In his 19 years at USC — the second-longest tenure in the university’s presidential history — President Steven B. Sample has been credited with catapulting USC into an era of success.
Higher education experts and others cite Sample’s commitment to interdisciplinary learning, his dedication to global outreach and his yen for fundraising, but those who work alongside him — the deans of USC’s 18 schools — say Sample’s best quality was his humor.
“He just has a twinkle in his eye, and at any minute he can crack you up and the next minute talk about something serious and important,” said Gerald Davison, dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, who has been at USC for about 30 years.
Davison, like his counterparts at USC’s other schools, said he will miss Sample’s jokes at the beginning of his speeches when he is no longer president in August.
“My favorite memory of him is a recurring one,” said Karen Gallagher, dean of the Rossier School of Education. “It was the way he addressed us, the remarks he makes at the speeches, or before the football game, he always starts with a story or joke and then gets serious.”
But most of the deans were not surprised that Sample, who many say has dedicated his life to the university, announced his retirement last week, as his job demands just as much time and work as it does humor.
“Nineteen years is a very long time for any administrator, certainly for a president,” said Yannis Yortsos, dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering. “The job is very demanding. It’s better to quit when you’re ahead than when your energy’s diminishing.”
Sample’s energy, many of the deans said, has never faltered, and despite the demands of his job, he has never seemed to stop caring about each individual school and faculty member.
“You might get a phone call when you needed encouragement — that is exceptional,” said Ruth Weisberg, dean of the Roski School of Fine Arts. “Sometimes presidents can be remote figures — Sample was never remote. You always felt he was not just on your team, he was your captain.”
Randolph Beatty, dean of the Leventhal School of Accounting, said Sample has not only taken the time to talk with his faculty, but he has also taken the time to listen.
“That’s the brilliance of the man. He listens, and so few people do,” Beatty said.
Sample has taken a genuine interest in the lives of his faculty, many of the deans said, making him stand out in their eyes.
“Well I think the time I was most intimately and deeply influenced was when I was at party that he hosted in his home,” said Qingyun Ma, dean of the School of Architecture. “President Sample immediately remembered a lot of details from our interview back in Shanghai, and he remembered my wife’s name, which is a foreign name. We were so impressed.”
Madeline Puzo, dean of the School of Theatre, said she has felt the same personal connection.
“Since I was being considered for an art school, when we were talking, he told me, ‘I was once a professional musician. I never made my living at it, but I got paid to play.’ We began talking about the intimacy of art, the intimacy of performance,” Puzo said. “He lets you feel that he is absolutely interested in what interests you.”
Those musical talents also stand out to some of the deans. Beatty said every year, at an event in honor of Elaine and Kenneth Leventhal, Sample would play drums and invite someone from the group to play with him.
“He’s a very good drummer,” Beatty said. “One year, I got to play drums with him.”
Though his caring and humorous nature has earned him the adoration of the deans, Sample’s vision and leadership has earned him their respect.
“He came into the university and the atmosphere changed. His motto was, ‘We’re going to do things; we are going to do more with less,’” Davison said. “When he came in it was like a shot of adrenaline. I thought, ‘Wow, we are going to be on the move.’”
President Sample has always expected much from his deans and pushed them to be committed to their students, their community, global leadership, research and excellence.
“He showed through example,” said Robert Rasmussen, dean of the Gould School of Law. “He was an advocate for USC.”
Sample has, in fact, led by example. Throughout his presidency, Sample continued to teach leadership classes, launched and promoted his Good Neighbors Campaign dedicated to helping the surrounding community, spurred the creation of the global conference for the Pacific Rim and has made USC into one of the top research universities in the country.
“By maintaining his teaching responsibilities, Sample conveyed a message about what the real priorities of the institution are,” said Avishai Sadan, dean of the School of Dentistry. “[It is] an inspiration that we at the School of Dentistry all follow.”
Sample, all agreed, is a man with a vision. But, more importantly, he has done everything in his power to make that vision a reality.
“His legacy is that what he saw he was actually able to achieve,” Puzo said.