Phil Knight at lectern with Nike swoosh

Phil Knight, MBA ’62, has been awarded the Degree of Uncommon Citizen, Stanford’s most prestigious alumni award, for decades of transformational philanthropy and service to the university. (Image credit: David Rezok / The Stanford Daily)

Nike co-founder and chairman emeritus Phil Knight, MBA ’62, who has been a transformational benefactor for the university for more than six decades, is receiving Stanford’s most prestigious alumni volunteer service award, the Degree of Uncommon Citizen. His gifts of time and resources began with Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) and now span athletics, creative writing, neuroscience, and – through the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program – all seven of Stanford’s schools.

The Degree of Uncommon Citizen honors those individuals who have provided rare and extraordinary service to Stanford. Over Stanford’s history, the award has been presented only 25 times.

“I’m grateful for Phil Knight’s decades-long support for Stanford: The depth and breadth of his philanthropy touches nearly every corner of the university,” said Stanford President Richard Saller. “Beyond providing financial support for the people, programs, and research that inspire him most, Phil returns to campus to engage intellectually with faculty and students. His wide-ranging involvement helps sustain Stanford’s mission and our pursuit of excellence.”

Inspiration and legacy at Stanford GSB

Knight credits Stanford for challenging him and teaching him to think outside the box, once saying, “If there were no Stanford Graduate School of Business, there would be no Nike.”

In a 2014 commencement address for the business school, Knight joked about his introversion and questioned why he had nonetheless accepted the dean’s invitation to speak.

“The answer is, it is personal for me. It is a rounding of the circle,” he said. “There’s a part of me that was born here.”

In an entrepreneurship class in 1962, Stanford GSB Professor Frank Shallenberger famously tasked Knight with developing an idea for a company and writing a paper about it. Knight says Shallenberger told him to write about what he knew, and what he knew was running shoes: Knight had served as a self-described guinea pig for the many podiatry experiments of celebrated track coach Bill Bowerman while he was an undergraduate athlete at the University of Oregon. Knight earned an A from Shallenberger for his paper outlining his ambition to import high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan to the American market.

Two years after completing his degree, Knight and Bowerman co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports, which later became Nike. Knight initially sold shoes out of his car at track meets across the country while supporting himself as an accountant.

Several Stanford professors and alums were involved in the early days of the company: The late Bob Davis, professor emeritus of marketing, was Nike’s first vice president of marketing; Michael Spence, a former GSB dean, served on the Nike board for 10 years; Charles Griffin Cale, LLB ’64, was an early Nike investor; and Jeff Johnson, ’63, was Nike’s first employee and the one to propose the company’s iconic name.

Reflecting on the persistence required to brave Nike’s tumultuous early years, Knight frequently quotes Shallenberger’s mantra to his class – “The only time you must not fail is the last time you try” – and says that he never hesitated to turn to Shallenberger for advice or a sympathetic ear during that time.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Knight was an enthusiastic volunteer for GSB’s special gifts committee and advisory council. He made his first gift to the university in 1978; a decade later, he endowed the Philip H. Knight Professorship for the Dean of the Graduate School of Business; and in the early 2000s, he provided the naming gift for the GSB’s Knight Building.

In recognition of his excellence in management leadership, Knight received the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award – a particularly poignant honor since Arbuckle helmed the business school when Knight was a student.

Stanford Graduate School of Business Dean Robert L. Joss (left) and Stanford Provost John Etchemendy (right) assisting Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight (center) sink his black Nike Air Max 360s into concrete at the groundbreaking for the new business school campus.

With support from former GSB Dean Robert L. Joss, left, and former Provost John Etchemendy, right, Phil Knight presses his feet into concrete for Monument to the Future of Phil, a gateway piece for the Knight Management Center designed by Steve Sandstrom. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

A transformational gift from Knight in 2006 supported the development of a new campus for the GSB, named the Knight Management Center in tribute to his philanthropy. During the groundbreaking ceremony, Knight pressed his Nike-clad feet into concrete as part of Monument to the Future of Phil, a gateway piece created by designer Steve Sandstrom.

“It is fitting that the new campus is named for Phil Knight, who is one of the great innovators and entrepreneurs in American business. He created not just a company but an industry,” Robert L. Joss, who served as dean when the campus was completed, said at the time.

Referring to the gift as “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give back,” Knight said he was honored to be associated with such a special institution.

“Phil is an iconic figure at the GSB – a towering entrepreneur, leader, and philanthropist,” said Jonathan Levin, the Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Stanford University’s incoming president. “Today, his footprints mark the center of campus, and visitors invariably stop and pose for a picture standing in Phil’s steps, quite often in Nikes.”

Growing involvement across the university

Over the years, Knight’s generosity has extended across campus. He championed the humanities by endowing three professorships, one in honor of Eavan Boland, the late director of the Creative Writing Program. In 2004, Knight began quietly attending creative writing classes at Stanford. Described by classmates as studious and intense, he completed homework assignments and went out for drinks with fellow students after class.

When Knight started writing Shoe Dog: A Memoir, he turned to Stanford professors Tobias Wolff, Adam Johnson, and Abraham Verghese for inspiration and guidance.

An avid sports fan, he has sponsored Stanford Athletics in many ways, including gifts toward the sports medicine center at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, the tennis stadium scoreboard, and other training facilities.

Taking chances on people – at Stanford and beyond

In his memoir, Knight writes that taking chances on people is a theme that runs through his life and work. In that same spirit, in 2016 he made the founding gift for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program – a graduate-level scholarship program designed to develop scholars’ capacity to tackle global challenges, such as the environment, health, education, and human rights.

The program pays tribute to John Hennessy’s 16-year legacy as Stanford’s 10th president and provides each scholar with three years of funding, including living expenses, as well as life-changing mentorship and support.

“From our earliest discussions, Phil was optimistic that talented young people make a positive difference in our world, and that a Stanford education would enhance their contributions,” noted Hennessy.

Phil Knight, seventh from left, and John Hennessy, second from right, welcome a cohort of Knight-Hennessy Scholars.

Phil Knight, seventh from left, and John Hennessy, second from right, welcome a cohort of Knight-Hennessy Scholars. (Image credit: Micaela Go)

Since admitting its first cohort in 2018, the program has grown to a community of more than 400 extraordinary graduate students from diverse backgrounds. In May, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars announced its largest-ever cohort of 85 students from 29 countries who will pursue degrees in 38 graduate programs at Stanford.

In 2022, extending their philanthropy to another realm of campus, the Knights established the Phil and Penny Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience, an ambitious, cutting-edge research endeavor housed in the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

Knight and his family celebrate the opening of the Knight Management Center in 2011.

Knight and his family celebrate the opening of the Knight Management Center in 2011. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

Outside of Stanford, Knight is deeply dedicated to his home state of Oregon. He and Penny have championed many causes, including myriad investments at Phil’s undergraduate alma mater, the University of Oregon, to accelerate scientific impact through the Oregon Health and Science University, and to support Black residents of Portland through the 1803 Fund.

By investing in education and research – and taking chances on people – Knight has inspired countless students. During a 2019 interview with Knight at a GSB View from the Top event, Sophie Hamilton, ’19, MS ’19, now a business development lead at Spotify, shared a childhood encounter with the entrepreneur.

Hamilton had met Knight in an elevator at age 9 while touring Nike. He told her to do three things: First, work hard and go to the University of Oregon or Stanford; second, work at Nike; and third, never stop playing. Hamilton explained that she had since accomplished those first two items – having worked at Nike while at Stanford – and was able to do so, in part, because research that Knight had funded saved her life when she was diagnosed with cancer.

The Degree of Uncommon Citizen, created by the Stanford Associates Board of Governors in 1953, was inspired by President Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, who noted that human advances are accelerated by “distinctly uncommon people with vital sparks of leadership.”

Stanford Associates, the university’s honorary organization for alumni volunteer service, was established in 1935. Led by its Board of Governors, Stanford Associates recognizes and encourages alumni engagement through awards and grants.