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Stanford’s Ambitious Leadership Program

Stanford's Phil Knight

Stanford’s Phil Knight

Philip Knight, co-founder of Nike Inc., is giving Stanford University $400 million to create a graduate-level leadership program that will span seven of the university’s graduate schools. The program, which will annually admit 100 fully-funded scholars once they graduate with their undergraduate degrees, is meant to prepare a new generation of global leaders.

Stanford announced today (Feb. 24) the creation of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program also named after outgoing university President John Hennessy who apparently came up with the idea and pitched it to Knight, a 1962 alum of the business school who had given $105 million in 2006  to Stanford Graduate School of Business for its new campus. Hennessy will serve as the program’s first director of the leadership program


The announcement quickly aroused controversy. Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author and New Yorker writer, who has been critical of mega-gifts to elite universities suggested the money could be better spent elsewhere. “This is just part of the crazy arms race between the top schools with no connection to reality,” Gladwell told the New York Times.  “If Stanford cut its endowment in half and gave it to other worthy institutions, then the world really would be a better place.”

It also is ironic that the leadership program will be named for Hennessy who has badly bungled oversight of the university’s business school, where a sex and leadership scandal has led to some of the most damaging publicity to ever befall a university. Worse, Hennessy allowed the widely unpopular dean, Garth Saloner, who is at the center of the controversy, to remain in his job until the end of this academic term (see Stanford Confidential: Sex, Lies & Loathing At The World’s Top Business School.)

The program will recruit undergraduate students from all over the world, allowing them to enroll in Stanford’s schools of law, business, medicine, engineering; humanities and sciences, education; and earth, energy and environmental sciences. The school said that scholars pursuing PhD or MD degrees will have the option to receive funding beyond three years.


The scholars will take courses  in design thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship and also be exposed to leadership training and development, residential experiences, immersive educational opportunities, additional degree opportunities focused on public policy and problem-solving at scale. A social startup fund will be created to seed nonprofit startups launched by program alumni.

“John and I dream of a future 20, 30 or 50 years from now, when thousands of graduates – who can think outside the box as skilled problem-solvers – will be working together for a more peaceful, habitable world,” said Knight in a statement. “The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is a fitting tribute to John, one of the great academic leaders of our time.”

Students would be nominated by their undergraduate universities for the program and must demonstrate both leadership and civic commitment. The school said it intends to select students from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities. Upon admittance to Stanford’s graduate programs, scholars will receive funding for three years to pursue master’s or doctorate level degrees, or professional programs along with education in leadership, innovation and other curricula designed to develop scholars’ capacity to lead change.


More than 80 percent of the endowment will directly support the scholars, fully funding their graduate education and living expenses. The program represents the largest single increase in student financial aid in Stanford’s history. The scale of funding for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars will ensure continuity for generations to come. A faculty advisory committee will help guide admission and curriculum criteria that will be available in the winter of 2017. Stanford will begin accepting applications from prospective scholars – students who have completed at least three years of undergraduate education – in summer 2017 and admit its first scholars for fall 2018.

Knight’s gift of $400 million is the largest ever received by the university and matches the $400 million gift by hedge fund giant John Paulson given to Harvard University’s engineering school last year. That gift was also criticized by Gladwell. Knight’s donation helped to jumpstart a campaign that will lead to a $750 million endowment, easily making the program the largest fully endowed scholarship program in the world.

Already, the school announced, dozens of Stanford benefactors have pitched in more than $700 million to support the program. Robert King, a Stanford MBA graduate from 1960, and his wife, Dorothy, have contributed $100 million. They had previously given the largest single grant to the business school, a $150 million gift in 2011 to create an institute whose goal is to combat poverty around the world. Steven Denning, along with his wife, Roberta, who both received MBAs from Stanford in 1978, tossed in $50 million. Denning is chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees.


Stanford said the $100 million gift from the Kings will fund a cohort of scholars from less economically developed regions of the world. It will also support the King Global Leadership Program, a training and development curriculum in which all Knight-Hennessy Scholars will participate to complement their core degree studies.

“While we have seen great achievements in this century, future progress will depend upon our ability to tackle issues such as global poverty. By identifying rising leaders from around the world and exposing them to real-life challenges, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program will equip scholars to lead ambitious change,” said King in a statement.

The Dennings’ gift of $50 million will be used to construct Denning House in the heart of the Stanford campus, a building that will become the convening hub for the new community of Knight-Hennessy Scholars. The school said the 300 Knight-Hennessy Scholars will be housed and integrated within the Stanford graduate community of 9,000 students.

Jeff Wachtel,  chief of staff to Hennessy, will be the program’s first executive director.




About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.