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From the Archives: Steven Sample transforms USC from a chronic academic underachiever into a rising star

Steven Sample

Steven Sample, USC president in his office on the campus on October 27, 2009.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The sales pitch, so enthusiastic that it sounds corny, is delivered with a wry smile and gleaming eye. “You have probably written your speech, but I wanted to show you this,” says USC President Steven B. Sample. He hands his guest a Time magazine article crowning USC as College of the Year.

Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner responds with a dismissive wave. “I have it in my speech.” Sample takes a step back, recoiling for an awkward moment. Eisner’s assistants fuss with his black robe as the two men stand in the plush inner sanctum of Sample’s office in the gorgeous rosy brick Bovard Hall. Eisner is about to deliver a commencement address to a crowd of 8,000 restless students and their families waiting outside on campus grounds, and Sample is about to bestow on him an honorary doctorate. But there is more to this meeting for Sample. The speech isn’t the point.

He gathers himself, leans in close and tries again, this time in tones approaching conspiratorial: “We’ve distributed 600,000 of these Time magazine’s College of the Year. Every living Trojan has gotten two or three of them, and some of the dead ones, too.”

Eisner smiles at the joke, lets out a long breath. He pauses to take full measure of his host. Sample beams back. There it is at last. The connection. Sample chalks up another potential friend for the university, counts another victory. It’s a small one, admittedly, but if you’re president of a university long ridiculed as the “University of Second Choice” for the scions of the rich who couldn’t get into UCLA, Stanford or Berkeley, every victory counts. And in the nine years that Sample has been president, there have been many victories, so many in fact that something is dying, and fast: USC’s reputation. It’s not your father’s jock and frat-boy party school. Not anymore.

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In what until recently was one of the best-kept secrets in academic circles, USC has become a hot school. No longer does it go begging for qualified students, as it did a decade ago before Sample arrived. This year, it turned away two-thirds of its freshmen applicants. The once largely white student body has evolved into one of the most racially diverse in the nation. Average SAT scores of incoming students, once so low that in 1987 that the irreverent Stanford marching band spelled them out with just three digits, soared this fall to 1,309, eclipsing those of UCLA freshmen for the first time.

There are other signs:

  • USC faculty bring in nearly twice as much each year in research grants as a decade ago; they have almost doubled the number of memberships in prestigious national academies; and they landed the school’s first Nobel Prize, in 1994 for chemistry.
  • The school’s financial fortunes have soared. The haul from a seven-year fund-raising campaign stands at $1.7 billion in cash and pledges, and is growing. The university’s endowment has quadrupled.
  • Even the surrounding neighborhood, for years a danger zone that gave the school an abrupt and jagged edge, is on the upswing as thousands of USC staff and volunteers have reached out to help reduce crime, improve area schools or otherwise aid their poor neighbors.

But reputations die hard on college campuses, especially those with a wicked nickname like the University of Spoiled Children. If USC’s image is to catch up to the reality under Steven Browning Sample, he may have to flash that gleaming eye on every Eisner, Dick and Harry across the land. Not that he hasn’t tried.
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IT WAS A BRIGHT SPRING DAY IN MAY 1997, A DAY WHEN ANYTHING seemed possible. Alfred E. Mann, a biomedical entrepreneur, wanted to give $100 million to UCLA, his alma mater, for an institute to turn raw scientific discoveries into useful products. But Mann’s idea was bogged down in the bureaucracy of the public institution. Most people, especially fund-raisers for other universities, shook their heads, thankful they weren’t mired in a similar mess. Though they lusted after the money, they observed the prevailing etiquette: no dining on the sorrow of others.

Not Sample. He picked up the phone. “Mr. Mann, you don’t know me from Adam’s off ox,” Sample began. The conversation led to lunch at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena and, eight months later, to the $112.5-million Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering at USC. (The UCLA deal remains under negotiation.)

How did he do it? How does someone pick up the phone, ask for $100 million and get it? “He’s a very clever guy,” Mann says. Sample made a compelling case about how an entrepreneurial, private university could help Mann achieve his dream.

It wasn’t a fluke. Sample is the only college president in America to land three contributions of more than $100 million. He persuaded philanthropist Walter Annenberg, who had already donated $57 million to USC, to make one more gift. “At that time, we were talking about something at the $10-million level,” Sample recalls. “Within a few months, the idea was $120 million” for a cutting-edge communications center that integrates several disparate disciplines. A gift from the W.M. Keck Foundation started small and grew over the months to $110 million, ostensibly to turn the newly renamed Keck School of Medicine into a world-class place.

For each of them, and for countless others who’ve given less, Sample has spun a web of dreams, sketching the potential of the university or the legacy the donor can leave behind. The resulting surge of contributions is one of the secrets to Sample’s success. A building boom will add seven major projects to the campus, including a new student union, a fine arts center and a science and technology center. The money also is helping to buy respectability. The USC endowment has swelled to $2.1 billion under his watch. The campus has endowed 101 professorships, a vital tool for recruiting and retaining promising faculty. It has helped launch eight new research institutes to push the boundaries of science and intellectual thought. USC also has added 179 full-time professors and 98 part-time professors.

The infusion has also greased relations with the faculty. At most college campuses, faculty members are either unhappy or indifferent about their presidents. But at USC, professors are hungry for improvements, eager to bask in reflected glory as USC edges up in the ratings. After initial resistance, many professors “have come around to realizing he is one of the best things to happen to USC,” says Carol Muske-Dukes, a poet and English professor.

The money has also helped diversify the student body and upgrade its academic quality. Unlike Ivy League colleges and other elite schools that offer financial aid to poor students only, USC also offers it to those who have good grades and test scores--regardless of financial need. As a result, USC now draws bright students from wealthier backgrounds--including middle-class

African Americans and Latinos. It is among the top 10 destinations for National Merit scholars: 149 joined USC’s freshman class this fall, attracted, in part, by the promise of scholarships covering at least half of USC’s $23,664 annual tuition.

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“Steve Sample has taken a B institution and made it an A institution,” says Barry Munitz, a former chancellor of the California State University system who’s now president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

Being a college president is like herding cats. Sample’s strength is his ability to sell his vision of where USC needs to go. He laid out a clear agenda soon after arriving and stuck to it, refusing to get sidetracked by day-to-day crises. He coaxed and cooed, snarled and snapped until most of the cats headed his way.

To be sure, not all of the credit belongs to Sample and his administrators. His predecessor, the late James H. Zumberge, set the school on the path toward financial stability and academic respectability during the ‘80s. Besides leading a record-busting $641-million fund-raising campaign, Zumberge engaged in the cleansing act of airing the university’s dirty secrets. Soon after arriving in 1980, he revealed that the university admitted 300 academically deficient students during the 1970s solely for their athletic prowess. Many never graduated. He began to rein in the powerful athletic department, saying upon his departure that he hoped he helped USC become “known for being more than just a place that consistently fields a strong football team.”

Sample has taken the handoff from Zumberge. If the mighty Trojan football team hasn’t lived up to its former glory, that’s OK with Steve Sample. He’ll never say that, of course. How could he? Just look at the fanatics who show up to every game bedecked head to foot in cardinal and gold. Sample will point out, however, how the public exaggerates the role of football as a Trojan money machine. The $28 million raised by the football program accounts for only 2% of USC’s $1.4- billion budget these days. But don’t think for a minute that Sample is anti-football. He’s not, even if the lapse of Pac-10 championships has given academics a chance to emerge from football’s shadow.

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“We are going to have a little rhythm band,” USC’s president announces to the procession of undergraduates he has led through a secret door behind wood paneling and down a spiral staircase into the basement of the presidential mansion in San Marino. He shows off his two train sets chugging along the floor and the elaborate collection of miniature John Deere tractors that cover shelves along one wall. Now, he’s handing out a tambourine, bongo drums, rattles, marimbas and other rhythm instruments. Grabbing a pair of sticks, he hops onto the stool behind his Blue Pearl Drum set. Boom. Boom. Da Boom. The students, from a leadership class Sample teaches, chime in with their instruments.

This is a side of Steven Sample that few get to see: Creative, fun, even silly. The public man is more guarded, more complex--a rather formal leader who moves with the deliberation of someone older than his 59 years. (He favors a bad back.) It’s an exacting and calculating image, projected through the rich, confident voice of a storyteller who loves to roll out allegories, G-rated jokes and “Did you know?” factoids--sometimes laid on a little too thick--that display USC in all its triumphant glory.

“It’s rare when he is not playing from his strength of charm,” says Stanley O. Ikenberry, a longtime friend and president of the American Council on Education. “You rarely see the iron fist, you usually see the velvet glove.” The public doesn’t see the other side: the complaints from his staff about his autocratic style, about his temper, about how he never seems satisfied with any gains, always pushing for more.

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Sample also guards the privacy of his wife, Kathryn, his ninetysomething mother-in-law who lives with them and his two grown daughters. Yet he’s no recluse, given his duties as host of an endless parade of public functions. More than 2,000 people will attend dinners at his house this year, but few will make it past the public rooms. He jokes about this to the class he’s allowing into the basement: “You’ve seen the inner sanctum. Not many people get to. Generally, you have to give $15 or $20 million to come down here.”

Sample drums on, cocking his head and morphing into a Crazy Kat, a beatnik hipster. The image works, if you overlook the impeccable blue suit, pressed white shirt, red tie, gold Trojan stickpin and gleaming cuff links. With a little imagination, you can even see back to the precocious teenager who played timpani with the St. Louis Philharmonic and managed and played in several bands.

Aside from music, Sample’s early interests were in education and engineering, an influence of his parents. His mother was a civic activist who at one point became an acting school superintendent. His father was a sales manager for an electric motor company. In the late 1950s, Sample studied electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. His parents announced their divorce after his sophomore year. Forty years later, he recalls the breakup as “the most painful thing that ever happened to me.”

He rebounded by quickly marrying his college sweetheart, Kathryn. They moved into student housing and began a 39-year pattern of working through things together. In their cramped apartment, Steve would outline the study problems aloud from his desk; Kathryn, perched on the bed, asked questions to tease out a solution. Today she remains his confidante and most trusted advisor. “I don’t have girlfriends,” she says. “I don’t call people up on the phone and share. He’s the one I share with, and I’m the one he shares with.” He brings up her name in every speech, every lecture, every interview--attributing much of his success to a stable marriage. “It’s a tremendous competitive edge.”

Sample raced through college, earning a doctorate in engineering by age 24. He quickly landed as a professor at Purdue University. But he was restless. Never in his life had he felt committed to any one discipline or interest. He loved the arts and literature and engineering, and history, philosophy and science. People fascinated him. He simply couldn’t confine himself to being a professor of engineering.

So he tinkered with inventions. The result can be found in virtually every home in America today: the digital controls behind the touch panel now used in most microwave ovens and other home appliances. Although the patents were issued in his name, the company that sponsored his research owned the financial rights. Still, he was handsomely rewarded, making him far more flush with cash than the typical assistant professor.

But he remained restless. Then at age 29, with a faculty mentor urging him on, Sample accepted a fellowship as executive assistant to the president of Purdue. He quickly realized he’d found his calling. A university president, he saw, could dabble in many things, indulge in many interests, use many skills. So he determinedly climbed the administrative ladder at the universities of Illinois and Nebraska before becoming a college president at age 41. When he arrived at State University of New York at Buffalo in March of 1982, he found a campus as bleak and bruised as Buffalo’s notorious winter skies. He was shocked when a university trustee called “SUNY the college of last resort.” Not one student he spoke to was proud of the school.

Sample set out to strengthen both the reality and the perception of SUNY Buffalo as a major national research university. Pursuing an agenda he would later follow at USC, Sample moved to raise the caliber of students, improve education for undergraduates, increase research funding, expand the university’s service to the community and burnish the campus image. The achievements were crowned by the school’s election in the Assn. of American Universities, the prestigious clique of 61 top research institutions. Sample stayed at Buffalo for nine years, though at times he chafed under the realities of managing a public institution, with meddling by a pesky state governing board, public criticism from trustees and scrutiny by the press. When he became the 10th president of USC in 1991, Sample was delighted to be at a private school, where most university business is conducted behind closed doors.

Moving into a beautiful home 15 miles from campus was wonderful, too. There he listens to audiotapes of famous philosophers while he rides his stationary bicycle every morning. He makes a point of reading something every day that is at least 50 years old. He is fascinated with styles of leadership, of Machiavelli, Mao Tse-tung--even Adolf Hitler. Clearly his intellectual restlessness remains. He goes to poetry readings and musical concerts. He’s been known to recite favorite poems, sit in with a band. He loves language and unusual words, referring to himself as “a polymath, who is broad and catholic in his intellectual interests.” And each spring, to keep his hand in the classroom, Sample co-teaches an undergraduate course, the Art and Adventure of Leadership, with acclaimed business professor Warren Bennis.

At some universities, social liberals would criticize a college president whose San Marino residence, behind heavy iron gates in one of Southern California’s most exclusive neighborhoods, is so removed from the gritty realities of campus life. But it’s unlikely the complaint would register with Sample, for he is one of the few conservatives in a profession dominated by political liberals. He was one of only two Assn. of American Universities presidents who voted against a resolution in 1997 supporting affirmative action. He also remains critical of student protests of the ‘60s, saying they seriously harmed academic institutions. He and his wife are registered as independent voters, to prevent party politics from ever becoming an issue.

All of which is just fine with the USC Board of Trustees. They love how Sample’s magnetism attracts big donations, how he’s a tough, bottom-line administrator and a master salesman. To them, he’s worth every penny of his $391,667 yearly salary. Board Chairman John C. Argue says simply that Sample is the best college president he has ever seen. In fact, Argue would not take over as chairman until he received assurance that Sample would stay through Argue’s five-year term. “He’s born to be a college president,” he says. “Some people are better at some things than other. Whatever the mix is, he seems to have it.”

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Some thought the boss was joking. Others were horrified when Sample suggested: Let’s send $5 bills to alumni with self-addressed envelopes, asking them to send some money back. USC needed to increase the percentage of alumni who make annual contributions, Sample argued, for two reasons: to get alumni in the habit of making yearly donations and, perhaps more important, to help USC move up in the statistical game of university ratings.

With hundreds of thousands of college-bound students and their parents turning to published rankings to help with their decisions, USC needed the boost. It was especially important for the highly popular U.S. News & World Report rankings, which factor in the percentage of alumni who donate as “an indicator of alumni satisfaction.” Although the school was ranked 42nd on the U.S. News list of best national universities in 2000, its percentage of alumni donors stood at 60th.

So send alumni $5 each and when they send it back, count ‘em. Who cares if members of his staff took a dim view of the scheme? Sample wanted to try it.

Out went the $5 bills to a small number of alumni selected at random. “I don’t think many of the bills came back,” Sample concedes. “It was not a good idea. But a lot of other ideas have worked. And the good news is that we have doubled alumni giving since I got here.”

That’s the way Sample operates. Think of him as Mr. Fix-it, an inventor who sizes up a problem like an engineer, then brainstorms about wildly improbable solutions. Out of that creative process, usually done while lying on his back on the floor, comes novel ideas designed to take USC on its own shortcut up the rankings.

As for his practice of proposing “nominally outrageous ideas,” he views it as a way to free his staff from the constraints of traditional thinking. An idea might not work, he says, but it might unshackle another one that could be brilliant. “I’ve always prized new ideas and fresh approaches. If there are dissenters, they need to be heard. But, ultimately, I think it’s important to try new things.”

Yet when such freewheeling turns into borderline judgment calls, it confounds USC’s faculty and staff. This is the same man, they point out, who is extremely cautious as an administrator, the engineer who refuses to be pushed into a decision until he has deconstructed the problem and examined the repercussions of solutions from every angle.

He is also the guy who demands that his charges toe strict ethical and moral lines. For instance, he cracked down hard on rowdy fraternities, requiring their members’ grades be better than the USC average for men, limiting organized parties to the weekends and making bedrooms off-limits at parties featuring alcoholic drinks to cut down on sexual assaults. What’s more, every fall he lectures coaches and athletes about his priorities: One, play within all NCAA rules, no matter how stupid or irrelevant they appear; two, graduate with a bona fide degree; three, operate the team within budget; four, win conference and national championships. In that order.

How can he be such a stickler on some things, but so freewheeling on others? Those who know him best suggest that it’s two sides to the same man: a precise engineer and a creative inventor/musician. Others chalk it up to Sample’s relentless pursuit of prominence for USC. What’s the harm, he might ask, in leavening USC’s reputation with a dash of salesmanship?

It’s a question that leads directly into a subject that intrigues Sample. How to plant an idea in people’s minds. For instance, he loves to tell people how USC is the largest private employer in the city of Los Angeles. “Most people are binary in their thinking. Whenever they hear something, they think of it as good or bad, black or white, true or false,” he says. “When you make a statement that is absolutely true, but it sounds false, they cannot get it out of their minds.” After relating this fact for years, Sample now has people coming up to him with an inflated version: Did you know that USC is the largest employer in Los Angeles County? “You don’t try to exploit the misunderstanding, but sometimes you get tired of attenuating the exaggeration. You cannot fight it completely. If someone says to me, ‘It’s been nice talking to the inventor of the microwave oven,’ and walks away, do I chase that person down and correct him?”

It turns out that Sample is very good at creating a buzz about USC. He loves to write letters, regularly dispatching mass mailings to alumni, parents and other friends of the university. For five years he has corresponded with 1,600 handpicked “USC Ambassadors,” a group of opinion leaders and power brokers with some connection to the campus. Sample pores over the responses, and letters are sent out to correct any gross misunderstandings about the school. After years of correspondence, Sample laid out the second reason for these hand-picked pen pals: “As the word Ambassador suggests, you may also play a part by carrying USC’s message forward.”

Sample also knows how to make the soft sell. A few years ago, the Academic Senate passed an urgent resolution to extend health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees. Worried that such domestic partner benefits might offend conservative members on the board of trustees, Sample carefully repackaged the proposal as a budgetary item, without any of the incendiary language that has made the issue a debate on other campuses. It sailed past the board.

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Shortly after Sample arrived at USC, he was greeted by the 1992 L.A. riots. Although the campus escaped virtually unscathed, the mayhem triggered incredible pressure for USC to move to a safer neighborhood, he says. “A lot of people said, ‘Do a Pepperdine in 1999, and get the hell out of L.A.’ "--referring to Pepperdine University’s move to Malibu after the Watts riots in 1965. But Sample wanted none of it. He remembered how SUNY Buffalo had struggled for decades with the disruptions of the school’s move to the suburbs. “I wasn’t going to be the president of another university that was going to move,” Sample says. “Been there. Done that.”

If he didn’t want to move the university, he needed to get the neighborhood moving. USC hired a veteran Los Angeles police officer to work out an arrangement with his former department so that campus cops could patrol the surrounding community. Sample reviewed USC’s outreach programs scattered throughout the city and insisted that they be concentrated on the immediate community. So now, more than half of USC’s 15,000 undergraduates volunteer in the neighborhood, doing everything from painting out graffiti to tutoring in USC’s adopted family of five local schools.

It was this collection of 300 social-outreach programs--not academics--that earned USC the title of College of the Year in Time magazine and Princeton Review’s 2000 college guidebook. Perhaps more important, USC’s programs have gotten the nod from people like Juanita Judice. “I’ve lived here 49 years and most people in the neighborhood felt that USC was this uppity place that didn’t really want to be here,” she says. “That’s all changed.” As the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, puts it: “Steve Sample is what a university president should be. He brightens the corner that he is in, rather than looking for bright lights.”

All of this groundwork has given USC’s master salesman something to work with. The new California Science Center and other improvements to Exposition Park have helped USC redefine its location. It now markets itself not as a school in South-Central L.A., but as one of the bookends of a thriving arts and cultural corridor that runs down Figueroa Street to downtown. Williams College President Morton Owen Schapiro, a Sample admirer, says, “Steve has managed to relocate USC from the ghetto of South-Central Los Angeles to the edge of vibrant downtown L.A.--without moving an inch.”

Sample has high aspirations for USC: as a much bigger player in Los Angeles, as a leader of an association of Pacific Rim universities he co-founded, of major research institutions nationwide. USC’s path to prominence, he says, will be its own. “I don’t want USC to be the Harvard of the West or the Stanford of the South. That’s a loser approach. You can’t copy your way into excellence. I want USC to be widely regarded as one of the very best universities in the United States.” He thinks a moment and then adds: “And not only regarded as that, but, in fact, to be one of the very, very best.”


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