President Steven B. Sample

Steven B. Sample

October 16, 2002

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about what matters to me in the short run, and then I’ll get into the deep questions of what matters to me in the long-run. In the short run what matters to me is my book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. I love this book! This book is my child. I had never written a book before and it’s all text – there are no formulas, no equations, no graphs and photographs and all those things that make scientists and engineers happy about their writing experience. There are just 60,000 words of text – a very tough assignment for an engineer.

I wrote this book because my friend and colleague, Warren Bennis, stayed at me all the time. He’s written 27 books that have sold almost two million copies in 22 languages, so books are easy for him. He said, “Sample, you’ve got to write this book because you see everything in the world at an angle. You’re always looking at things slightly differently from other people.” Hence the title – The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. I assigned all my royalties from the book to the university for undergraduate scholarships, so I have absolutely no financial interest in this book whatsoever. But I do have enormous ego involved. And I’ll tell you a story. There’s a very big law firm here in Los Angeles called O’Melveny & Myers. A lawyer from O’Melveny called up last December and told my executive assistant, “We’re going to have our big partners’ meeting on March 3, with our partners coming in from all over the country and all over the world, and we want Sample to be our keynote speaker at noon on that day.” My assistant replied, “I’m sorry, he’s already booked for a speech at noon on Saturday, March 3. In fact, I’ve got him booked for three speeches that day – one at 7:30 in the morning, a big endowed lecture series at noon, and a black tie dinner with a speech in the evening.” The lawyer said, “Well that’s all right, we’ll change our schedule around and we’ll take Sample at ten o’clock in the morning. That way he’ll have a 7:30, ten o’clock, noon.” She said, “Are you nuts? That’s crazy. I’m not going to book him for four speeches on a Saturday. That’s ridiculous.” He said, “OK, but you need to understand something – if Sample agrees to be our keynote speaker at whatever time of day, we’re going to buy 250 copies of his book.” “Oh,” responded my assistant, “that’s a horse of a different color!” And I did it.

When I was thinking about what I wanted to say today, I realized that a person has two ways to talk about what matters to him. One is to express some set of conventional values and talk in generalities that may not reveal the person; the other is to bare your soul in public and tell people the truth about yourself. I’ve chosen the latter course, but it’s not going to be easy.

After giving it a lot of thought, I would have to say the most important thing in my life is my religious faith. A few years ago I appeared on Dr. Robert Schuller’s television program, The Hour of Power. During the course of the interview, Dr. Schuller said, “Dr. Sample, tell us about your own religions affiliation and convictions.” I replied, “Dr. Schuller, that’s easy: I’ve been an Episcopalian for the last 45 years and a Christian for about the last 30 years.” The next time the rector of my parish church saw me he said, “Sample, how could you say that? How could you say you can be an Episcopalian and not be a Christian?” And I said, “Well, Father Denis, it’s easy. It’s true.”

It’s true. Most of us who are affiliated with a religion are more involved culturally than we are in terms of any deep conviction. That was my case for a number of years, until I started reading the Bible at about age 30. I lived in the Chicago suburbs at the time, and worked in the Loop at the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and I thought it would be a good idea to read the Bible because I never had read it and it’s an important part of our culture and I might learn something in the process. One of the things I learned is that if you have to ride a commuter train in and out of a major city, take a Bible with you because nobody will ever sit next to you. People will leave you alone. So I started reading the Bible as I commuted to and from work. I found it slow going in the Old Testament, so I jumped to the Gospels and it began to say something to me. From that, without any sort of born-again phenomenon, without any sort of special occasion, I became slowly, gradually, haltingly, imperfectly a disciple of a Jewish rabbi by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that relationship with Jesus has become increasingly important to me as I’ve gone through life.

I pray a lot. Most of the time my prayer is what I would call conventional prayer. In conventional prayer you’re asking all the time. You’re saying to God, “Please do this for me, or this is what I need, or would you bless this particular person.” You’re asking God for something. I think that kind of prayer is good, and I probably pray seven, eight, nine times a day, generally in my own self-interest, a characteristic of most human beings. But more recently I’ve started practicing something called contemplative prayer. If you’re praying in a contemplative manner you just keep your mouth shut. By that I mean you close the metaphorical mouth inside your head, and you listen to God. You just listen to God. Or if you’re not religious, you can listen to your conscience. The point is that you’re listening rather than talking. Most of us are afraid to do that, whether we’re listening to God or listening to our conscience, because we’re afraid we’re going to hear something that we don’t want to hear. That’s the advantage of mainstream, conventional prayer – God give me this, please give me this, please give me this, please give me this. But contemplative prayer is being silent and listening and maybe God will tell you what he (or she) wants you to do. And that may not be what you’re interested in.

An important part of my religious life, my relationship with God – with Jesus in my case – is activity and service inside my own parish. I like to do simple things, little acts of service that I can perform that help me develop a sense of humility. I, like most university presidents, have a giant-size ego. You can’t do this job without a giant-size ego. I do simple things such as serving as a lay reader or as a lay minister, administering the chalice during communion. I take communion to people who are ill and home-bound. Typically the client is dying, so you take home communion to her for three, four, five, or six years and she dies and then you take communion to another shut-in parishioner for three, four, five, or six years and he dies. It’s a good way to learn to love all of God’s children.

The second big thing in my life is my family. The most traumatic experience I ever had occurred when I was 19 and my parents, who had been married for 26 years, told me they were going to divorce. According to modern sociological literature I should have been a big boy and said, “Well, Mom and Dad, I’m sorry you can’t hang in there together anymore, but I’m 19, I’m already engaged to be married to my first (and still current) wife, and it’s not that big a deal if my parents want to divorce.” Not that big a deal? It was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me. A few years later my sister committed suicide, and to be absolutely honest with you, I was a lot more hurt by my parents’ divorce than I was by my sister’s suicide. (By the way, I felt the two were coupled.)

I married a few months after my parents divorced. I had just turned 20 – I won’t tell you how old Kathryn was – and was still young enough under Illinois law that I needed my father’s permission to marry. And it was very, very important to me that Kathryn and I build a marriage that was not going to end in divorce after 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years. So both of us have invested very, very heavily in our marriage, and it has paid enormous dividends. The point I’m trying to tell you is that out of this devastating news – I can’t tell you how I was crushed in every way by my parents’ divorce – out of that came this strong determination to make my marriage something that would last and last and be a bedrock for our children – we weren’t going to pull the rug out from under them by splitting up along the way.

Kathryn and I have a division of labor. Those of you who know my wife know that we are radically different people. It would be hard to find two people who are as different as we are, but our interests – in the 18th-century sense of that term – are congruent. That doesn’t mean we’re both interested in stamp collecting, but rather that our interests with respect to our family are congruent. We’re very different people, but we share this commonality of interests. Because of my commitment to Kathryn and her commitment to me, I have a very strong relationship with my two daughters, my son-in-law, my two grandchildren, and my mother-in-law. In fact, one time my mother-in-law and I went on a trip to Europe together, while Kathryn stayed home. You try to find another man in Los Angeles who voluntarily went to Europe with his mother-in-law – you’re going to be searching for a long time! So I’m especially close to these people – my wife, my two daughters, my son-in-law, my two grandchildren, and my mother-in-law – and I have sacrificed for them as their needs demanded. But as you’ll hear later on in the talk, my job has always been number one, and so I think I’ve treated them ill at times because of my fanatical dedication to my job. I’d have to say Parkinson’s disease, which I contracted about a year and a half ago, has helped me rethink some of those commitments.

The third thing that’s very important to me in the long term is the presidency of USC. And it’s important to me at three levels. First of all it’s important on the personal level – it’s my job. My job has always been a big thing in my life. I’ve sacrificed for my job, whatever my damn job happened to be, I’ve sacrificed family interests for my job, and my family has voluntarily sacrificed their own interests for my job. Being president of USC is a satisfying job, and one I love. Most university presidents don’t really love their jobs. They spend half their lives crawling up the mountain, only to find out when they get to the top that what you have to do as president isn’t what they want to do. But I love my job.

Being president of USC is also important to me as my contribution to higher education. I believe very much in higher education. I believe in colleges and universities. I believe they are intrinsically good things, and so I’m doing my little bit for that larger set of values by trying to be a good president at USC.

And then there’s this – I hate even to say it – but there’s also this defining role of the presidency of USC. I may not be proud of what I’m going to say next, but to a large extent being president of USC defines me for me. I’m not sure that’s healthy, but I know it’s true. The president of a university is in some ways a living symbol of that institution. You carry that mantle with you. At first you carry it as an adjunct to you, but after a while it becomes a part of you and helps define you. To a certain extent I am defined by my role as president.

The fourth and final thing I’d like to talk about as a long-term value is my teaching. I’m one of the very few presidents of a major research university in the United States who regularly teaches a course. I taught when I was executive vice-president of the University of Nebraska and president of SUNY-Buffalo, and I teach as president of USC. I told the trustees when they interviewed me for this job that I wouldn’t want to take the job unless they were comfortable with my teaching a course every year. They were a little taken aback when I explained that my teaching involved more than just a couple of lectures: it meant creating the syllabus, teaching every class, giving grades – the whole array of teaching responsibilities. They worried it would take too much of my time.

I’m a professor of engineering and typically I teach electromagnetic theory. But for the last few years I’ve been teaching a leadership course with Professor Warren Bennis, and I’ve just had a wonderful time doing that. Teaching a class does take some of my time, but it has wonderful political consequences. Faculty love it – they have a president who teaches, a president who is one of them. Parents love it. Students like it, if they know who’s president at all! My teaching has great political payback for the institution. It helps with fundraising and all my other regular responsibilities.

But really, why do I teach? I teach because I love it. I love the idea of having a group of students who are my students, who are part of my course, and for whom, at least in this one small part of their education, I bear considerable responsibility. I have a great deal of opportunity to do a super job, and I have a great deal of opportunity to really screw it up.

One of the things about teaching that makes it so different from being president of the university is what I call instant gratification or instant humiliation. In my experience, when you go into a classroom, you know right away whether you’re doing a great job or not. And if you’re doing a great job, whether it be a lecture or a discussion or even just leading students through some of their own projects, you know it and you leave the classroom on a high. It is a real high. And when you screw it up, you know you screwed it up and you feel bad about it instantly. The problem with being president is that you’re never sure on any given day whether what you’re doing is really helping the university long term or whether it will come back in five or 10 years and prove to be detrimental to the long-term interests of USC. So teaching provides that instant gratification and that connection with the student.

Now, one of the real positive things that teaching does for me as president is that it helps me keep in mind the fact that this is not a profit-seeking corporation. Some of you may think we act that way from time to time, but the fact of the matter is that while we buy and sell land, make investments, have income and expenses, and all of those kinds of corporate things, we are not a corporation and we do not have the values of a corporation. Teaching helps remind me as president that the values of a university are very, very different from the values of the typical corporation.

And finally I equate teaching in some ways with what I call an unselfish act of love. There’s a passage in the New Testament, Paul’s Hymn to Love, that speaks to this. In it, Paul says the only permanent thing in the universe is an unselfish act of love. He says that in some ways an unselfish act of love is written permanently in the mind of God, and everything else will pass away. All of our learning, all of our structures, the whole universe – everything will pass away except an unselfish act of love. And teaching done right is exactly that, exactly that. Teaching done right connects you to a permanent inscription in the mind of God.

So those are the four things that are really important to me – my religion, my family, my job, and my teaching. Now you know everything you could ever want to know about Steve Sample.