panel that directs research about the continent. Before becoming USC president, he headed three other schools, including Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Zumberge and his wife, Marilyn, have four grown children and live in the Mudd Estate in San Marino, USC's official presidential mansion. They are looking for a new home in the Pasadena area.

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