Many with their ear to the USC administration have been speculating for a few years now that President Steven B. Sample would be stepping down, but Monday’s announcement that he will be retiring in August was a bombshell nonetheless.
Sample’s retirement will mark the end of an era in which USC has evolved into a leading research university, and raises serious questions about the university’s future — chief among them whether Sample’s successor can maintain the level of success he established in his time as president.
Over the last two decades, Sample has had a
wide-ranging effect on the university. He has catapulted its academic standards, expanded its outreach into the community and made it a destination for students in dozens of states and dozens of countries.
And Sample’s prolific fundraising efforts have enabled the significant capital improvements that give USC’s campus a vastly different face from that of 20 years ago.
The impact of many of Sample’s accomplishments may not be clear for years. But after nearly two decades, his influence is felt in nearly every aspect of university life, and his retirement will leave a gaping hole in the president’s office.
Sample’s announcement was hardly shocking. His Parkinson’s disease has grown worse in recent years; at one event in Washington, DC last spring, the president’s hand shook violently at times, although his voice remained sturdy during a speech to alumni. The university also announced that Sample would not be teaching his popular leadership class this year, claiming it was retooling the curriculum.
Sample said the disease was not a major factor in his decision to step down from his post, according to the Los Angeles Times. Instead, he said, he wanted to step down while he was ahead.
Whatever the reason, replacing a president like Sample will be no small task for the university. The Board of Trustees will likely approach leading university figures across the country and even look internationally in its effort to find a successor by May.
But there are signs that USC may be looking within its own ranks. Although it is uncommon for major schools to promote a president from within, recent signs have pointed to Executive Vice President and Provost C.L. Max Nikias as a likely option.
Earlier this year, the university bumped Nikias’ title from provost to executive vice president. Board of Trustees Chairman Edward P. Roski Jr. also confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Nikias was a contender for the position.
Either way, the next president will face a number of challenges in continuing the streak of success Sample established.
Sample’s successor will take over at a time when the university’s finances have taken a hit. The school is still in a hiring freeze, and its endowment has lost about $1.2 billion over the last year. The financial challenges have also affected the school’s ability to offer financial aid and its ability to expand.
If the USC of today looks fundamentally different than the one Sample inherited in 1991, then his successor will be facing a school that hardly resembles the USC of just five years ago.
Perhaps most significantly, the next president will be taking over at a key moment in the development of the university’s Master Plan, a framework for expanding the University Park Campus over the next few decades.
The proposed changes to student housing around campus, including creating 7,600 beds in the North University Park, could completely alter the look and feel of USC in the coming years and have a substantial impact on those that live in the neighborhood.
Sample made cooperation with the community a key aspect of his tenure, and his successor will have to grapple with the task of balancing the school’s physical growth and the changing nature of the Figueroa Corridor with the increasingly tenuous relationship with its neighbors.
As the board begins the search for a successor who can handle the complex task of managing a university with USC’s size, many are hoping Sample will continue to be a presence at the university and plan to use the rest of the year to bid farewell to the man who brought USC into the 21st century.