Whenever you punch 2-0-0 to cook frozen food in your microwave for two minutes, you’re using Steven Sample’s invention: the touchpad that controls household appliances with the push of a selection. But he left behind the life of an inventor long ago, and pursued his goal to become a university president. At 40, he was named president of State University New York at Buffalo. A decade later, he took the helm at USC. L.A.’s highest profile private university underwent a major transformation in the 19 years he has been president. USC has climbed from 51st to 26th in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of U.S. research universities. The average SAT score of incoming freshman rose 26 percent, its endowment grew from $450 million to about $3 billion today – down from its prerecession heights of $4 billion. The university has received five gifts of at least $100 million and it has become the U.S. campus with the most foreign students. In November, he announced that this would be his last year as president. Sample recently sat down with the Business Journal at his campus office to discuss growing up in the Midwest, his career in higher education and his love of music.
Question: You announced late last year that in August you will be stepping down as president of USC after serving in the position for 19 years. Why now?
Answer: I will be 70 next year, and Kathryn, my wife, and I just thought, “Nineteen years, let’s go do something else.” I’ve loved this job. It’s been very satisfying and rewarding, and by that I mean psychologically and spiritually rewarding. But it’s a man killer, it’s very demanding. I once said in a speech that it’s an insatiable mistress, and many younger men would love to have an insatiable mistress. Already, it’s a feeling that this huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
Q: You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago. Did that have an impact on your decision to step down?
A: No; it really didn’t. The Parkinson’s has been wonderfully managed by the right team of doctors and it’s not much more than a nuisance.
Q: When you were diagnosed, did you want to get involved in finding a cure for the disease?
A: My wife felt very strongly that, given my job at USC, I didn’t become a poster child for Parkinson’s disease. But I’m an informal consultant for others with Parkinson’s, particularly professional people who call me and want to talk about it and my experience. I can generally fill them with hope. It’s more of a one-on-one, personal thing.
Q: What do you plan to do after you leave USC?
A: We are going to stay in Pasadena, where we live now at the USC president’s house, and we already bought a house there. I will be full-time faculty at USC. My professorship is in electrical engineering, but I’m taking a sabbatical first.
Q: Is it a challenging time for the university?
A: We’ve avoided having any real serious financial problems because we didn’t allow ourselves to get dependent on our endowment. So when the endowment lost a lot of money, it didn’t make much difference. And, in fact, we were sufficiently protected from those problems that we were able to go out and start stealing away good faculty from other institutions.
Q: But the endowment still lost money.
A: To be candid, we are very proud to have built our endowment from about a half-billion dollars to $4 billion. And then we lost $1 billion in the market, and we’ve gained some of that back. But even at $4 billion, our endowment per pupil is paltry compared to Harvard or Princeton.
Q: When you became president in 1991, the university was facing some difficult financial times.
A: We had an endowment of about $500 million, which was very small. The finances were shaky and we had to eliminate 800 jobs. So I started in the spring, and by the fall we were shedding 800 jobs. It was very tough to do, and it caused a lot of pain.
Q: How did you get into higher education?
A: I did my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Then I went into industry full time for a year, and then I took a tenure-track appointment at Purdue in the department of electrical engineering.
Q: Where were you born?
A: I was born in St. Louis; I’m a Midwesterner. I was raised in a couple of suburbs of St. Louis, but also on a farm in St. Charles County, which is right next to St. Louis County. I lived part of my life on a farm.
Q: Did you work on the farm?
A: The farm was more a hobby for my parents, so we didn’t really work the land as a farm. We would lend out some of the land to neighboring farmers.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: Dad was a sales manager for a St. Louis company called Emerson Electric, and my mother had worked as a schoolteacher until it was discovered that she was married. A lot of school districts prohibited married teachers because they were afraid that they would get pregnant and walk around with this big hump in their tummy and people would ask questions. Very puritanical.
Q: So did your mother stop working?
A: No; then she became a sectional manager at one of the downtown department stores. She was a great speaker, and she was a natural leader in an era where no one really wanted women in leadership. So when we were on the farm, the schools were really bad and my mother got herself elected to superintendent of schools. She built a new grade school, built a new junior high school and built a new high school. It was big stuff in Missouri backcountry.
Q: Was your mother’s experience inspirational?
A: I think mother had a much stronger influence on me than anyone else did. As I said, it was hard for women to get a leadership position then.
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: When I was on a farm at age 9, I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a drummer, a musician, and they were very supportive of that. When we moved from the farm to Connecticut, I got a job as a percussionist in the Norwalk symphony. Then from Connecticut, we moved back to St. Louis – dad was always being transferred for work. Music became an even bigger part of my life. I played kettle drums in the St. Louis Philharmonic.
Q: Did you ever form a band?
A: Yes; when I was a teenager, another guy and I started a band and we got a lot of work. We worked two to three nights per week, mainly at dances. It was all very ambitious and entrepreneurial. When I look back on that musical experience, it was very positive.
Q: Do you still play drums?
A: I do. Have you heard of “trophy wife”? Well, I’m what they call a “trophy sideman.” I’m probably asked to play a gig here and there because of my position and the oddity of having the president of USC playing the drums.
Q: Why did you pursue engineering instead of music?
A: Well, I was very good in science and math, so it was going to be science or engineering. I chose engineering because I am very much a people person, and engineering involves applying science and mathematics to human problems. I also realized that I wasn’t in a position to support myself with my music. What’s the difference between a large pepperoni pizza and a musician? A large pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.
Q: Tell me about your wife. How did you meet?
A: On a blind date in college; one of her sorority sisters who knew both of us thought we would make a wonderful couple. So she fixed us up and we didn’t get along well at all, we argued about politics, religion, whatever. Even though we didn’t get along, in our early dating we fell in love. We were married as undergraduates, and we’ve been married almost 50 years.
Q: Tell me what you invented at the beginning of your career.
A: At Purdue, I had an opportunity that came through a department head to take on a consulting client. Since I was married, making extra money as a consultant sounded good. So I started consulting for a company in southern Indiana that made dishwashers. The company set me up with a lab, and it was there that we developed this control system for home appliances.
Q: So what is it exactly?
A: It’s the control system that sits behind the touchpad. My invention sits behind the touchpad and does the controlling of the whole appliance, whether it’s a microwave oven, dishwasher or whatever.
Q: Do you hold the patent and do you get royalties?
A: The patents are issued in my name, but I don’t own the economic benefit of the patents. I never got personally wealthy off these inventions, but it made a big difference in my career.
Q: How did you become an administrator?
A: I was a tenured associate professor and a little bored. There was a national fellowship program sponsored by the American Counsel on Education where you got to spend a year as an intern in some university president’s office. I got one of those fellowships, and served under the president of Purdue University and I loved it. So Kathryn and I talked about it and we decided this would be a great career goal, to be a university president. I was 29 at the time.
Q: Did any colleagues confirm it would be the right move?
A: There was a senior professor of electrical engineering at Purdue who first set me on the course of being a university president. He was a keen observer of people and said, “I don’t think you will be satisfied in teaching, you should consider becoming a university president.” That, along with the fellowship, started me down this road and I’ve really enjoyed it.
Q: So you were young when you started on this path.
A: I was appointed executive vice president of the University of Nebraska at the tender age of 33. I was probably really too young. I’m not sure it was any great benefit that I got that job really. And then at the age of 40, I became president of the State University of New York at Buffalo. And I was probably too young for that job, too.
Q: How did you get to USC?
A: There was a screening committee and the chairman of it was Warren Bennis, a professor in the business school. He called me and said, “We really want to chat with you.” And I said, “Warren, this isn’t my gig. I’ve been in public higher education all of my life, I don’t know anything about private universities.” He called four times and I said, “I’m not the guy.”
Q: How did he convince you to take the job?
A: He called up the president of Cornell University, Frank Rhodes. Frank and I were close, he was a mentor. So Bennis calls up Rhodes and says, “Frank, see if you can get Sample to talk to us.” So Rhodes calls me up and says, “Sample, why aren’t you talking to the people at USC?” And I said, “Frank, I don’t know that business at all.” And he said, “You don’t know what you are talking about.” He said, “I’ve watched you operate out here, Steve, you’re very aggressive, very entrepreneurial and you’ll love private higher education.” And he said, “So don’t be foolish and just turn down the opportunity altogether because you think you know something when you actually don’t.”
Q: Was it difficult to move from a public to private university?
A: It was such a good fit that it didn’t really take any special learning experience; you just jump in and go for it. I already knew more than I thought I knew about private universities because I knew what I didn’t like about public universities – the bureaucracy of dealing with government funding.
Q: What achievement are you most proud of?
A: I think turning the undergraduate program around, not that I did it single-handedly. But the fact that we went from a perception on the part of the public that this was a party school in a bad neighborhood to being the most desirable undergraduate program in the state, and we can take on competitors such as Harvard or Yale or Princeton and win.
Q: How was USC able to convince five donors to provide more than $100 million each?
A: To really develop a relationship with a person who is capable of a large gift, it takes years. You have some social interaction, but then you have to start getting that person interested in the students and faculty of a particular department so much so that they might give a large gift. A lot of the keys in successful fundraising for us have been getting the deans to take leadership roles in developing relationships. For example, George Lucas gave us $175 million, and I worked directly with George on that. But Elizabeth Daly, film school dean, gets a lot of the credit. It took years.
Q: Do you enjoy fundraising?
A: I love fundraising, but many college presidents don’t. Part of it is they don’t like to be turned down. To work two or three years to cultivate a prospect, and then you give that person a proposal and she says, “I’m not interested,” it hurts. You have to have a strong enough ego that you can take some of those because most of the time the answer is going to be no.
Q: What is your daily routine like?
A: During the regular working day, it is mainly meetings and phone calls. It is people interactions, one-on-one meetings. And then I do the cognitive part of the job in the evenings and on weekends. You have so many constituents to deal with, so you have to set aside a lot of time for person-to-person interactions with donors, deans and other people.
Q: Do you attend the football games?
A: We go to all the football games; we go to almost all the away games. My wife loves college football, so this is part of her payoff. A high-quality sports program can be helpful in recruiting good students, it can even be helpful in recruiting faculty and it can be helpful in fundraising. But it’s not really the tail that wags the dog.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: For example, our operating budget now is about $2.7 billion a year and football is maybe $80 million, a tiny fraction.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
A: I’ve logged 600 miles in the Grand Canyon. I’m not as strong as I was when I was 50, so I don’t backpack anymore. I can’t carry the weight and hike on the rough trails.
Q: How do you plan to spend your free time after you leave?
A: We’ve traveled a lot, but a lot of it’s been business related. Our travel has been much more to Asia than it has been to Europe, so we are going to do some European travel.
Q: What’s your favorite place in Asia?
A: We have been to China several times, and I like China. Watching China transform itself over the past 20 years has been really something, it’s been very impressive.
Q: Several of the members of USC’s board of trustees are prominent business leaders. Tell me about working with them.
A: One of the things that make USC different from most private universities is that many members of our board aren’t alumni. Recruiting new trustees is very much something that the president spends time on, although he does it under the auspices of a board committee, so you like to have good relationships across the board. We’ve avoided a split in the board or a feud; when that happens, it can be ugly. So you have to work hard to not just get people to just join the board, but get them to work together.
Q: How is the search going for your replacement?
A: I don’t get involved in that process. It’s funny, in industry, one of the primary jobs of a chief executive is succession planning. It’s exactly the opposite in a research university. The former president is not involved at all. There’s a search committee with six distinguished faculty members and six trustees. The chairman of the committee is the chairman of the board. Ed Roski Jr. is the chairman and he’s really gotten into it. He understands that this is the most important thing the trustees do.
BORN: 1940; St. Louis
EDUCATION: B.S., M.S., Ph.D., electrical engineering, University of Illinois at
CAREER TURNING POINT: “When I was 29, Kathryn, my wife, and I decided that the best career path for me was to be a university president. Prior to that time, we always assumed I would be a full-time faculty member.”
MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON: Wife Kathryn
PERSONAL: Lives in Pasadena with wife, to whom he has been married for nearly 50 years; two adult daughters and two grandchildren
ACTIVITIES: Playing music, reading books, spending time with wife and family
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