A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Golden Graduate Assistantship

Back in the day, when I was a Ph.D. student at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB), I applied for a graduate assistantship in the Office of the President. This was a dream assignment because of the opportunity to work with Dr. Steven B. Sample, who assumed that position in 1982 at the the relatively young age of 41 (the average age of US university presidents in 1987 was 52), and the then generous stipend of very low five figures a year (wow!), plus the standard tuition scholarship. There were two (2) positions available for which over 40 people applied, as I recall. It was like applying for a full-time job. A detailed application, glowing letters of recommendation, and a couple of successful interviews did the trick for me and one other lucky Ph.D. student.

Steven B. Sample, USC’s 10th president, led the university from 1991 to 2010. (Photo/Philip Channing) Courtesy of USC

I enjoyed the work, which consisted of drafting speeches for Dr. Sample, conducting research for policy statements, preparing materials for meetings, and responding to constituent inquiries, among other tasks. One of the perks of the job was having my own office on the 5th floor of Capen Hall, the university’s main administration building. It was a rare chance to work with a rising star among US university presidents, mostly indirectly, and with his staff, at a state university that was in the ascendancy at the time. Sample’s hallmark achievement at UB was its election to the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) in 1989.

The University at Buffalo (UB) still views itself as the flagship institution of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. At the other end of the state on Long Island, Stony Brook University would beg to differ. Suffice it to say that they’re both top 100 universities with their own unique set of strengths, tied for 93rd in the latest US News & World Report ranking, and tied at 38 among top public schools.

Sample served in that position from 1982 to 1991, after which he and his family left for Los Angeles, where he assumed the position of USC president until his retirement in 2010. USC chose well. A short six years later, he died at the age of 75. The subtitle to his 2016 USC obituary summarizes one of his main contributions to that university: The visionary educator led the university from 1991 to 2010 and helped launch it into the ranks of the nation’s elite research institutions. Sample helped to raise more than $430 million for sponsored research and conducted the second most successful fundraising campaign in the history of higher education, generating nearly $3 billion.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg had this to say about Sample and his legacy: While he left behind very big footprints, he gleefully encouraged others to fill them as President Nikias has done and will continue to do. I’ll miss Steve, but just walking around campus, you can feel him everywhere.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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