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."