Phil Knight, UO philanthropist, icon receives honorary degree

Phil Knight

An honorary doctorate was conferred on Philip H. Knight during the live webcast of the University of Oregon’s commencement celebration Saturday, June 20.

On the strength of nominations put forward by several faculty members, approval by a committee made up of faculty and students, a vote of the University Senate and upon the recommendation of UO President Michael H. Schill,  the UO Board of Trustees voted to present an honorary doctorate of philosophy to Knight, who earned his bachelor’s in business administration at the UO in 1959 and went on to co-found Nike.

“To summarize the impact Mr. Knight has had on our society is a nearly impossible task,” Schill wrote in his recommendation to the board of trustees. “Mr. Knight is a terrific example of spirit, creativity, hard work and generosity of time, talent, and treasure” who “changed the way business and marketing have been conducted forever,” wrote Schill, who presented the honor to Knight during the commencement webcast.

“I cannot imagine an alumnus who has had a great an impact on the world, our state, and our university as Phil Knight,” said Schill, showing the degree on screen. “For Phil, leadership is about dedicating everything one has to the pursuit of excellence. I can think of no one I’d rather honor on a day that we celebrate our graduates, who this year themselves have had to push hard through adversity to cross the finish line.”

Knight immediately credited his track coach, teacher, business partner and mentor Bill Bowerman for his successes in life. “The impact of a teacher, from the University of Oregon, was as great as it could possibly be,” he said, before praising another athlete.

“I’m eternally grateful. But on this day, this award will be overwhelmed by your keynote speaker, Sabrina Ionescu. She’s not just a basketball player, she’s inspiration personified.”

Before there was a Nike, there was Blue Ribbon Sports Inc., a partnership founded in 1964 on a handshake between Knight and Bowerman. Their shared passion for helping athletes reach their full potential, combined with a business plan that Knight wrote while earning his MBA at Stanford University, gave rise to the world’s largest sports and fitness company.

Decades of visionary gifts made by Knight and his wife, Penny, reflect the foresight — and the expectation of becoming the best — that is exemplified in their philanthropic impact at the UO, Stanford and Oregon Health & Science University.

At the UO alone, the generous hands of the Knights have helped build excellence from the main library building to scholarships, from faculty support to athletic facilities. The innovative, forward-thinking philosophy behind each gift helped transform the lives of two generations of students and faculty members and create opportunities for the people of Oregon.

An astonishing $500 million gift for the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact seeded a vision to dramatically shorten the timeline between discovery and societal impact with research, training and entrepreneurship in a nimble scientific enterprise.

Previous gifts were jet fuel for the university’s academic enterprise, beginning with more than 30 endowed chairs and professorships across all disciplines, expansion of the UO’s research library and construction of the William W. Knight Law Center, as well as support for the Miller Theatre Complex, scholarships, programs, and teaching and research.

Those gifts, along with the well-known athletic facilities and programs made possible by the Knights, reflect another passion shared by Phil Knight and his track coach: a burning desire for the state of Oregon to have, and to become, the best. The reimagined Hayward Field is certainly that, a world-class track and field facility.

For his contributions to business, corporate and philanthropic leadership, Knight was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015.

“His election is a reflection of the high level of respect and admiration that members of the academy have for his leadership in business and philanthropy,” said then-association President Geraldine Richmond, UO Presidential Chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “Members from a broad spectrum of disciplines, including those in the humanities, arts, sciences, law and public policy, have chosen him as one of the elite new fellows.”

At the UO, honorary degrees are rare. Nominations are reviewed by the Honorary Degree and Distinguished Service Awards Committee and forwarded to the University Senate for a vote. The university president then selects from the approved nominations and brings a recommendation to the board of trustees for action.

Knight is the 28th person to receive the honor since the UO’s founding in 1876. Past recipients include philanthropist Lorry I. Lokey; Mark O. Hatfield, a U.S. senator and Oregon’s 29th governor; Corazon Aquino, the first female president of the Philippines; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; Helmuth Rilling, founder of the Oregon Bach Festival and twenty individuals who were students in 1942 who were ordered into internment campus under Executive Order 9066. Artist Carrie Mae Weems and award-winning filmmaker James F. Ivory, a 1951 graduate, also have been nominated for honorary doctorates and will receive them next year.

—By Melody Ward Leslie, University Communications