Open Mike: The Knight Campus at the UO

October 19, 2016

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

While our announcement this week of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact focused on the quantum leap in scientific research that it will make possible, the impact of this extraordinary gift will ripple far beyond the sciences and well beyond Eugene. This singular act of philanthropy provides a ray of hope to public universities throughout the nation that, like the UO, have experienced precipitous disinvestments from their states. The Knights’ gift is a perfect example of how a public university—even in a state that ranks near the bottom in terms of public funding of higher education—can still hope to achieve eminence in the 21st century.

Upon my arrival in Eugene 15 months ago, my many discussions with students, alumni, and members of the faculty and staff highlighted the clear need for the UO to focus on enhancing our research profile. According to data from the National Science Foundation, in 2013 the UO ranked near the bottom in federal research expenditures among members of the Association of American Universities. Part of this is explainable by the fact that we are only one of two schools in the AAU without a medical or engineering school. But it was also attributable to years and years of state disinvestment—our state funds per student had been cut by more than 50 percent since 2000. These cuts had taken their toll, particularly in capital-intensive areas of research such as the sciences.

My conversations with faculty members repeatedly came back to the absence of applied or translational science at the university. While our school has always had faculty members who did excellent basic or fundamental science research, the absence of both engineering and medical schools severely limited their ability to take the discoveries they made in the laboratory outside the realm of scholarly journals. Fundamentally, many of our scientists wanted to see their work make an impact on society. The absence of an applied research infrastructure frustrated efforts to obtain federal research funding, affected our ability to attract new faculty members, and denied many of our scientists the opportunity to engage in translational work with university partners.

I, thereupon, asked a group of scientists to put together ideas for a translational science research program that I could take to a donor. We did this in December, and Phil and Penny enthusiastically agreed to a gift that will fund the first phase of what will soon come to be known as the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. I then met with a broader group of faculty members drawn from each of the sciences to discuss governance of the campus. Now that the gift is public, I look forward to further consultations with our Faculty Advisory Council, the Academic Council of the University Senate, and other constituent elements of our shared governance system.

What is the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact? At one level, when fully implemented over a decade, it will comprise three laboratory buildings outfitted with shared core facilities. At least 30 new tenure-related faculty members, 250 graduate students, 150 postdocs, and 150 undergraduate research assistants will work within these buildings. Existing faculty members who wish to affiliate with the Knight Campus will be able to use its facilities and apply for seed research funding. Entrepreneurs will be embedded to work with our faculty members to ensure that their discoveries and innovations reach the market or otherwise have an impact on society.

We anticipate that the Knight Campus will require an investment of at least $1 billion over a 10-year period. We expect that the remaining funds will come from donors who have already expressed an interest in the sciences, federal funding agencies, and the State of Oregon. Indeed, next year we will ask the State of Oregon to contribute $100 million for one of the laboratory buildings. The Knights’ lead gift includes funding for the facilities, technology and tools, and also endows faculty positions. We fully intend that this structure will ensure that the Knight Campus remains financially sustainable without drawing from other campus resources or student tuition.

Institutionally, the Knight Campus will likely be somewhere between a department and an institute. A 15-member faculty committee I convened this summer under the leadership of Professor Patrick Phillips has recommended that the provost have the ability to grant tenure in the Knight Campus as well as promote joint appointments. A search for a permanent director will begin immediately; we hope to recruit someone with a sterling academic reputation. External and internal advisory committees composed of members of the faculty and experts from the UO and elsewhere will advise the director in planning the new buildings and facilities, and in identifying promising areas of research. It is likely that we will begin with faculty and facilities dedicated to the life sciences and data analytics.

It is my strong commitment that the subject areas that we select for the Knight Campus will ultimately engage not just newly hired applied or translational scientists, but faculty members from around the university. The sky bridge in the conceptual renderings linking the main UO campus with the new campus on the north side of Franklin Boulevard will be both utilitarian and symbolic—drawing the two together.

In our future, I see joint research projects undertaken by basic and translational scientists on new therapeutic techniques to fight disease and behavioral strategies to improve human life. I see collaborations among our humanists, social scientists, and the Knight Campus faculty on the social implications of technological change. I see partnerships among the business school, law school, planning and public policy department, and the Knight Campus around entrepreneurship and product development. One of the reasons I have high confidence in this vision is our collaborative culture, a culture that we have built at this university over the last 60 years. It is one of the UO’s clear competitive advantages when we recruit new faculty members, and it will be the foundation upon which we will build the new Knight Campus.

It is my hope that our success in securing the gift for the Knight Campus will provide us with both the inspiration and the opportunity to think big about other areas of intellectual inquiry. As we turned to our science faculty for the impetus for this initiative, we will look to other faculty members in other fields to help us define, focus, and support research and teaching excellence in the humanities, social sciences, and professional schools.

I also see the Knight Campus as a major driver of economic development in the state. Oregon needs to continue to aggressively enhance and expand its innovation economy. With Silicon Valley to the south and Seattle to the north, the time is ripe for this type of economic development. I believe that the tailwinds are with us and that the Knight Campus will soon be a major player in transforming our economy into one with higher-paying information-based jobs. That is one of the reasons we are seeking to partner with the governor and legislature on one of our new laboratory buildings.

Of course, the University of Oregon is not just a university that creates knowledge; it is also one that transmits knowledge to the next generation. We do this through our scholarship, but also through excellent teaching. I anticipate that the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact will quickly create new instructional programs for graduate students in applied science. I also hope that we begin thinking about adding new and innovative undergraduate majors in subjects that we have never been able to offer in the past. This will improve our competitiveness for students from around the state and nation. It will also benefit our state and our region as we train the workforce of the future.

Penny and Phil Knight have donated to this university a series of amazing gifts. They have supported our programs in academics and athletics with enormous generosity. The Knight Library, the Matthew Knight Arena, the Knight Law Center, the Marcus Mariota Performance Center, the Knight Chairs and Knight Professorships, the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, the Jaqua Center, the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact—the list goes on and on. Perhaps more than anything, Penny and Phil have allowed us to dream. Our faculty have come up with a very, very big idea. I am delighted that because of these two wonderful members of our university family, we now have the opportunity to make that big idea a reality.



To opt-in or opt-out of receiving future Open Mike messages click here.