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Knight’s influence shows power of donors

Sports columnist Austin Meek’s interview with Nike co-founder Phil Knight, published in last Sunday’s Register-Guard, touched upon a dilemma that lies at the heart of the dispute over the replacement of the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field: The UO is a public institution, with all the expectations of public involvement and accountability that status entails, while at the same time it is increasingly dependent on the generosity of private donors such as Knight, whose choices and preferences shape the university in ways the public cannot control.

Knight’s ability to grant or withhold financial support has a critical influence on how or whether the Hayward Field proceeds. For the UO, it’s not quite a take-it-or-leave-it situation, but it’s close. And when a track and field facility said to have a price tag in the $200 million range is at stake, the UO’s interest lies strongly in the direction of taking it, with a letter of sincere thanks to follow.

That leaves supporters of a Hayward Field design that includes preservation of the East Grandstand on the outside looking in. The only way it could be otherwise is if public funds were to support a meaningful portion of the project’s budget. But the days are long gone when the UO could finance a sizeable share of its operations, much less its athletic enterprise, with public funds.

Hayward Field is but one example of donor influence, and it affects not just the UO but higher education generally. Philanthropy has played an important part in the development of American colleges and universities. The effects are usually benign, but the choices have consequences: By endowing professorships and funding construction projects, donors determine which fields of study will be a university’s strongest. The only way to remedy any imbalances that arise is to provide adequate public funding. Donor support is welcome, and allows universities to do things that would otherwise be impossible — but correspondingly strong public support is required to ensure that universities remain well-rounded.

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