The University of Oregon (courtesy of the University of Oregon)

The University of Oregon will use a $500 million gift — the largest ever to a public university — to build a new campus to kick-start scientific research into real-world impact.

The historic gift, which comes at a time of dwindling public funding and is more than half the school’s annual budget, has the ability to dramatically change the state flagship university. Not only that, its president, Michael Schill, says that it has the potential to jump-start the regional economy as well, and to provide an ambitious model for the future of public higher education.

“This is a pretty breathless time,” Schill said. “We’re in awe, very excited, just very grateful to them.”

The money, to be given over 10 years, will launch the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, a $1 billion initiative funded mostly by private donors.

Phil Knight ran track at the University of Oregon, from which he graduated with a business degree in 1959.

He and his coach, Bill Bowerman, co-founded Nike.

There have been a small number of gifts of this whopping size to universities — $400 million gifts to Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford and $600 million to the California Institute of Technology, for example.

Schill said there has been a lot of talk about how “a lot of the gifts are from the top 1 percent to the top 1 percent of schools.

“No one in their right mind would ever accuse the University of Oregon of being a 1 percent school,” he said.

He reeled off reasons: The state is relatively poor, the university has some of the lowest funding of its peer schools, more than a third of its students from Oregon are eligible for Pell grants for low-income families, state funding has gone down by more than 50 percent since 2000.

“We’ll fight as hard as we can to keep our state funding,” Schill said, “but it’s not even enough to pay our operating funds. It’s not going to be the answer to do new competitive things. It’s not even enough to compete with other flagships.”

So the donation, he said, “is a remarkable vote of confidence in a public university that has really been disinvested by the state.”

It also comes to a region that has long been overshadowed by Silicon Valley and Seattle; Schill hopes this infusion of money will upend that tradition, drawing companies to the area.

The university has had some leadership struggles in recent years, and about two years ago the state legislature dissolved its board and created an independent board of trustees. Schill said that the Knights, long some of the university’s most generous donors, had been waiting for stability and assurances that a massive gift would be stewarded wisely.

Soon after Schill became president a little over a year ago, he met with Phil Knight, who told him — referring to the school’s mascot, the Ducks — “I have webbed feet.”

With the potential for a transformative gift, Schill turned to the faculty and essentially asked: What would you do if you had a whole lot of money — a staggering amount of money?

That faculty group came up with the idea and took it to Phil and Penny Knight, who loved it and agreed to fund it, Schill said.

It all worked much better than imposing his own idea, as a law professor and an administrator, he said; they know the science, they have the ideas.

They initially talked about setting one ambitious goal: Finding a cure for a disease, perhaps. But the university is different from peer institutions because it doesn’t have a medical school or an engineering school. Its emphasis is on basic science. And because it doesn’t have, say, 30 professors working on a similar element of cancer, they are aware of the limitations and the potential that offers.

They are choosing to build on the strength of that — the fact that a small faculty has been, by necessity, collaborative and permeable — and use the money in part to hire experts in other fields.

Ultimately, they envision 600 new people hired, including faculty and postdoctoral researchers, and four new buildings (one, they hope, to be funded with state dollars.) They plan to build a glass walkway that literally and symbolically connects the new campus to the existing basic science research buildings. There will also be seed money so that people can delve into good ideas without going through the slow and potentially limiting federal grant process.



A rendering of how the Knight campus might look (courtesy of the University of Oregon)


Their new collaborative, boundary-crossing model will aim to open doors, said Patrick Phillips, a professor of biology who has been named acting executive director of the campus. “We’re trying to create an environment that is conducive to the next generation of discoveries. It’s hard to anticipate where discovery is going to lead you.

“But once you have discoveries,” he said, “we’ll have a full network of ways of spinning it into the world.”

That will speed scientific breakthroughs into real-world applications that can help people, he said.

Karen Guillemin, a professor of biology, said her research into how microbes interact with and confer health benefits to animals including humans is focused on basic research. But she can readily imagine implications — for example, how her findings may be used to help people with chronic inflammatory diseases if she had colleagues knowledgeable about such things as transforming compounds into drugs, partnering with pharmaceutical companies to get compounds into trials, and entrepreneurs who could advise them on intellectual property to be protected.

Her research also considers how interactions shape the microbes, she said, so she could readily imagine collaborations with colleagues in anthropology and psychology, drawing insights into how best to treat infants in intensive care, for example, or to help malnourished children.

A benefit to crossing fields and disciplinary lines could be to help students get jobs in their areas of expertise, Phillips said, since they know that the traditional academic model of a professor guiding a graduate student is increasingly less likely to lead straight to a faculty job.

“For me, a really big motivation for developing this campus has been seeing my graduate students and post-docs and thinking about their careers,” Guillemin said. “If we could offer them a richer training experience — what are the real-world applications of their discoveries, see examples and get involved in bringing those examples to society — that’s the kind of training they need to develop their careers.

“It’s a different model than the traditional ivory tower academic training, but it’s the reality — it’s what students want.”

An image of how the Knight campus might look (courtesy of the University of Oregon)