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No Longer The University Of Second Choice

USC President Steven Sample Has Engineered a Revolution, Transforming a Chronic Academic Underachiever Into a Rising Star

September 17, 2000|KENNETH R. WEISS | Kenneth R. Weiss is a Times education writer whose last article for the magazine was about California State University Chancellor Charlie Reed

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.

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.

*

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.

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