Does a Monster Challenge Grant Skew Research Priorities?

It’s hard to imagine a potential windfall of half a billion dollars from a donor like Phil Knight could be a problem for a research institution. But Oregon Health Sciences University is facing animosity among faculty over concerns that chasing funding is undermining its mission of basic science and education. More money, more problems.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight announced in 2013 that he would offer $500 million to the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU, if the university could match the funds within two years. The Oregon Legislature is considering selling $200 million in bonds to get them there, but some faculty think the pursuit of such funding is steering university leaders away from their core mission, The Oregonian reports

While faculty senate president and neuropsychologist Bonnie Nagel supports the Knight challenge, she told the paper that there have been concerns among faculty about straying from the school's mission.

"I think there's been a lot of angst around the Knight challenge," she told The Oregonian. "Initially there was a lot of anxiety that all of the fundraising was going to go to that and OHSU was going to become a cancer institute."

The possibility of state funding prompted an anonymous letter from two faculty members stating that research funds are being misused on executive bonuses. A similar letter sent several months ago expressed concern that OHSU is straying from its mission and losing quality faculty. In 1995, the university shifted from state agency to public corporation, and has since become “an aggressive, bottom-line oriented institution,” The Oregonian reports. 

Meanwhile, The Willamette Week reported that several state legislators are concerned that the Knight challenge is steering federal funds too heavily in one direction. (“There are a lot of needs in this state and we can’t meet all of them...OHSU can get donations from other wealthy people across the country.”)

OHSU's administrators have assured that meeting Knight’s matching grant doesn’t undermine other funding or research priorities. But the discontent raises an important question surrounding large donors stepping in with a challenge or outsized gifts in general. 

OHSU has an annual operating budget around $2 billion. Even when put toward capital improvements, or spread out over multiple years, it’s hard to imagine that $1 billion in funding committed in one direction doesn’t shift the center of balance. Not to mention the effort required to bring in the matching $500 million.

Especially as federal funding for research shrinks during budget disputes, organizations will likely have some similar soul searching to do as they race toward private funds.