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Former UB president Steven Sample led others to achieve lofty goals

The University at Buffalo was invited into the Association of American Universities and NCAA Division I athletics during Steven B. Sample’s nine-year tenure as president. By the time Sample left Western New York in 1991 to become president of the University of Southern California, UB had established a high-tech business incubator, created a dozen state and federal research centers and become an increasingly global presence.

But perhaps his biggest legacy was convincing faculty, staff and whoever would listen that the university was a far better institution than they were willing to admit.

“The process was that we began to believe. We believed in our destiny. He lifted us up. He lifted our sights,” said Carole Petro, who worked as Sample’s chief assistant during the 1980s. “He instilled in us the sense that we could become a premier university.”

Sample died Tuesday at age 75 in California, where he was widely known for helping transform USC into an academic powerhouse during his 19 years as president of the private university in Los Angeles.

In Western New York, Sample also was credited with pushing UB to new heights.

Current UB President Satish K. Tripathi described Sample as a true innovator and visionary leader whose efforts in expanding the scope of the university’s research enterprise have had an enduring impact on the university.

“His gift for thinking in broad and bold strokes has played a major role in advancing each university that he has been part of, as well as enriching higher education writ large,” said Tripathi. “In all that he undertook, Dr. Sample was an unconventional and staunchly independent thinker who deeply valued and nurtured differing perspectives and fresh ideas from across every corner of the university community and beyond.”

UB Council Chairman and Delaware North Chairman Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr. issued a statement calling Sample a “tremendous advocate for UB during the university’s formative years.”

“Steve’s aggressive vision put UB on the map as a formidable research institution and a meaningful partner in the Western New York community,” said Jacobs, who worked closely with Sample as a trustee on the UB Foundation.

An electrical engineer who invented various types of digital control panels, including the touch pad on microwaves used all over the world, Sample arrived in Buffalo in 1982 from the University of Nebraska, where he was executive vice president for academic affairs.

He quickly assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the university and pursued a strategy to improve its image, inside UB and beyond. In his desire to bolster UB’s stature and prominence, Sample rarely thought small. He often stated a goal of turning UB into a top 10 public research university. Some faculty remembered his paying for a full-page ad in the New York Times to declare that UB was the finest public university in the state.

“He always wanted us to move in circles not of our peers, but of our betters,” said Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education at UB.

It was under Sample that UB’s international presence took off, particularly in China and the Pacific Rim region.

“He saw a rising China long before others. He saw a lot of potential there,” said Dunnett. “And he saw that there were people here who could make that happen.”

Sample’s vision sometimes was audacious. When he learned that the Toronto Zoo had received a panda as a gift from the Chinese government, he woke up Dunnett with a late-night phone call asking how they were going to get a panda for the Buffalo Zoo.

Dunnett tried to explain how it was a political and diplomatic gesture toward the Canadian government, not simply a gift to a zoo.

“He didn’t want to hear it. He said try harder, talk to your Chinese friends,” Dunnett recalled.

Late phone calls, weekend meetings and long hours were common for Sample, who demanded a similar commitment from his staff.

Muriel A. Howard, who worked for Sample in the president’s office before eventually becoming president of SUNY Buffalo State, remembers being the staff person who had to rouse people from their slumbers with the late calls.

“I’d say, ‘Steve, it’s one o’clock in the morning,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, he should be home,’ ” said Howard, who currently is president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. “But he was that kind of guy. You wanted to do it. You wanted to be part of it. It didn’t seem arduous or taxing.”

D. Bruce Johnstone, whose presidency of Buffalo State and chancellorship of SUNY coincided with Sample’s tenure at UB, said Sample’s work to get UB invited into AAU, a group of 62 leading public and private research universities, was probably his crowning achievement.

“Steve set his sights appropriately and aggressively on reaching that level of what I would call the great Midwestern universities,” said Johnstone, a frequent opponent of Sample on the tennis court. “He was, I think, appropriately aggressive and maybe academically brash is not a bad term.”

But Sample was never brash with people. He treated staff like family members and despite some disagreements with faculty about the direction of the university, he rarely became embroiled in the kind of bruising academic or political quarrels that sometimes doom initiatives.

“He never seemed to get into those types of big fights and yet he got stuff done,” said Richard Tobe, now New York’s upstate economic development coordinator, who worked closely with Sample in his role as an advisor to state Assemblyman William Hoyt in the 1980s. “That, to me, was his genius.”