University of Nike: Wrongs and Rights

Joshua Hunt, a young journalist, was sent to Eugene, Oregon in 2014 to do an assignment for the New York Times. A University of Oregon student had alleged a sexual assault by three of college basketball players. The police report was harrowing. Amid growing national concern about student athletes and sexual violence, many media outlets sent reporters to find out what had happened.

Hunt learned a great deal about the assault, and also much about the university, the culture, and the institution’s special relationship with Nike. The athletics/shoe company has a long and intimate relationship with the university. Reporting led to more research. Hunt told some of the story in his 2015 master’s thesis for Columbia University’s journalism program. There was more to it, though, and he wrote a book, University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education. It’s a fascinating account of many things: the rise of a flagship institution of higher education in the northwest, big time college sports, the growth of Nike as a global multi-billion dollar brand, and the complicated connections between the university and Nike. The heart of the book is the story of University of Oregon alum and Nike founder Phil Knight and former University of Oregon president David Frohnmayer. Hunt sets this all against a history of declining state and federal funding, changes in the educational landscape, and state politics. The sexual assaults and crimes of the athletes is covered, too, but they are not the focus. Instead, Hunt treats the crimes, complaints and responses as consequences of a broader university culture.

Hunt is good with prose and has much to share. The story is complicated, though, and he does not present the perspective and organizational history to have authored a definitive account. The book is not magisterial – it is investigative. Ultimately, it is several interesting and lengthy journalism pieces that tell a story (or a number of stories). An overview of what the book covers illustrates its strengths and shortcomings.

Hunt opens University of Nike with an anecdote rich history of the University of Oregon athletics. He stresses people and events, while going light on numbers or facts. It is followed with an account of David Frohnmayer, his rise to the presidency of the University of Oregon, and the awful genetic disease, Fanconi anemia (FA), that would plague his family and eventually kill his children. It is truly tragic. Hunt jumps next to the rise of Nike from humble shoe company to global colossus, linking Knight’s interests with Frohnmayer’s need to change the university’s funding model. A state-wide referendum dramatically reduced government support for education.

National protests about Nike’s supply chain figured prominently in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. The conflict also played out at the University of Oregon, the next part of Hunt’s narrative. University administrators had come to rely on Knight’s largess and were reluctant to be critical of him or the company. State funding for higher education was dwindling, too, and not just because of the referendum. Hunt also emphasizes Knight’s generosity in funding a charity established by Frohnmayer and his family to seek a cure for FA. The politics of how the university navigated these straits makes for complicated tale.

With most of the key characters established, Hunt then takes us back in time to provide an overview of public higher education. While I am as interested as the next reader about the origins of the Morrill Act (and probably more so than most), the creation of land-grant universities does not fit neatly into the narrative. Hunt’s interest in explaining the relationship between university research and industry research similarly diverts the reader. The Bayh-Dole Act is important – but the ways that the University of Oregon and Nike worked out their specific partnerships and branding is more relevant. Hunt covers all of this with relish. He next focuses on U of O football, the rise of college football money, and Nike’s sponsorship of uniforms, training centers, coaches and other supports.

Winning, high-visibility college football teams are expensive. They also can change enrollment, bring in revenue, and energize an institution. But at what costs? Is money not being routed to academic or other mission-central concerns? The latter part of the book examines criminal behavior by Oregon athletes, poor controls and accountability by the administration, and the university’s efforts to keep its brand strong. Again, all of this makes for interesting reading. Missing is the broader knowledge of higher education and philanthropy, in particular the shifts in funding models for Division 1 sports.

Hunt draws connections and argues that academic or other traditional values are absent. His turn to the conspiratorial supposes a time and place when universities charted their course with little or no consideration to donors’ priorities. To be frank, that time never existed. Generous donors have always played a role through their gifts and preferences. Appreciating that is central to understanding the larger world of higher education – and the way that nonprofits have to operative. Political and civic leaders also can have major influence. The key questions are not whether or not there are big donors; they are whether the institution is effectively pursuing its mission. That distinction is not underscored in University of Nike. Did the University not direct Nike’s gifts appropriately? Hunt references rising tuition and faculty dissatisfaction. These are legitimate concerns, but they matter everywhere in higher ed. So, too, are deep worries about making sure that all students live and learn in safe environments. Sexual assault is criminal, abhorrent, and must be a priority for institutions of higher education to prevent – with or without sports programs or donors.

In University of Nike, Joshua Hunt is right to question the relationship of the university to its top donor, to call out sexual assault and the way that the University of Oregon has handled these issues, to highlight the consequences of diminished governmental support, and to voice concern about the rise of Division 1 college athletics. He could have done all of these – and more – with better references to how higher education handles these issues. Did the University of Oregon lose its priorities? Hunt believes so, but his argument does not add up or convince. Broader understanding of the world of higher education, allowing Hunt to focus more effectively, would have helped to make this a stronger book.

David Potash

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