Nike Co-Founder Phil Knight Gives $500 Million for University of Oregon Science Center

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By Melissa Korn

The University of Oregon is launching a new science campus, backed by a $500 million gift from Nike Inc. co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny.

The Knight gift is the largest ever for a public flagship institution, according to university officials, and tied for the family's biggest to a school.

In coming years, the university expects to build three research facilities across from its current science complex in Eugene, Ore., hire 30 new research scientists and add spots for 250 graduate students and 150 postdoctoral researchers.

"This is a seminal moment for the University of Oregon, an inflection point that will shape the trajectory of the university and this state for the next century and beyond," President Michael Schill said in a press release.

In 2013, the Knights announced a $500 million matched gift for cancer research to the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland; the school met the challenge last year. And in February, they announced a $400 million donation to Stanford University for a graduate scholars program.

So-called mega-gifts to colleges have become more commonplace in recent years, particularly at institutions like Harvard University and Stanford. Each of those schools netted more than $1 billion in donations last year alone, anchored by a handful of nine-figure donations. But such massive gifts are still relatively rare at public universities.

"There's been a lot of discussion about these gifts going from the top 1% to the top 1%. This is a wonderful antidote to the criticism," Mr. Schill said in an interview, noting that more than one-third of Oregon undergraduates are considered low income.

Separately, the White House released statistics Monday showing that 73.8% of Oregon students graduated from high school last year, one of the lowest graduation rates in the country. The national rate is 83.2%.

Mr. Schill said one of his early goals when becoming president 15 months ago was to expand the research capacity of the institution, which doesn't have its own medical school. The school approached the Knight family about a gift to back a proposed science center, and Mr. Schill said he was stunned by the amount they offered.

Mr. Knight said the investment was intended to address funding problems in basic scientific research and public higher education. Such financial woes "threaten to choke off opportunities to enhance standards of living, " he said.

"Collaborative scientific research is a comparative strength at the University of Oregon, and with appropriate support could develop into a major center of excellence and a national treasure," Mr. Knight added.

Patrick Phillips, acting executive director of the new campus, said the gift will allow Oregon to attract high- caliber scientists interested in interdisciplinary and practical research. Improved faculty recruiting could, in turn, help the school appeal to more science-minded students. The new campus is expected to have research opportunities for 150 undergraduates.

The school is aiming to open the first new building in three years, and have the entire program in full operation in a decade.

"It gives us an opportunity to rethink the shape of the modern research university, where the boundaries between fields are really starting to erode," he said.

  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
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