Former USC President Steven B. Sample, credited with transforming the university, dies at 75


Soon after Steven B. Sample became president of USC, the L.A. riots erupted. Administrators and staff were told to leave as smoke billowed on the horizon during those tense days in 1992. But Sample stayed, sleeping on his office floor and keeping company with fearful students in the dining hall.

The South Los Angeles campus escaped damage, but the nearby violence generated cries to move USC to a less-troubled neighborhood — perhaps somewhere in Orange County. Instead Sample doubled-down on his university as an “anchor institution” in the city, launching a massive civic engagement effort and proving himself a master salesman who boosted the school’s prestige and coffers.

During 19 years as president, Sample catapulted USC from being a school often mocked as the University of Second Choice or the University of Spoiled Children into a top educational institution and fundraising powerhouse.


He died Tuesday at the age of 75. No cause of death was released.

“So many of USC’s successes, so much of our university’s current stature, can be traced back to Dr. Sample’s dynamic leadership, keen foresight and extraordinary prudence,” current President C.L. Max Nikias said.

After holding several professorships, Sample became president of the State University of New York at Buffalo when he was just 41. In 1991, he was named USC’s 10th president.

Under Sample’s stewardship, USC rose from 51st to 26th in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of American universities and the number of its freshman applicants tripled. The university also became more selective, with acceptance rates dropping from 70% to 24%.

Sample also led efforts to give USC a global presence. Record numbers of foreign students, particularly from Asia, flocked to the university — a trend that has continued under Nikias.

While Sample was in charge, a USC chemist won a Nobel Prize, the school’s first. Sample instituted a ban on alcohol sales at the Coliseum during home football games, and cracked down on fraternity partying.


When he announced his retirement in 2009, Sample told The Times that he was proudest of boosting the academic quality of the students, achieved partly by trimming the size of the freshman class 25% and enhancing undergraduate course offerings.

That focus on education, however, was matched by a fundraising prowess.

USC received five gifts of at least $100 million during Sample’s tenure, and the university’s endowment grew from $450 million to a pre-recession height of nearly $4 billion. The endowment was battered by the recession, dipping to about $3 billion when he announced he was stepping down.

Recognizing the school’s transformation, Time magazine named USC its college of the year for 2000. Sample told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he had 600,000 copies of the article made.

“Every living Trojan got at least two copies,” he joked. “Every dead Trojan got at least one.”

But the depth of his zeal for the school found striking expression during the tumultuous days of 1992.

Joe Hellige, a psychology professor at the time of the riots who later served as vice provost of academic affairs, recalled that Sample kept a visible presence on campus during the frightening days of the riots.


“Most of us found that to be the mark of a genuine leader,” said Hellige, now executive vice president and provost at Loyola Marymount University. “He understood the importance of the university to the city of Los Angeles, but also the importance of Los Angeles as a place.”

In a letter to the USC community after the city had calmed, Sample wrote: “It was not a miracle that USC came through unscathed. Our neighbors understand that USC is an anchor institution in this city, and they do what they can to help it flourish.”

Still, the pressure rose on USC to relocate, much as Pepperdine had decamped from what was then South-Central for Malibu after the Watts riots in 1965.

“I was advised by many people to ‘do a Pepperdine’ … and get the hell out of Los Angeles,” Sample would say.

But he emphasized his commitment to L.A., and the campus stayed put.

At the time, Sample understood the need to improve USC’s relationship with the neighborhood. Campus security officers soon were dispatched to patrol not just USC grounds but the community around the school, and thousands of undergraduates began volunteering around South L.A.

The Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, former pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and a noted civic leader, told The Times in 2000: “Steve Sample is what a university president should be. He brightens the corner that he is in, rather than looking for bright lights.”


In an address to USC faculty in 2004, Sample again stressed his commitment:

“When I arrived from Buffalo … many people believed that Los Angeles was a dead city with no future,” Sample said. “The trustees and I, however, took a different view. USC … grew up with this city, and we plan to continue to be in the heart of this most dynamic and exciting city for centuries to come.”

In 2001, about a decade into his tenure, Sample was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In a letter informing the university’s faculty, he said the condition had given him a tremor in his left hand, but he did not expect it to spell the end of his career.

“I have no intention of letting Parkinson’s stand in the way,” he said.

He kept true to his word, serving nine more years. Only Rufus B. von KleinSmid, USC’s president from 1921 to 1947, had a longer tenure.

Along with his administrative duties, Sample co-taught a class each year with Warren Bennis, a professor of business administration. It was called “The Art and Adventure of Leadership,” and undergraduates had to apply for the course

“They were personally involved with all of the students,” said Erin Gielow Matzkin, who took the course the fall semester of her senior year in 1999. She said Sample advised her about her postgraduate aspirations, and she heeded his advice to attend USC Gould School of Law.

“He told me I should go wherever I wanted, but that he thought USC would be a good fit,” she said.“It was so refreshing to get that level of interest and perspective from a professor.... That class changed my life.”


When he announced his retirement in 2009, Sample said the university needed “fresh leadership.”

“I think I’m still pretty high-energy compared to most university presidents,” he told The Times. “But I think a new president might bring a lot more energy, and that would be great.”

He retired from USC in 2010 at age 69 but remained active at the university, serving on the board of trustees.

Sample was born in St. Louis on Nov. 29, 1940, and married his college sweetheart, Kathryn Brunkow, while both were undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he later earned a doctorate in electrical engineering.

A specialist in electromagnetic theories, he invented the controls and touch pads used in millions of microwave ovens.

He is survived by his wife, daughters Michelle Sample Smith and Elizabeth Sample and two grandchildren.


For news in California, follow @LATChrisGoffard and @MattHjourno.

Staff writers Jason Song, Zahira Torres and Carla Rivera contributed to this report.


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