Uncle Phil and President Schill: Woo, Then Renew

The University of Oregon and mega-donor Phil Knight should declare a one-year separation — mutual, amiable, and temporary. To focus on their individual goals and to strengthen their relationship in the long run, they should spend some time seeing other people.

The university’s money woes can’t be solved by one donor, no matter how deep his pockets are.

University of Oregon’s Board of Trustees last week decided that a substantial tuition increase was the only reasonable response to the state’s ongoing disinvestment in higher education. University of Oregon President Michael Schill set the stage for the budget decision by announcing 100 instructor positions will be terminated to balance the books. Real estate may be unloaded to raise some quick cash.

All sides on campus will happily debate whether these choices are necessary, but nobody would suggest they’re not difficult. Schill is earning respect for the impossibly long hours he works. He tempers the bad news he’s delivering by not hurrying those who complain. He’s showing promise as a fundraiser and seems to relish his role as champion for shoring up the university’s academic standing.

Schill understands that philanthropic support for the university cannot only deepen — it also must widen. More seven-digit donors — those who have never given a million dollars, but who could — gives the university stability and stature.

Modest millionaires would benefit from a year in the university’s celebratory spotlight, without being overshadowed by a certain benevolent billionaire.

There are others who would like Knight’s attention.

In Salem, fifteen state senate seats and all 60 seats of the Oregon House of Representatives will be filled by voters this November. All of the statewide races and more than the usual number of legislative seats will be competitive this year.

Oregon’s new motor voter law will alter the profile of eligible voters this fall in ways no one can predict. Nobody knows what sort of bedlam will be unleashed on voters at the top of the ticket in this presidential election year.

Oregon has roughly 200 incumbent or aspiring lawmakers who are wondering whether their next Thanksgiving dinner will be served with congratulations or condolences. Making friends with a billionaire would make their day.

Knight should ask each of them to do their part to rebuild the Oregon’s reputation — for both its flagship university and the state itself.

The playbook was affirmed in Salem last week. The vision of TrackTown USA’s Vin Lananna, coupled with the determination of Rep. Nancy Nathanson, produced what everyone expects will be a $25 million statewide investment in Eugene’s audacious bid to host the IAAF World Championships in 2021. Lawmakers had to be convinced, one by one, that helping the University of Oregon would help the entire state.

If lawmakers could support a nine-day track meet that’s five years away, how hard would it be to convince them that more and better college graduates with fewer student loans would be better for their constituents? If Knight maintains his current philanthropic pace, but focused on Salem, what sort of long-term solutions could emerge in time for the next legislative session?

Knight should seek a statewide commitment to the University of Oregon that is long-lasting and irreversible — not unlike the 30-year tax break he won for Nike during a special legislative session in 2012.

Nike is nothing if not clever. They can design solutions that will make every Oregonian proud — solutions that should outlast us all.

For example, we know Uncle Phil likes to build buildings. We also know that Salem’s storied capitol building is in desperate need of seismic upgrades. How many lawmakers would be willing to reverse the funding trends for Oregon higher education if one certain donor helped buttress the roof over their heads?

If Knight spends the rest of this year lavishing lawmakers instead of his alma matar, he and the university can renew their vows to each other in 2017.

Knight will have leveraged his statewide influence to ensure his legacy. Schill will have made many new millionaire friends. Both sides will enjoy lasting benefits from the university’s temporary Phil-fast.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.