Problematic Relationship Between Companies And Colleges Explored In New Book

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 10:18am
Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 1:21pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: In the early to mid-1990s, the University of Oregon wasn't widely known for its success in the so-called revenue sports like football and men's basketball. But that trajectory dramatically changed when the university became closely allied with Nike and its founder, Oregon alum, Phil Knight. Knight's donations greatly improved the university's profile and made it much more competitive on the field. But did that relationship also cause deep problems? That's part of what author Joshua Hunt asserts in his book, “University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought Higher Education,” and he's with me via Skype to talk about it. Joshua, what started Phil Knight down the road of being such an influential donor at Oregon and how much did the university really need him after the state cut its funding?

JOSHUA HUNT: The story really begins in 1990 when Oregon taxpayers voted narrowly to reduce the level of tax dollars — property tax dollars specifically — that went towards funding public education in Oregon, K-12 and higher education. These cuts were dramatic and really ruinous towards higher education in particular. And so not just the University of Oregon but every public university in the state had to go looking for what then University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer called “outside money,” and one of the first places he turned was Phil Knight who was not only the University of Oregon's most prominent alum in the business world but also someone who had his own box seats for the Oregon Ducks football games and someone who was invested in the idea of seeing the football team become something more than it was.

GOLDSTEIN: Did Phil Knight, even as an Oregon alum himself, did he see the connection, the importance of academics in an institution like this, or is he thinking more about Oregon's on-field success helping his company?

HUNT: Look, I often tell people Phil Knight did not achieve the level of success in the business world that he did by cutting bad deals for himself. He went into this not only as an Oregon alum with an interest in athletics, he went into this as a businessman who saw an opportunity to use his company's relationship with the University of Oregon and with other schools around the country to make inroads into the world of football apparel, which was kind of a wide open market for Nike at the time. I mean they basically followed this pretty clear, very successful blueprint with basketball shoes which was to start with colleges and really take over by spreading around money and making sure to pay the coaches to have the students wear Nike shoes as opposed to some other brand. They had a pretty clear blueprint for how they could do the same thing with football and it started with building important significant financially lucrative relationships with schools like the University of Oregon.

GOLDSTEIN: Now can you express whether Phil Knight actually had expectations that the University of Oregon would become, in your parlance, a University of Nike? I mean, did he expect that his influence would carry that far, or was it one where he went in, cut a good deal for himself as you mentioned, and then just expanded it beyond what his initial dreams were?

HUNT: You know, it's hard to imagine some kind of grand plan in the beginning, but within just a few years of starting to outfit the University of Oregon's football team in Nike shoes and Nike apparel, they're already talking about rebranding teams, rebranding the university. This is something that was a pretty foreign concept at the time, the idea of rebranding a public school, a public institution so that it's more in line with a corporation that it has a partnership with, and so it has more of a corporate identity and more of a corporate way of doing things.

GOLDSTEIN: What caused a rift, at least for a time? What made the relationship with the university become pretty uncomfortable, had to do with sort of Nike's labor practices overseas?

HUNT: And it stretches back to the companies really pioneering use of offshore manufacturing in what we would call sweatshops now, specifically throughout Asia and in the in the 1990s this became a real big issue in the media. You know magazines and newspapers were running all kinds of investigative pieces that showed the world what conditions were like inside sweatshops run by Nike and other apparel and shoe makers and the conditions were not good. You know there were children working. There were people working for below minimum wage, and even in the countries where they were working there were people dying on the job. Eventually a very grassroots protest movement sprung up and it was very centered around college campuses across the United States and groups like the Worker Rights Consortium really effectively organized student bodies on campuses across the country into this big coalition that protested the kinds of practices that Nike was engaged in and its manufacturing and its use of sweatshop labor. And it was really effective. You know it started to really hurt Nike's image. It started to hurt Nike's bottom line. And so Nike reacted by trying to punish tools that didn't rein in these kinds of campus protest movements.

GOLDSTEIN: What's the influence that has developed at other universities through even other companies? Have we already reached the slippery slope on this?

HUNT: In the book, I call Nike “a canary in the coal mine,” because Oregon was one of the first states where taxpayers really seriously disinvested in higher education support. Consequently in part because of the unique situation of Nike being an Oregon company and Dave Frohnmayer are having this idea to go after some of that Nike money. You know, Nike sort of laid out a blueprint and it's a blueprint that other schools have since followed because a lot of states have followed suit in terms of cutbacks to funding for higher education. And Maryland is a really good example because they've explicitly said that they like everything that Nike and Oregon have done together, and because Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armor, is an alumni of Maryland, they're taking some of his money and they're trying to do, they've said rather explicitly, that the same exact thing.

GOLDSTEIN: Joshua Hunt is the author of “University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought Higher Education.” Joshua, thanks for the conversation.

HUNT: Thanks so much for having me.

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