The ancient Greeks called it peripeteia, the turning point in a classical tragedy that comes when the hero makes a decision that inevitably seals his fate.
For the University of Oregon, peripeteia may have come in 2000, when then-UO President Dave Frohnmayer — a deeply honorable man struggling with the university’s funding crisis — sided with Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, in an international dispute over workers’ rights rather than backing students and faculty members who wanted the UO to support Nike’s workers.
In this tragic tale, Knight threatened to cut off millions in funding, both for the university and for a charity founded by Frohnmayer and his wife, when the university initially supported the Worker Rights Consortium, a group that was publicly attacking Nike for poor conditions in Asian sweatshops that produced its shoes.
And that tragic moment came when Frohnmayer quickly caved and withdrew university support for the rights group.
That is the tale told in a searing new book that comes out this week about corporate corruption at the University of Oregon.
Eugene Weekly sent University of Oregon President Michael Schill — who regularly pledges transparency from his administration — a few specific questions about Joshua Hunt’s book University of Nike.
The list included questions such as these:
In what ways does the generosity of Phil Knight and Nike give them influence over the University of Oregon?
How would you describe the nature of that influence?
What can be done to restore public confidence that the UO is fully accountable to the citizens of Oregon?
What can be done to restore public funding to education in Oregon?
Will there be any limitations on secret research done at the Knight Campus?
Schill declined to answer any of the questions we sent.
Instead, the UO made its official response to the book in a brief statement emailed by Kyle Henley, the university’s vice president for communications: “Given our focus on the university’s future, we will not engage in debate over Mr. Hunt’s book, which largely speculates about and rehashes historical events that have been covered elsewhere.”
Old news, in other words.
Henley’s statement did go on at some length about Nike’s “generous support” of the university.
“The University of Oregon is the birthplace of Nike, and we are extremely grateful to both Nike as a company and to Phil and Penny Knight individually for their generous support of this university over many decades, as well as their support of other academic institutions and vital causes in Oregon and beyond,” the statement said.
“The Knights care deeply about education, health care, sports and so much more, and they are unquestionably the most generous philanthropists in our state’s history. Their support for both academic and athletic programs at University of Oregon comes without strings attached and has transformed this campus in profoundly positive ways. The state of Oregon, our citizenry and this institution are all better for it.” — Bob Keefer