It should come as no surprise that Phil Knight's name is among those nominated to serve on the soon-to-be-formed board for the University of Oregon. After all, it appears he's already calling a lot of shots for the university and the state (such as it is) system of higher education.
Knight, founder and CEO of Nike, was among the 45 names submitted to Gov. John Kitzhaber last week as the governor prepares to appoint new boards for Oregon, Oregon State and Portland State. That certainly seems to make sense as it was evident in the university's push for independence that the principal motivation was the ability to raise more money. And no one has given more money to the Ducks than Phil Knight, something in the vicinity of $400 million, according to various estimates.
The creation of the board is part of a "governance" change for the Oregon University System in which the "Big 3" — Oregon, OSU and PSU — will be run by local boards and smaller schools such as Southern Oregon University apparently will be able to do the same at some point in the future. The squishiness of the latter part of that sentence is evidence of the fact that this was a change engineered by the big schools.
Knight's latest donation is the university's spanking new Football Performance Center — price tag $68 million. It is a thing of beauty if you're a rabid Duck football fan: glass and chrome and leather and art and meeting rooms that probably have caused some Fortune 500 executives to call their designers and demand a do-over.
Now, we're as happy as anyone in the state when the Duck's football team roars past its opponents on its way to another BCS bowl (before you start yowling, Beavers, we're equally happy when OSU does the same). But to us, the Football Performance Center is emblematic of everything that is wrong with big-time college football.
Spending $68 million on a football palace is obscene in a state in which only 2 of 10 needy Oregonian students can get state help through the Oregon Opportunity Grants for low- and middle-income families. We have a university system that is increasingly unaffordable for students and yet we have a rock-wall-lined hydrotherapy room for football coaches (not players — coaches).
To be fair, Knight has been generous to UO in areas other than sports, although sports leads the recipient list by several laps. There are rumblings out of Salem that the man from Nike is about to drop another huge payday on the Ducks — and that the payday was contingent on the state approving the new governance model that sets up the individual boards.
We can only hope that if that payday comes, some of it would go toward helping the university become more affordable rather than merely toward helping the football team run up more points on the next Tennessee Tech.