University of Oregon President Michael Schill came to Eugene 15 months ago with a vision. He brought together faculty from multiple disciplines and told them to dream big, as if money were no concern. The result of this vision may create a paradigm shift in scientific research.
The Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact is funded by the largest single financial endowment to a public university in history — a $500 million donation given to the UO Foundation by the Knights.
“The initial idea was to consider how the impact of scientific research done on campus could be amplified,” said Karen Guillemin, a biology professor and member of the initial group. “When we were doing this planning, it seemed like a complete pie in the sky, so the actual reality that we got the gift was pretty mind blowing.”
Public universities rarely receive gifts on this scale. Earlier this year, Knight gave $400 million to Stanford as the founding gift for the Knight-Hennessey Scholars Program. In 2015, he gave OHSU $500 million on the condition it raise another $500 million. Last year, John Paulson, an American hedge fund manager, donated $400 million to his alma mater, Harvard, to support its engineering school.
This donation gives UO a chance to branch out in new ways. UO is breaking from the traditional mold with a focus on how the science is done as opposed to why.
“The scale of the gift is unprecedented,” said Patrick Phillips, the acting executive director of the Knight Campus. “These are gifts we are used to seeing going to Stanford, Harvard or CalTech … It makes you think, ‘What does this mean for UO?’”
The UO Foundation could have built and staffed a medical or engineering school, focusing on a specific science. Instead, it chose to reinvest in the culture of innovation at UO.
According to chemistry professor Jim Hutchison, even in the early stages of planning, the idea of building an engineering or medical school was never a consideration. The UO wanted to build upon existing strengths of the university — using fundamental science to help inform public policy, shape new technologies and solve social issues.
“We laid a foundation for this already and this gift really helps us put that on steroids,” Hutchison said.
The university started the initial conversation with the Knights over the winter of 2015 and got a response in spring. The university and the Knights signed a formal gift agreement on Oct. 8, 2016.
When scientists make discoveries, they do deliberate things to translate those ideas, Hutchison said, and those translations have impacts that emerge in two ways: as ideas for new research projects or resources that help draw research grants. This is called an impact cycle.
“Each time you cycle through that impact cycle, it gets stronger and stronger,” Hutchison said. “That was the idea we pitched … Our emphasis on that impact is what we took to [the Knights].”
The Knight Campus is designed to maintain excellent research while improving the applications of new findings for practical use.
The Knight Campus proposes a new way to approach scientific discovery: one that is focused on the how — incubating ideas and innovations broadly rather than working toward a specific goal.
“We have been so rooted in fundamental science we didn’t want to anchor ourselves to only one way to solve, but a whole way of knowing and doing,” Hutchison said. “This will change the culture of how we do science here. It’ll have the biggest impact because we are focusing on the process, the methods by which everybody does this across many different topics, rather than focusing on just one problem.”
The feeling a new era is emerging in Eugene is felt nationwide as major publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have published stories about the historic donation.
“People are wildly enthusiastic about it,” Bill Harbaugh, Faculty Senate president, said about the atmosphere on campus. “It’s a huge amount for a very sensible thing.”
Some faculty were notified before the announcement.
“They tell people a few days in advance, swear you to secrecy kind of thing,” Harbaugh said. “[It’s] standard practice, makes people feel closer to the center.”
Thanks to the magnitude of the gift, the university has the opportunity to grow without taking away from any other areas such as English or music education, Phillips said.
“The other really important thing about this gift is that it’s big enough to be completely self-funding,” Phillips said. “No existing resources on campus are going to be used to support this.”
This is not the Knights’ first contribution to the university; the name is on multiple campus buildings. In 1994, the library gained the Knight name after a $27 million renovation was partly covered by the Knights. In 1996 they donated $10 million toward building the William W. Knight Law Center across from Hayward Field. In the same year they donated $15 million toward the Knight Endowed Chairs and Professorships.
The Knights have donated even more generously to the athletic department. They donated $30 million for the renovation of Autzen Stadium in 2002, $41 million for the Jaqua Center in 2010, $100 million to build Matthew Knight Arena in 2011, $68 million for the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex and the Football Operations Center in 2013 and $19 million for the new Mariota Sports Performance Complex.
With the Knights’ history of giving, the university was expecting a contribution soon; it just didn’t have a plan.
“People knew Phil Knight was going to give money at some point, but there’s been so much turnover in administration, nobody had come up with a coherent plan on how it would benefit the university,” Harbaugh said. “No donor is going to give a few hundred thousand as a ‘trust me’ without a plan.”
The plan for the Knight Campus is to set a new benchmark for university research.
“Every single student, every single staff member, every single faculty member should be excited and proud about what’s going on,” Phillips said. “This does draw recognition to the university that is unprecedented.”