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Book on Nike's Influence at University of Oregon

October 22, 2018

Pacific Standard last week published an article that was adapted from a forthcoming book by Joshua Hunt, a journalist, on the influence Nike has wielded over the University of Oregon. The book is titled University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education (Melville House).

The in-depth magazine article goes back two decades and more to track the relationship between Phil Knight, Nike's co-founder and an Oregon alumnus, and Dave Frohnmayer, a former president of the university who died in 2015. Knight has long been a mega-donor to the university. Frohnmayer, a former Oregon attorney general, pursued Knight's donations in the '90s and early '00s, as the state disinvested in the flagship university. That money often came with strings, however, according to the article, as Nike increasingly exerted influence over the university while using it as a testing ground for the company's apparel business.

In the meantime, Oregon invested heavily in its football program, which is now a national powerhouse, sometimes to the detriment of academics, according to some faculty members and other critics. The university argued at the time that big-time sports boosted student recruiting, marketing and fund-raising.

Knight at times became frustrated with the university and its football program, perhaps most notably when he in 2000 temporarily froze his ties with Oregon over its joining a consortium that was concerned about labor conditions in Nike facilities in other countries. During these spats, Knight at times withheld contributions to the university and made a large donation to Stanford University.

These disagreements spilled over into Knight's support for the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund, a nonprofit organization that Frohnmayer and his wife had founded. Three of Frohnmayer's children had Fanconi anemia, a rare inherited blood disorder, and would eventually die from complications related to it.

Knight in 2000 did not make his annual gift of $1 million or more to the fund, Hunt reported. He resumed those donations the next year, after the dispute with the university had largely been resolved, with a $2 million gift. Nike and Oregon's relationship also deepened after that time, according to the article, as the football team continued its rise.

A university spokeswoman on Friday shared the university's written response to the article:

"The University of Oregon is the birthplace of Nike, and we are extremely grateful to both Nike as a company and to Phil and Penny Knight individually for their generous support of this university over many decades, as well as their support of other academic institutions and vital causes in Oregon and beyond. The Knights care deeply about education, health care, sports and so much more, and they are unquestionably the most generous philanthropists in our state’s ­­history. Their support for both academic and athletic programs at University of Oregon comes without strings attached and has transformed this campus in profoundly positive ways. The state of Oregon, our citizenry and this institution are all better for it.

"Given our focus on the university’s future, we will not engage in debate over Mr. Hunt’s book, which largely speculates about and rehashes historical events that have been covered elsewhere."


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