The Corner

Education

How Oregon Became the University of Nike

There are quite a few big universities where the sports tail wags the academic dog and perhaps the most glaring instance is the University of Oregon. Money from alum Phil Knight, founder of Nike, has had an enormous impact on the school, nearly all for the worse. That’s the argument of a new book by Joshua Hunt titled The University of Nike, and in today’s Martin Center article, I review it.

Knight and his checkbook came along at a time when the university was struggling to adjust to reduced state funding. The weak part of the book is Hunt’s assumption that universities run like a long-distance runners, lean and efficient, so any funding reduction brings on a crisis. That’s why he blames the Oregonians who voted for tax cuts in 1990 for triggering the state universities to go looking for outside money. All were adjusting to the reality of lower state funding, but in 1994 Phil Knight offered the University of Oregon a huge donation for a library project.

That was innocent, but after that, Nike money began to flow in for athletics and the school got hooked. Hunt makes a strong case that football and basketball now dominate.

Perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if at some point along the way, the university’s governing board had put its foot down, but as is so often the case, it sat idly by.

Oregon’s huge spending on sports did put its teams into top bowl games and the NCAA basketball tournament, but the cost to the many students and taxpayers who aren’t interested in how well the Ducks do has been very high.

University of Chicago’s president Robert Maynard Hutchins was right when he foresaw the conflict between academic and sports and pulled his school out of the Big Ten in 1939. Other university leaders should follow his lead.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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