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USC chief to step down

The president who led dramatic increases in academic prestige and

November 01, 2009|Larry Gordon

USC President Steven B. Sample, who dramatically boosted the university's academic prestige, financial resources and civic engagement during nearly 19 years as its leader, says he will step down from the post next summer.

Sample, who turns 69 this month, said he will end his presidency in August, allowing university trustees ample time to choose a new president for the 34,000-student campus near downtown Los Angeles.

"It's a time for fresh leadership. I don't mean to sound self-congratulatory, but we've had a good run. And so, why not quit while you're ahead?" Sample, an electrical engineer who previously headed the State University of New York at Buffalo, said in an interview in his campus office.

"I think I'm still pretty high-energy compared to most university presidents," he added. "But I think a new president might bring a lot more energy, and that would be great."

Diagnosed eight years ago with Parkinson's disease, Sample has a noticeable tremor in his right hand and walks somewhat stiffly, although his voice remains steady and strong. He said that his health is stable and that the illness was not a major factor in his decision. Yet he also spoke of life's unpredictability, noting with sadness that his predecessor, James H. Zumberge, was diagnosed with a brain tumor soon after he left the president's post and died within a year.

Sample told The Times about his plans ahead of USC's formal announcement, which is scheduled for Monday. The Board of Trustees will then launch an international search to find a successor by May.

Although it is unusual at most universities for an insider to become president, many on campus said they expect USC's executive vice president and provost, C. L. Max Nikias, to be a strong contender. Board Chairman Edward P. Roski Jr. confirmed that Nikias would be a candidate but emphasized that the search would be open and thorough.

"We are going to search the whole gamut of individuals who would qualify," said Roski, chairman and chief executive of Majestic Realty Co. Becoming USC president "after someone like Steve is a daunting task," he said. "We've made great strides under him, and we want to continue those."

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,600 colleges and universities, praised Sample as "a towering figure" in U.S. higher education who has helped catapult USC into the upper ranks.

"I think Steve is just about the perfect example of the benefits to a university that derive from long, continuous service by a leader, and that doesn't happen very much anymore," said Broad, a former president of the University of North Carolina.

When Sample steps down, his presidency will have lasted more than twice the length of the current average tenure of an American college president. The 10th president since the University of Southern California was founded in 1880, he is its second-longest-serving leader, bested only by Rufus B. von KleinSmid, who filled the post from 1921 to 1947.

More significant to Sample's legacy, education experts said, are the improvements made to the academic quality of the undergraduate student body and major increases in the university's endowment.

Numbers tell part of the story:

Since 1991, USC has climbed from 51st to 26th in U.S. News & World Report's rankings of U.S. research universities.

Its number of freshman applicants more than tripled, while the portion accepted dropped from 70% to an exclusive 24%. And the average SAT score of incoming freshmen rose 28%, to 2,068 this year out of a possible 2,400.

USC's endowment grew from $450 million to nearly $4 billion before the recession, then fell to about $3 billion. (The figure is still relatively low for a top-ranked research university with such a large student body.) On Sample's watch, USC received five gifts of at least $100 million; the largest, $175 million to the cinema school, was from the foundation of "Star Wars" director and USC alumnus George Lucas.

USC's international presence -- particularly in Asia -- grew as Sample helped start a consortium of Pacific Rim universities. USC became the U.S. campus with the most foreign students, a position it has retained in recent years, with about 7,000 in attendance last year.

Morton Owen Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and a former USC vice president and dean, said only one other university, New York University, has so transformed itself in recent decades.

Sample understood that university leadership involves both improving substance and marketing the change, Schapiro said. "The brilliance of Sample is that he does both," he said. "The good news is that Steve's successor is going to inherit an institution much stronger than Steve did. The scary thing is: How do you replace Steve Sample?"

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