Campus News

Former UB president Steven B. Sample, credited with transforming the university into a global entity, dies at 75

Steven Sample.

Steven B. Sample. Credit: Nancy J. Parisi


Published March 30, 2016 This content is archived.

Steven B. Sample.

Photo: University Archives

Not long into his tenure as UB’s 12th president, Steven B. Sample developed a prophetic message about the university and the Buffalo Niagara region.

He would tell people – everyone from tenured professors and undergraduate students to elected officials – that UB was better than they thought. He would tell them that the university was doing world-class work, and that the City of Buffalo was loaded with hidden treasures and untapped potential. He would tell them that they could do more, and that better days were ahead.

His message and what it inspired – as the City of Buffalo undergoes an unprecedented renaissance, and with UB cementing its place as a leading public research university – rings true nearly a quarter century after Sample ended his 10-year run at the university’s helm, which lasted from 1982-91.

Sample, an innovative electrical engineer who oversaw UB’s membership into both the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) and NCAA Division I, and who later went on to become the longtime president of the University of Southern California, died Tuesday, March 29. He was 75 years old.

“Few individuals have had a greater or more lasting impact on our university, or indeed on the higher education community nationally,” UB President Satish K. Tripathi said.

“President Sample was a true innovator in the deepest and broadest sense of that term –a visionary leader whose ready embrace of new modes of thinking, competing ideas, and fresh points of view forged new pathways throughout a remarkable academic career, from his pioneering contributions as an electrical engineer and inventor, to his leadership as an accomplished and inspiring university administrator.”

(Tripathi’s full statement is available here.)

Steven B. Sample, 1981.

Photo: University Archives

Known for his inexhaustible energy and unlimited intellectual curiosity, Sample greatly expanded upon the groundwork laid by his predecessor, UB President Robert L. Ketter, who was the guiding force behind the development of North Campus. Sample left an indelible mark at UB by overseeing major campus construction, signing academic exchange agreements with institutions in Asia and Europe, and launching important initiatives to improve undergraduate life and academic experience.

"Steve’s aggressive vision put UB on the map as a formidable research institution and a meaningful partner in the Western New York community. I had the pleasure of working closely with him during my tenure at the UB Foundation, and he was the first president to truly define the role of the Foundation and guide it on a sustainable course through town and gown interactions," said Jeremy M. Jacobs, chairman of the UB Council. "He was a talented fundraiser and tremendous advocate for UB during the university’s formative years. We were sorry to lose him to California, but USC was substantially enriched by his presidency as well. We will miss him."

Under Sample's leadership, UB significantly expanded the scope of its research enterprise. Most prominently, the university gained acceptance into the AAU, composed of 62 leading research universities in North America.

UB also gained worldwide renown in the field of pattern recognition with the creation of the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR), and became a magnet for earthquake engineering research with the establishment of the first National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at UB.

“Steve was the one who actually made that happen,” said George C. Lee, who worked alongside Sample as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences while overseeing the earthquake engineering research center. “He was an incredible leader who worked tirelessly to ensure that the university raised its profile by becoming a member of the American Association of Universities.”

“He was a strong believer in establishing synergy between industry and universities. He left a legacy at UB,” said Sargur N. Srihari, SUNY Distinguished Professor in UB’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the founding director of CEDAR.

Sample also became UB’s global ambassador, routinely crisscrossing the globe to ink educational and research partnerships with leading universities in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

“Steven Sample was a visionary university leader, who recognized earlier than most the importance of global engagement and outreach,” said Stephen Dunnett, UB vice provost for international education, who often accompanied Sample on those trips. “He saw the long-term impact of UB’s pioneering initiatives in China and Southeast Asia in the 1980s, and supported the critical early stages of the university’s internationalization.”

During Sample’s tenure, UB also made the leap into NCAA Division I athletics, further raising the university’s national prominence. UB’s profile has continued to rise, especially in recent years, as its football players have become NFL stars and its basketball teams continue to make appearances in the NCAA tournament.

Numerous UB colleagues on Tuesday recalled Sample, who was known to engage in lengthy conversations – day or night – on how to best position UB as a leading public research university.

“Every day was a learning experience working with Steve. He was bursting with new ideas and always finding new ways to help UB raise its profile on national and international stages. He was a one-of-a-kind guy,” said Robert Wagner, a retired UB administrator who has worked in varying capacities with the last five UB presidents.

While at UB, Sample taught classes in electrical engineering, computer science and literature.

“He was a joy to work with because he was always working out ideas as he went along. And he was tremendously articulate at modeling his process for students to understand,” said Robert Daly, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in English and Comparative Literature, who taught Plato’s Republic with Sample.

Steven B. Sample.

Photo: University Archives

Sample’s role in Western New York extended outside of UB, as he served as chair of the Governor’s Conference on Science and Engineering Education, Research and Development, and on the board of directors for the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

Steven Browning Sample was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Nov. 29, 1940. His mother was a civic activist, and his father worked as a sales manager for an electric motor company. He married his college sweetheart, Kathryn Brunkow of Park Ridge, Illinois, while both were undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After earning three electrical engineering degrees – a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD, all by the age of 24 – he took as job with Melpar, Inc., a research and development firm in Virginia, where he led research on the Gemini-7 space flight laser communicator program, and also “conducted extensive studies of laser wave propagation through turbulent atmospheres” for NASA.

He accepted a faculty position at Purdue University in 1966, where he specialized in the field of electrohydrodynamics. As his career at Purdue progressed, he built a reputation in electrical engineering, publishing numerous articles and developing several patents, including digital appliance controls and touch pads used in more than 300 million microwave ovens and other home appliances worldwide.

He continued his academic career at the University of Nebraska, where he taught upper-level courses in electromagnetic theory and linear system theory, while serving concurrently as executive vice president for academic affairs and dean of the graduate college.

Following his 10 years at UB, Sample joined USC in 1991 becoming the institution’s 1oth president. At USC, Sample led the university as it made immense strides forward in terms of its academic prestige, community partnerships, and overall development.

During his tenure, USC rose in the college rankings, grew an increasingly diverse student body, and was named “College of the Year 2000” by Time magazine/Princeton Review. Endowed chairs and professorships rose and the university conducted a $2.85 billion fundraising campaign, becoming the first university to receive five gifts of $100 million or more.

“So many of USC's successes, so much of our university's current stature, can be traced back to Dr. Sample's dynamic leadership, keen foresight and extraordinary prudence,” said current USC President C.L. Max Nikias, who received from UB his master’s degree, in 1980, and PhD, in 1982, and considered Sample a role model.

Sample made the Los Angeles Times’ best-seller list with his book “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.” He worked to achieve educational reforms in Los Angeles schools, has served as chairman of the AAU as well as on several AAU policy committees, and founded the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU).

He received numerous awards, including in 2004 UB’s highest honor, the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, which is given in public recognition of an individual who has “performed some great thing which is identified with Buffalo…a great civic or political act, a great book, a great work of art, a great scientific achievement, or any other thing which, in itself, is truly great and ennobling, and which dignifies the performer and Buffalo in the eyes of the world.”

A member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sample received honorary doctorates from Canisius College (1989), D’Youville College (2011), Hebrew Union College (1994), Northeastern University (2004), Purdue (1994), UB (2006), the University of Nebraska (1995), the University of Notre Dame (2005) and the University of Sheffield, England (1991).

Sample is survived by his wife, Kathryn Brunkow Sample, daughters Michelle Sample Smith and Elizabeth Sample, son-in-law Kirk Smith and grandchildren Kathryn and Andrew Smith.


President Sample often told the assembled department chairs at our monthly meetings in the Center for Tomorrow, "I don't ask anyone to do anything I'm not willing to do myself." Then he would tell us how great UB was but how much greater we could be.  "Now go back to your departments and lead your faculty to that future greatness." We left those meetings energized, full of ideas and proud to be a member of the UB family.


I learned so many lessons about academic life and what it means to be a leader from President Sample. I will treasure my memories of time spent on the fifth floor of Capen Hall working with this great man, his shirt sleeves rolled up, full of enthusiasm and marvelous vision for UB and the City of Buffalo.


Maria Runfola

Cory Nealon's Steve Sample tribute was extraordinary. The late President Sample not only set a high standard on campus, but at the same time influenced all of Western New York into a new belief in itself -- always a brisk flow in the air when he was on site. There has never been such a Western New York campus personality involved in education and at the same time promoting the region nationally.


When he lectured, people listened and learned. At second base he even raised the playing level of the Random Samples softball team on campus.


Dick Baldwin, UB employee, 1968-98.

My thoughts and prayers to Kathryn Sample. I was a lowly medical student doing a surgery rotation at Millard Fillmore where she was the nurse to a renowned surgeon. She always treated us with great kindness and respect.


Stella Pierre

He was a truly remarkable man. A cut above, with humility that made you feel like you were the only person in the room. Best Reporter piece in years.


Jim Everett