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My President

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

There's an old story about a Harvard professor who gets a call from the president (of the United States) and responds that his president is the president of Harvard.

Being a professor at Harvard is like that. Academics in Cambridge are a big deal; Harvard is an amazing place; and if you're lucky enough to make it there, you generally never leave. Why would you?

I left for the University of Southern California 20 years ago. It was not an obvious move at the time, unless you were a football coach. But I was pregnant with my daughter, and short of delivering at O'Hare, it was time to stop commuting.

My only previous experience at USC was when we stopped there during the 1984 presidential campaign. Vice President Mondale's appearance was cut short when fraternity boys started throwing tomatoes. Not an auspicious introduction. But the dean of the law school offered me a chair, a parking space and a personal assistant, and more money than the budget-strained folks at UCLA, so I jumped in the pool.

Steve Sample came the next year.

The riots were the next year.

On Monday, Sample announced his retirement after 19 years as president of USC. If you ever wonder whether sustained strong leadership can change institutions, look at USC. He did.

I should note that the law school was, even when I arrived, well-regarded among academics and professionals. But the joke was that you could only get so high in academic ratings (as opposed to, say, sports rankings) with USC at the beginning of your name.

The college was not so well-regarded, and universities are judged by their undergraduate programs. When Sample came, USC accepted 70 percent of all applicants. People would call me; I'd pick up the phone. Done. Easy. Today, USC gets three times as many applicants as it used to and accepts only a third as many of those. The days of the party school in the bad neighborhood -- the reputation the school used to have -- are over.

Steve Sample did a number of things extraordinarily well. Spectacular doesn't begin to describe his fundraising skills. There was, for all intents and purposes, no endowment before him. The campus was made for cars, with more parking lots than anything else. I can't count the number of new buildings erected in the past 19 years. Equally impressive is the number of times I've switched parking spaces, as more and more hardtop turns green.

He was also the most enthusiastic salesman and promoter of a university that I've ever seen. He convinced the media that something big was happening at USC. He convinced the alumni to buy into a plan that would make it tougher for their own kids to get in, which it has. (As it turned out, more of those kids wanted to come to USC, and more of the alums wanted to send them, so the percentage of legacies actually went up as the school got better.) He cut the size of the freshman class, raised the standards, started giving out merit scholarships to the top students, vastly expanded the faculty, rewarded entrepreneurship of the academic variety, and unleashed an explosion of energy and innovation on campus.

He believed that a private university has an obligation to the surrounding community. In the midst of the riots, there were stories of rich parents sending helicopters to pick up sorority girls. The truth is, absolutely nothing on campus was touched by the riots. Almost 19 years later, the neighborhood is up-and-coming, and the Trojan family is more diverse and more international than it ever was -- all while retaining the sense of close-knit connections that makes it unique.

Most university presidents don't make it past 10 years these days. USC picked the right guy 20 years ago, and then they gave him the time and the support to change the face of a university.

Sorry, Barack, but Steve Sample is my president, and I have been very lucky for that.

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