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Steven Sample’s leadership transformed UB into a top-flight institution

Steven B. Sample set the standard for university presidents. The impact he made in Western New York, and repeated in California, is legendary.

His tireless work and staunch refusal to accept anything less than excellence for the University at Buffalo put the college on the higher education map.

Sample died Tuesday at age 75.

He is highly regarded at UB, where he transformed a sleepy campus into one of the state’s powerhouses, and at the University of Southern California, where he later did the same thing.

It seemed as if no achievement was out of reach for the man or the campuses he administered.

During his nine-year tenure here as president, UB was invited into the Association of American Universities and NCAA Division I athletics. He also established a high-tech business incubator, created a dozen state and federal research centers and put the university on the global map, where it remains.

He left the region in 1991 to become president of USC, where he gained wide recognition for helping transform the private college into an academic powerhouse in his 19 years.

Sample had a tendency to reach beyond expectations and produce results. Numerous colleagues were quick to praise his excellence while also making sure to convey his compassion. He had a brilliance that allowed him, as an electrical engineer, to invent various types of digital control panels, including the touch pad on microwaves being used all over the world.

When he arrived in Buffalo in 1982 from the University of Nebraska, where he was executive vice president for academic affairs, things were about to change, for the institution and for the region.

Sample employed a unique solution to what he viewed as UB’s image problem. He wanted the world to know about the campus he intended on transforming into a top 10 public research university. So he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times telling the world that UB was the finest public university in the state.

He is remembered by former colleagues here as a man who worked tirelessly – and expected the same of others – as a way to improve the university and therefore the entire region. He was also known as a man who cared about people, never brash but always treating staff like family members. It’s a style of leadership that could usefully be adopted elsewhere, in public and private life.

Sample made this a better place to be, and for that we may all be grateful.