A crowd of faculty and students stood silently, their heads bowed in a semi-circle around Tommy Trojan. Behind them, the American flag hung at half-mast, fluttering in a slight breeze. At noon Wednesday, the group had gathered for a time of remembrance and celebration for the life of former USC president Steven Sample, who died Tuesday. He was 75.“Today we celebrate the life of an extraordinary man, a dear friend to all of us, a beloved colleague, a gifted scholar and a leader of international caliber,” President C. L. Max Nikias said, standing on a podium before the crowd. “Steven Sample has left a legacy on our University, on our Trojan family, our community and on America’s higher education.”Throughout the next hour, the crowd listened as faculty and campus religious leaders praised Sample’s life and his impact on the university. The memorial served as the first step for the Trojan Family to begin healing from the loss of one of its most influential leaders.In his 19 years as president, Sample transformed the national reputation of USC, improving the University’s diversity, outreach and competitiveness. When he came into office in 1991, USC suffered from a struggling reputation as the “University of Second Choice” — the back-up school for competitive students who were rejected from other universities.Sample dedicated himself to changing that image, and in less than two decades, he succeeded. In 2000, Sample’s final year at USC, the middle 50 percent SAT scores had risen to 1,309. The acceptance rate had dropped under 24 percent, and a once majority-white student body had expanded to become one of the most racially diverse in the country.Faculty pulled in twice as many research grants, and the University landed its first Nobel Prize. The USC that current students know — competitive, diverse, prestigious — is the University that Sample built.“Under his exemplary leadership, USC rose dramatically in academic rankings to become one of the nation’s elite universities,” said Mark Ridley-Thomas, Los Angeles County supervisor and a USC graduate. “I will always cherish our friendship, which spanned more than 25 years.”During Sample’s presidency, USC’s endowment rose to $4 billion before the recession hit, almost 10 times the initial $450 million endowment that existed when he took office. His Building On Excellence program raised more than $2.85 billion, allowing the University to expand many of its programs.In 2000, after nine years of Sample’s presidency, Time Magazine named USC the College of the Year. He proudly had 600,000 copies of the article made.“Every living Trojan got at least two copies,” Sample told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Every dead Trojan got at least one.”But Sample’s impact at USC extends beyond statistics and awards. He was the president who slept in his office and ate every meal in the dining halls during the L.A. riots, hoping to comfort the students left on campus. He served nine years after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s that left a tremble in his left hand. He approached every personal interaction as a way to make the University better.At a time when most of the country felt Los Angeles was dying, he dedicated himself to bettering both his University and the city surrounding it. He created the Good Neighbors Campaign and Neighborhood Academic Initiative to pour more funding into University Park and transform relations with the community for future generations.And when he felt that he had reached a point when he couldn’t give USC the energy it deserved, Sample stepped aside with grace.Sample devoted himself to every aspect of leadership, and those who worked with him remembered him as both a skilled leader and a devoted friend. Although Nikias’ words were tinged with grief, he encouraged the Trojans gathered on Wednesday to use Sample’s legacy to drive their own actions as they move forward.“The story of Steve Sample passes forever into the loving memory of our worldwide Trojan family,” Nikias said. “It will remain powerfully alive, inspiring Trojans for generations to come, driving us all to bring out the best in ourselves, to sense great possibility as he did and to transform possibility into life-changing reality as he did.”Sample is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, in which he dealt with his approach to leading at USC. Sample is survived by his wife, his daughters, Michelle and Elizabeth, and two grandchildren.
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