The most striking examples of Chuck and Gwen Lillis transforming the University of Oregon are easy to spot.
Take the Lillis Business Complex, a game changer for the Lundquist College of Business. This superlative center of learning—and one of the UO’s most sustainably built—is a campus landmark, the gold (and green) standard for university buildings. Volcanology, once a program sitting on tremendous potential, has erupted to quickly become a global center of excellence, thanks to the Lillis family’s investments.
The Lillises have also contributed to UO athletics, scholarships, theater arts, and more. And they’ve generously given their time over the years: they ask questions, listen, and challenge people to accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
On campus, Gwen and Chuck are just as likely to be seen working among students in the business college atrium as they are to be found in a board room. They’ve counseled countless UO leaders, deans, faculty members, and students.
In 2014, Chuck Lillis’s leadership as inaugural chair of the Board of Trustees ushered in a new governance model—and a new era—for the university. When he stepped down from the board in June, he wrapped up eight years of service that helped boost the UO’s academic reputation and set the university on a better trajectory. Lillis will continue his support of the university as a new member of the Knight Campus External Advisory Board.
The first in his family to attend college, Lillis earned his PhD in marketing from the university in 1972. He began working in academia—at one point he was dean of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder—and the corporate world, eventually joining US West.
In the early 1990s, he predicted cable television lines would provide internet and phone service. Some say he was prescient. Lillis says he simply listened to the experts and swung where the ball was heading.
By 1995, he was CEO and chairman of MediaOne, a US West spin-off devoted to his vision. It quickly grew into a Fortune 100 company.
Gwen recently retired from the Lundquist College of Business Board of Advisors after a tenure of nearly two decades. Serving much of that time as chair, she provided a steady hand during transitions in leadership. She was also a trustee with the University of Oregon Foundation from 2003 to 2013, acting as chair during the 2008–9 school year, a key period in the UO’s transition to a local governing board.
Gwen earned her PhD from Northwestern University, taught as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado business school, and was managing general partner of Castle Rock Investment Company of Colorado. She is chair of the Lillis Foundation, which provides access to educational opportunities and helps vulnerable segments of society.
The reasons philanthropists invest in the UO are as diverse as their interests, Gwen says, but one thing inspires them all: excellence.
“Donors want to improve something or create something new,” she adds. “I hope the university continues to focus on building areas of excellence.”
For Gwen, the best part of serving on the Lundquist College board was meeting students and learning about their academic projects. For the university, her dual background in business and higher education was invaluable. She inspired deans and board members to aim high and helped the Lundquist College expand its Portland presence.
“I don’t think it’s the easiest thing in the world for businesspeople to understand universities,” Gwen says. “They are very different worlds. Having some understanding of both has allowed me to be a bridge between the two. Universities tend to think more incrementally, rather than starting with a clean sheet of paper. They sometimes need encouragement to think big.”
Chuck and Gwen Lillis listen, lead, and dare the university to be great
“The Lillises made it possible for the UO to become a premier volcanology institution in the US,” Josef Dufek says. Their gift enables Dufek and the Department of Earth Sciences to recruit top faculty and graduate students—and try innovative ideas.
“Our work advances our understanding of the fundamental science, and we train scientists who go on to conduct their own research and work for federal agencies, universities, and industry,” he says. “Ultimately, these efforts will help us make communities safer.”
Josef Dufek, Gwen and Charles Lillis Chair Director, Center for Volcanology
Uncommon Aspirations Meet Common Sense
“We have a passionate group of people who are committed to the Lundquist College of Business,” says Merritt Richardson, who served on the college’s board of advisors with Gwen Lillis. “Gwen has deftly guided the board, transforming that passion into good decision-making.”
Gwen’s experience in business and academia helps, says Richardson, as does her perspective and diplomacy.
“I’ve been impressed with Gwen’s ability to distill strategic themes from complex discussions,” Richardson says. “She helps deans and board members balance ambition with pragmatism—and stay future-focused.
“Gwen and Chuck have offered their knowledge and resources because they genuinely care about advancing the university and giving students an excellent experience.”
Merritt Richardson Instructor, Sports Product Management Former Vice President, Global Golf Apparel, Nike
“Gwen’s leadership on the Lundquist College of Business Board of Advisors has been absolutely stunning,” says Roger Best, whose friendship with the Lillises spans nearly fifty years. “She’s very organized—and very strategic. Gwen is a good listener and a quiet leader. She nurtured and developed that board.
“Her leadership was very effective. Gwen played an important role in increasing the board’s donations by millions of dollars. And she led by example.”
Roger Best, PhD ’75 (marketing), Professor Emeritus of Marketing
“Chuck could see our future before we did,” Mike Andreasen says. “And he was patient enough for us to catch up alongside him.”
Andreasen credits Lillis for helping to develop the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health—both examples of uniting top researchers from different disciplines to make discoveries. And he says Gwen Lillis inspired entrepreneurial thinking at the Lundquist College of Business.
“Over the years, Chuck and Gwen have dared us to be great and expected nothing short of excellence—from our university, people, and programs,” Andreasen says. “They figure out how to get people to work beyond their own understanding of what they can accomplish.”
Mike Andreasen, Vice President for University Advancement
—By Ed Dorsch, BA ’94 (English, sociology), MA ’99 (journalism), University Communications
—Lundquist College of Business Board of Advisors photo by Jack Liu