President Michael H. Schill and Phil Knight

Giving Back in a Big Way

Giving Back in a Big Way

Giving Back in a Big Way

Penelope and Philip Hampson Knight, BBA ’59

Penelope and Philip Hampson Knight, BBA ’59

Penelope and Philip Hampson Knight, BBA ’59

If you’ve read Shoe Dog, you know that Penny and Phil Knight lived modestly while white-knuckling it through many lean years before Nike went public and morphed into the swoosh worn around the world. Even so, as soon as they were able, they began giving back to the UO in a big way.

Following a major gift to renovate Hayward Field in 1990, the Knights focused on strengthening the UO’s teaching and research mission. In 1994, they made the lead gift for the most pressing need on campus, a massive expansion and overhaul of the main library, which could not have gone forward without their help. The following year, they funded more than 30 Philip H. Knight professorships and chairs, a masterstroke designed to fight off deep-pocketed schools that routinely raided the UO’s rising stars. At the same time, they also made the lead gift to build a proper home for the state’s only public law school.

Knight Library
Knight Law Center

Many other gifts for academics flew under the radar, low-key or even anonymous. Sometimes you find clues. Scholarships named for family and friends. Two seats with tiny brass plaques, side by side, in the venerable Robinson Theatre, renovated in 2004 as part of the ambitious James F. Miller Theatre Complex. If you squint, you can make out “Phil Knight” on one and “Penny Knight” on the other.

The world knows all about more recent gifts that helped propel Phil’s beloved Ducks out of obscurity—from expanding Autzen Stadium to new facilities that are the envy of Division I schools everywhere. What many are unaware of, however, is that these came after the Knights reached out to steady and strengthen the UO’s academic mission during its darkest hours. It seems unthinkable now, but cutbacks in state funding during the 1980s had forced the closure of several nationally acclaimed academic programs, driving outstanding professors away from our state and threatening the UO’s membership in the elite Association of American Universities (AAU).

In the process, the Knights’ generosity inspired more than 100,000 alumni and friends to power three record-setting fundraising campaigns (including this one). Led by Phil and Penny, these donors helped the UO faculty achieve the longstanding goal to gain Carnegie “Tier One” status, accorded only to research institutions designated as having “highest research activity,” in 2010.

“It’s simply true that the UO would not be among the nation’s leading public universities today without Phil and Penny’s well-timed investments during the last four decades,” said Mike Andreasen, vice president for advancement. “Their stunning generosity, combined with gifts from thousands who share their unbridled passion for this university, is elevating Oregon to a new level of excellence.”

Group photo of Phil Knight, Michael Schill, Paul Weinhold, Michael Andreasen, Chuck Lillis, Penny Knight, and Gwen Lillis 
Phil Knight walking with President Michael Schill
Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman from a Japanese magazine
Phil Knight by the William K Knight Law Center sign

For all time to come, Phil and Penny’s visionary philanthropy, motivated by a fierce loyalty to their home state, will continue to enrich the lives of every UO student while benefitting their fellow Oregonians and contributing to the greater good.

The magnificent buildings made possible by Phil and Penny are named for people they hold dear: their mothers (Hatfield-Dowlin Complex) his father (William W. Knight Law Center), the extended family (Knight Library), a memorial for their son (Matthew Knight Arena), a cherished friend and adviser (John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes), and a role model for the ages (Marcus Mariota Sports Performance Center). Not one carries the first names of the university’s biggest, boldest benefactors.

Until now.

 
The Track and Field Days
The Track and Field Days
The Track and Field Days

Legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman watching as five distance runners, including Phil Knight (second from left), enter a turn on the practice track near Hayward Field in 1959.
Legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman watching as five distance runners, including Phil Knight (second from left), enter a turn on the practice track near Hayward Field in 1959.

Former University of Oregon sprinter and Olympian Mack Robinson with nine members of the 1959 Duck track and field team, including Phil Knight (front row, second from left), at Hayward Field.
Former University of Oregon sprinter and Olympian Mack Robinson with nine members of the 1959 Duck track and field team, including Phil Knight (front row, second from left), at Hayward Field.