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Steven Sample : Taking Charge at USC Just as Universities Bite the Bullet

<i> Larry Gordon covers higher education for The Times. He interviewed Steven B. Sample in the university president's office</i>

Steven B. Sample has been quietly taking up the reins as president of the University of Southern California since April. But the quiet will end soon. On Friday, Sample will be formally inaugurated as USC’s 10th chief executive. After the presidential medallion is draped around his neck, Sample will deliver his first major speech about his vision for the school’s future.

People will listen closely. Like many universities, USC faces challenges in the ‘90s: rising costs, increased government scrutiny, tugs between research and teaching, debates on multiculturalism. And USC has special problems, such as losing students to the less expensive UC system and uncertain relationships with surrounding urban neighborhoods.

Sample, 50, was hired because of his fast-track record. He earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at age 24, and went on to invent some of the controls behind microwave-oven panels. After teaching at Purdue, he became executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska at age 33. By 42, he was president of the State University of New York at Buffalo. His efforts at SUNY Buffalo were crowned with that school’s election into the Assn. of American Universities, the prestigious clique of 58 top research institutions, including USC.

Fans in Buffalo described Sample as a skillful academic and financial manager. Those talents, they contend, should serve him well at USC, with its similarly sized student body of 28,000 and an annual budget of $860 million. However, critics said he stressed big-ticket research while not paying enough attention to daily concerns of students and faculty.

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During a recent conversation at his office in the Bovard Administration Building, Sample tucked a support pillow on his chair to ease chronic back trouble, but otherwise declared himself healthy for the job ahead. Sample is an enthusiastic and outgoing man who invariably wears dark, conservative suits. Through large eyeglasses that dominate his face, he seems to be looking at USC and Los Angeles with the curiosity of a newcomer from a less complicated land.

Sample and his wife, Kathryn, a surgical technologist, have two grown daughters. Sample’s salary is said to be about $200,000 a year, which may ease the pain of not keeping financial interests in his electrical inventions.

Question: It really seems that higher education is on the defensive these days, with federal investigations into research spending, admissions policies and tuition setting. Do you think there’s some backlash against academia?

Answer: I think higher education is on the defensive. I think it has been a target of attack, a kind of preferred target, certainly for the last five and probably for the last 10 years, and I think some of that criticism is well-deserved, but . . . it’s become a little mean-spirited and counterproductive. And we’ve lost sight of a larger truth, a larger reality, which is simply this: The United States has, far and away, the best system of higher education in the world. . . . There aren’t very many areas of human endeavor left where the United States is the unquestionable best in the world. So to the extent that this criticism is exposing some areas of weakness that need attention--can be fixed--I think it’s good. But, when it becomes just plain destructive, that’s silly.

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Q: What about research spending--billing the government for indirect costs?

A: I don’t think there has been one example brought forward of a university charging something to indirect costs that was not absolutely legal, absolutely within the scope of the federal guidelines.

Q: Even the yacht at Stanford?

A: Even the yacht at Stanford. There’s no question that was absolutely within the federal guidelines. But do I think it made good sense to do it? Do I think it was justifiable in the larger policy sense? No.

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Do I think universities have used absolutely good judgment as to what they included in indirect-cost charges to the federal government? I think the answer’s no. . . . So I think it has been healthy that those mistakes have been pointed out, and that new regulations have been issued to correct them.

Q: But given what you call “the good-sense test,” is there anything that USC is taking out of its billings?

A: We’ve gone through everything we can, with federal auditors, and we have not found anything in our indirect-cost charges that, in accordance either with the new regulations or with a common-sense test, should not be included. But, it certainly has caused us to scrutinize our charges much more carefully.

Q: What do you think you’d like to accomplish in your tenure?

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A: Well, the first thing I’d say is: I’ll never have an agenda for what I want to accomplish. What I will have is an agenda for what I hope USC can accomplish in, say, the next 10 years. That’s a slight subtle difference, but it’s important. . . . One primary focus I see is undergraduate education in the context of a research university. And I think that’s an important, and maybe the most important, area of concern for USC and probably for the other major universities in the United States. . . . I think some of the criticism that’s been leveled against the major universities--to the effect that they have neglected undergraduates--is valid. I think there’s truth to that here, as well as at Harvard, or at Michigan, or Berkeley, or Yale, or Stanford, or wherever.

Q: Is there any specific way you’d like to improve undergraduate education?

A: Yes. I’d like to find more ways to bring senior faculty into very close contact with freshmen, first-semester freshmen in particular. I’m not very interested in reducing average class size by 20%. I don’t think that’s particularly important at all. But, I would like to see us offer more opportunities for freshmen to be in at least one seminar class, very small class with a senior faculty member. . . . I would like to see senior faculty much more involved in advising our freshmen and sophomores . . . asking the student why he or she is studying certain things, what he or she wants out of it.

Q: What about getting rid of the “publish or perish” syndrome for professors?

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A: I don’t think we will get rid of that. And I don’t think we should get rid of it. What I think will happen though is that the balance between research and scholarship will change. One of the interesting things about people, human beings--all of us, for some reason, tend to think in absolutes, either-or terms. So we either emphasize research or we emphasize teaching. Now, let’s imagine a research university where the emphasis is 80% upon research and scholarship for purposes of promotion and tenure, and 20% on teaching. You can change that balance to 60% on scholarship and research and 40% on teaching, and still have primary emphasis on scholarship and research. . . . What I think will happen here--and at a lot of other research universities--is that very good teaching will increasingly become an absolute necessity, not sufficient to advance the person, but an absolute necessity.

Q. So is the implicit flip side that people now being promoted are good researchers but not necessarily good teachers?

A: Well, there is a misconception on the part of many people that teaching at a university means standing in a classroom teaching freshmen and sophomores. . . . Let’s take a wonderful scholar. This scholar is not a very good undergraduate teacher. But she attracts some of the very best doctoral and post-doctoral students from around the country, to come work directly with her. Is she a good teacher? Gee, at the doctoral and post-doctoral level, we’d say she’s a great teacher. You know people pick up and move to come and study at her feet. Is she a great teacher of freshmen and sophomores? No.

Q: What other areas would you like to see change at USC?

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A: I think, increasingly, we will see a major differentiation among universities in America--based as much on the strength of their post-doctoral programs as on the strength of their doctoral programs. So, I’m concerned about strengthening post-doctoral education at USC. . . . The ‘90s are going to be a period of extraordinary fiscal stringency for American higher education. I think every college and university is going to be challenged to do more with less. And to do it better--in the same way that much of American industry has been challenged by the Japanese and Germans to do more with less.

Q: Why do you think USC’s undergraduate student body still has the image of the University of Spoiled Children, the image of a fraternity and sports school, a place not as serious as some other schools?

A: I’m a lot more interested in the reality than I am in the image. And I am absolutely persuaded that there is no substance to the notion that USC is a party school, or more of a party school, or a football school or a fraternity school than other universities in the country. We have a strong tradition of excellence in intercollegiate athletics--which is helpful for us in terms of undergraduate student life and maintaining contacts with alumni. But I don’t think we place disproportionate emphasis on athletics . . . .

Q: But USC announced new policies last month on fraternities and sororities--against alcohol abuse, cutting week-night parties, pushing for more studying. Doesn’t that imply there is a problem?

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A: I really don’t think the problems with fraternities here are more serious than at other large, major universities around the country. But it’s not good enough for me that a major program at USC is no worse. On the contrary, we want to have the best. . . . Participation in a fraternity or a sorority at USC is a privilege, and not a right--and I believe the vast majority understand that fact. Our interest is to change the lifestyle and standards of a few fraternities and a few fraternity members who may not understand and meet their obligations.

Q: A lot of parents want to know: Why should I pay $21,000 to send my child to USC, when I could spend $10,000 to send him or her to UC? Here’s your opportunity to tell them.

A: I think every private college or university has to be able to offer the potential student extra value to justify the extra cost. In the case of USC, I think the principal extra value is academic excellence and a superior faculty. . . . Another reason has to do with individual attention in a setting of a major university. I think USC does a better job of treating its undergraduates as individuals than most other large comprehensive universities--be they public or private. . . . Another area has to do with the very strong sense of tradition . . . being part of the Trojan family, especially being part of the Trojan alumni family after the student graduates. I think there is a stronger sense of networking among our alumni . . . for career contacts and maintaining friendships for a lifetime.

Q: Some people still think of a university presidency as a bully pulpit for political or moral issues. Or is it just asking for money?

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A: A good friend of mine, Paul Gray, who just retired as president of MIT, had a favorite line. He used to say a college president is someone who lives in a big fancy house, and begs for money. Well, certainly fund-raising is a very important part of the job of any university president, public or private . . . But I think it is a bully pulpit also. I think the major presidencies are much less bully pulpits on national issues than perhaps they once were. I think within his or her own academic community, a university president can and should be a person who stimulates thinking, stimulates dialogue, brings people together, insists that certain issues be confronted . . . . I think, though, all of us have become gun shy about issues outside the university.

Q: Why?

A: . . . . I think American politics has become so focused on special interests. There are so many single-issue groups now that there’s a sense that if a university president takes a position on an issue that is not directly involved with the life and health of the university itself, he or she will inevitably enrage some group . . . So, in terms of stewardship to the institution, I think a lot of presidents ask: Is it really worth it?

Q: Is that what you feel?

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A: I’ve taken a middle ground. At least in the past, at Buffalo, I spoke out on issues that went beyond the university--but only if I was really knowledgeable about those issues. I’ve spoken out widely and repeatedly--although I hope temperately--about elementary and secondary education, . . . about the dissolution of the family, . . . about economic competitiveness, . . . about the fact that Americans collectively treat children worse than any other society I can think of.

Q: Those are good issues, but they’re not going to get you in trouble with anybody, are they?

A: Well, you’d be surprised. I don’t mean to say that they have led to storming protests on my doorstep, but they they have occasionally caused people heartburn.


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