Oregon U loses $30 million as Nike president rescinds pledge

by Travis Reed

Earlier this month, the University of Oregon decided to join the Worker Rights Consortium. Now, in the coming weeks, the school might be faced with another important decision: how to come up with an extra $30 million to finance an $80 million football stadium renovation.
Last week, a “well-placed source” at the Nike Corporation contacted a university representative to inform school officials that Nike President Phil Knight, a University of Oregon alumnus, had withdrawn his informal pledge to cover $30 million of the renovation’s price tag.
The move is the latest in a series of shots the apparel giant has taken at the WRC, a grass-roots sweatshop monitoring group supported by student sweatshop activists and organized labor.
Last month, Nike moved to nullify its hockey equipment agreement with Brown University after the school tried to renegotiate its deal in accordance with the WRC terms. Principally, Nike says it is opposed to the WRC because the company isn’t allowed to affiliate with the organization and can’t sit on its governing board.
WRC supporters cry foul and accuse Nike of throwing money around to scare schools away from the consortium.
“It’s obvious that (Knight is) trying to sway the school’s direction with his money. That’s the danger in the corporatization of schools,” said Rana Kasich, a University of Minnesota Licensee Labor Practices Task Force member. “He’s obviously trying to interfere with the democratic process by using his money to influence it. It’s really low politics.”
Since Knight has made it big, his alma mater has been reaping the benefits of his success — cashing in around $30 million from the apparel magnate during the past 10 years.
But the school’s decision to join a consortium that Nike says it is “fundamentally opposed to” has rendered Knight’s relationship with the university tenuous, and has given him the inclination to take his philanthropy elsewhere.
So far, University of Oregon officials remain cautious about confirming the retraction of Knight’s pledge.
Duncan McDonald, the university’s vice president for public affairs and development, said Knight didn’t even have a formal pledge on record to help fund the stadium project, and the school isn’t jumping to conclusions until they speak with Knight directly.
But Nike spokesman Simon Pestridge said “the facts are very clear,” and “the call went in from Phil’s right-hand man” to express disapproval of WRC membership and pull Knight’s financial backing of the project.
But neither party is sure how anyone has arrived at the $30 million contribution figure. Nike officials won’t talk because they won’t dabble in Knight’s personal affairs, and McDonald expressed frustration that “nobody is on the record.”
McDonald would not speculate conclusively on how the school might react to Knight’s decision, but said it was the result of a careful and deliberate process.
“The decision came down after a year of lengthy consultation with a university-appointed committee, a student-body referendum and a vote in the university senate,” McDonald said. “I can certainly speak to my pride in the process and in terms of university governance.”
Pestridge said Nike and Knight are unlikely to be swayed by lengthy deliberations.
“I don’t think it matters if it was debated for a minute or a year. It’s our fundamental belief that to be effective, you have to have one system and a lot of different groups at the table,” Pestridge said.
Pestridge denies accusations that the move is a scare tactic to discourage WRC affiliation and adds “it’s Phil’s personal decision” to pull support for the renovation.
Kasich said she’s not concerned Knight’s actions will affect other universities’ support for the WRC, even if they change the University of Oregon’s tune.
“In a lot of cases, that type of money may have some affect on the school,” Kasich said. “But it doesn’t pose much of a threat outside of Oregon.”

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3232.