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In memoriam: USC President Emeritus Steven B. Sample, 75

The visionary educator led the university from 1991 to 2010 and helped launch it into the ranks of the nation’s elite research institutions

Steven Sample
Steven B. Sample, USC's 10th president, led the university from 1991 to 2010. (Photo/Philip Channing)

Steven Browning Sample, who served as USC’s 10th president from 1991 to 2010 — a time of remarkable transformation at the university — died March 29. He was 75.

During Sample’s 19-year tenure as president, the university ascended the national academic ranks. USC became a highly selective undergraduate university, recruited many nationally prominent faculty, created a global presence, completed what was at the time the largest fundraising campaign ever in higher education and built partnerships in the communities surrounding USC’s campuses.

“Generations from now, those studying the history of our university will quickly find themselves learning the remarkable story of Steven Sample,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “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. Dr. Sample stood over our university — and led our Trojan Family — as it began its singular transformation, and for this we should all be grateful.

“On a more personal note, I consider Dr. Sample to have been one of my most significant and formative role models,” Nikias said. “It was he who encouraged me to apply for the provost position at USC, and it was he who so often mentored me during my tenure as provost and as dean of our engineering school. Niki and I will miss him tremendously.”

“Dr. Sample engineered arguably the most dramatic rise in quality and ranking of any American university,” said John Mork, chair of the USC Board of Trustees. “From the very start he understood the entrepreneurial zeal of USC and fueled our desire to be excellent. If there were a tag line for his leadership style, it would be ‘Never let up.’ And the results were nothing short of spectacular.”

High praise

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, a longtime USC supporter and university trustee, praised Sample for helping make the university home to USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which captures testimonies from survivors and witnesses to genocide, and for supporting the growth of the USC School of Cinematic Arts into “the greatest cinema school in the world.”

“While he left behind very big footprints, he gleefully encouraged others to fill them as President Nikias has done and will continue to do,” Spielberg said. “I’ll miss Steve, but just walking around campus, you can feel him everywhere.”

After he retired as president in 2010, Sample remained active in the life of the university. He served on the USC Board of Trustees as a life trustee, and for a time, continued to co-teach the popular undergraduate course “The Art and Adventure of Leadership” with the late management expert Warren Bennis.

“One of the many joys of my relationship with Steve was to be invited each year to join him and the late Warren Bennis as a guest lecturer in their leadership class,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a longtime USC supporter and alumnus, who recalled crossing paths for the first time with Sample during a football game in 1991. Sample was touring the campus as a candidate for the university’s top job, and Bolden was being honored upon his return from his second Space Shuttle mission.

“He was truly inspirational and visionary, and I count him as one of my many mentors and role models, as well as a cherished friend,” said Bolden, who served on the USC Board of Trustees until 2009.

Sample’s book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and was translated into five languages. He and his wife, Kathryn, donated all royalties to a scholarship fund for USC undergraduates, and shared a love and support of USC athletics. Sample liked to start speeches with the rousing statement, “Isn’t it a great day to be a Trojan!” followed with his signature opening joke and news hand-picked for his audience — a new scholarship program, a research discovery, a transformative gift, a decisive sports victory. From his first day as president in 1991, it was, seemingly, always a great day to be at USC.

“For Kathryn and me, the presidency of USC has been far more than just a job,” Sample said when announcing his retirement from the USC presidency in 2009. “It has been a calling, an all-consuming passion to move this university ahead farther and faster than any another university in the United States.”

Transforming USC’s academic reputation

Sample made improving undergraduate education the university’s highest priority, overseeing the revision of the curriculum, introducing the Renaissance Scholars program and creating new majors and minors to provide “breadth with depth.”

During his tenure, USC rose dramatically in the college rankings, the number of freshman applicants more than tripled and the student body grew increasingly diverse. Recognizing USC’s ambitious community partnership programs, Time magazine/Princeton Review named USC “College of the Year 2000.”

Attracting stellar faculty members was another one of Sample’s key priorities. During his presidency, endowed chairs and professorships rose from 152 to 403, USC faculty member George Olah won USC’s first-ever Nobel Prize — for chemistry in 1994 — and faculty member Elyn Saks won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

Global reach

USC’s international outreach grew exponentially during the Sample years, particularly in the Pacific Rim. He co-founded the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, a consortium of 45 leading research universities in the Pacific region, and promoted USC’s role in positioning Los Angeles as the de facto capital of the Pacific Rim.

USC became a leading destination for international students during Sample’s presidency. He opened international offices in Asia and convened USC’s first international conference in Hong Kong in 2001.

Steve Sample had the idea and was a major leader among all of the presidents in American higher education to recognize the growing importance of the Pacific Rim.

Molly Corbett Broad

Sample’s global vision was lauded by educational leaders such as Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education: “Steve Sample had the idea and was a major leader among all of the presidents in American higher education to recognize the growing importance of the Pacific Rim. He led the effort to create linkages between American universities along the West Coast of our country to institutions and universities in Japan and China and Taiwan and Hong Kong and Australia. It was a remarkable achievement.”

Building on excellence

Among Sample’s achievements was a remarkable ability to attract the resources the university needed to build endowment, develop academic programs and support campus improvements.

USC’s Building on Excellence campaign raised $2.85 billion, and the university became the first in the U.S. to receive five gifts of $100 million or more. During this time, USC also secured naming gifts for seven schools.

Strengthening community

A cornerstone of Sample’s administration was building alliances and transforming USC’s neighboring communities. He launched the USC Good Neighbors Campaign, asking USC faculty and staff to contribute funds to transformative programs, such as the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which prepares low-income students from the surrounding areas for admission to USC and other universities.

Community leaders took notice. “The University of Southern California has been a point of convergence. I think that’s one of the brilliant points of the diamond of Steve Sample,” said the Rev. Cecil B. Murray, then pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, upon Sample’s 10-year mark as president. Murray today is the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics and professor of religion at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

USC students also embraced Sample’s passion for community service during “Friends and Neighbors Days” throughout the year. In recognition of his civic achievements, he received the Distinguished Business Leader Award from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Heart of the City Award from the Central City Association of Los Angeles.

At his retirement from the presidency, the Samples gave USC a bronze statue of USC’s mascot, Traveler, which stands overlooking the university’s central Hahn Plaza. Steven and Kathryn Sample Hall is named in their honor, as is a special Renaissance Scholar endowment.

Renaissance man

Steven Sample was a man of many talents — an electrical engineer, musician, inventor, outdoorsman, author and teacher.

He was born in St. Louis, Mo., on Nov. 29, 1940. His mother was a civic activist, and his father worked as a sales manager for an electric motor company. He married his college sweetheart, Kathryn Brunkow of Park Ridge, Ill., while both were undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

By age 24, he had earned three degrees there, a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in electrical engineering. He accepted a faculty position at Purdue University, continued his academic career at the University of Illinois and the University of Nebraska, and, at age 41, was named the 12th president of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

During his tenure, SUNY Buffalo was elected to the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which Sample later served as chairman.

A member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sample invented and patented several devices, including digital appliance controls and touch pads, used in more than 300 million microwave ovens and other home appliances worldwide.

He received honorary doctorates from Canisius College, Buffalo (1989), D’Youville College (2011), Hebrew Union College (1994), Northeastern University (2004), Purdue (1994), SUNY Buffalo (2006), the University of Nebraska (1995), the University of Notre Dame (2005) and the University of Sheffield, England (1991).

A resident of Pasadena, Sample is survived by his wife, Kathryn Brunkow Sample, daughters Michelle Sample Smith and Elizabeth Sample, son-in-law Kirk Smith and grandchildren Kathryn and Andrew Smith.

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