Transformation Remembered, Lessons Learned: A Schill and Lillis Q&A

On May 20, 2022, Chuck Lillis stepped down after eight years as the inaugural chair of the University of Oregon Board of Trustees.

His tenure, which began in 2014–15 during a time of turmoil and transition at the UO, saw the university successfully launch an independent governing board, hire a president who brought stability to the administration, realize a $3.2 billion fundraising campaign, fund and build the first phase of the new Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, begin The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health, increase research by nearly a third, build or renovate labs, classrooms, and residence halls across campus, and make significant improvements in student diversity, retention, and graduation rates.

Lillis, PhD ’72 (marketing), will continue his service to the university as a new member of the Knight Campus External Advisory Board. After his last board meeting as chair of the trustees, Lillis and President Michael Schill met in the conference room of the Lillis Business Complex—which Chuck and Gwen Lillis helped to fund with a $14 million gift—to reflect on their shared experiences and a time of unparalleled success for the university.

MHS: OK, let’s start at the beginning. What was your path to becoming a graduate student at the University of Oregon? You’ve told me on a number of occasions that you were a late bloomer.

CL: I was a late bloomer for sure. I got a bachelor’s degree at twenty-six or twenty-seven. When I was an MBA student at the University of Washington, one of my professors, John Narver, convinced me to enroll in some doctoral seminars, even though I was a master’s student. I was about to take a job with Caterpillar in Australia. But John said, “You know, you ought to think about teaching. You ought to think about being a professor.”

MHS: What made you pick the University of Oregon?

CL: I’m glad you asked, because it’s a wonderful part of the history of the business school at Oregon. So, John Narver called up his colleagues at Berkeley and Northwestern and arranged that I would probably get in. But this fellow had been hired at Oregon named Don Tull, a Chicago PhD economist who had spent most of his career in business at US Steel. I had used the book in the master’s program at Washington that Don and Paul Green, who was on the faculty at Wharton, wrote about analytic methods in business. And they were both Bayesian economists. And this book was, you know, really cool. You could read this at night and not go to sleep.

I read that and I just asked, “Where is this guy Don Tull? Oregon.” So, I called him up, said, “Can I come study with you?” And I was hooked. John Narver was really unhappy with me. He said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You turned down Northwestern?” But it was a great decision. Great decision.

Chuck Lillis and Michael Schill at the Investiture Ceremony

Chuck Lillis introducing Michael Schill during the 2016 investiture ceremony

MHS: I think you could have been a great academic, but you probably weren’t enjoying it as much as business.

CL: I thought businesses had more interesting problems. But I loved teaching. I loved it. I mean, I do today—but the grandchildren are not always pleased when I’m teaching them.

MHS: You’re known for seeing where the ball’s going before it gets there. When you were working in cable TV, you saw that not only could it be TV, but it could be the internet and phone service. How do you think you’re able to do that? Do you think it’s something we can teach students?

CL: I think some parts of it can be taught. You have to be a great listener. You know, I didn’t think up this thing about converting an old cable system into a high-bandwidth hybrid fiber network. I have really benefited from always making sure everyone around me was smarter, worked harder, and was more creative. I learned that from my wife—to be really better, listen.

MHS: How about risk? I’ve noticed that you are not risk-averse. Were you always like that in business?

CL: I think one huge advantage was that PhD. It gave me a framework that when I was in amazingly interesting business situations, think of DuPont and General Electric, I had some theoretical basis upon which to attach everything I saw and heard. That’s a priceless advantage. The more education you have, it’s better than buying insurance. For me, it worked perfectly.

At GE one of the things I learned was, it isn’t enough to solve the problem. The thing is, do you take advantage of the opportunity? So, someone would propose to [CEO] Jack Welch, “We could do this marvelous thing if we had $20 million.” And I’ll never forget this. Jack would say, “Well, if we can do all that, what can you do with $50 million?”

MHS: That sounds like you with me.

CL: That’s right. Except you have to get the $50 million.

MHS: Get an endowment of $2 billion. Why not ten?

CL: It’s worked perfectly.

MHS: Del Hawkins, professor emeritus in the Lundquist College of Business, one of your very, very close friends, once called you the only true, inspiring leader he had ever known. What do you think makes you a great leader?

Chuck Lillis speaks to the Board of Trustees CL: Well, first, he’s probably wrong.

MHS: No, I can testify. He’s right.

CL: I think most people learned what’s really important from their mother. I did, for sure. I think respecting that everybody has their own joys and challenges and needs and wishes and dreams. I think if you can remember that in the heat of battle, that when somebody says something that you think is just, you know, close to crazy, they have a reason. And I think listening is important. I remember my mother saying to me, “Look, if you want to know about people, ask them questions, ask them to tell you what they’re thinking.” I think respect for individuals was, you know, something I grew up with. Recognizing that people have unique talents, which has been easy for me to do, so I do think I’m good at thinking about the endgame.

MHS: You were one of the leaders who got really involved at the University of Oregon when Richard Lariviere was president, and you worked with him and legislators to form our independent board. Tell us a little bit more about that.

CL: I knew that Lariviere had been pushing the state hard on improving the funding for the university. And we supported that, of course. You know, he could be pushy in a respectful way. He had this meeting with the state board at the time. He called us at home. He said, “Guess what? I was fired today.” We sat up. “What are you talking about?” I didn’t even know they could do that. He said, “Well, you know, we’ve just been pushing hard. And they got tired of me pushing them.”

So that really irritated me. I thought, “How can a board fire a president that everybody here thought was terrific? Doing a great job?” I was very upset. Then it was decided that the University of Oregon needed to have its own board. And so, we proceeded down that road.

It’s been a magical, rewarding experience. I mean, it’s a lot of work. And we started the board at a time of significant turmoil around the university, using polite terminology.

MHS: I know during that period and certainly when I became president you were legendary for just showing up at the University of Oregon, walking around, meeting faculty.

CL: I’m sure this must have given you the crazies, Mike.

MHS: I got used to it. But it was different, let’s put it that way. What question did you ask when you were walking through all the labs and the office buildings?

CL: I met with physics, I met with math, I met with the volcanologists. I asked them, “Are we in the top twenty in the country in your field? And if they said, “Well, maybe,” I would ask, “Well, are you in the top ten?” And if they said, “Well, maybe” at some point I would ask, “Could you be in the top five? And if so, what do you have to do to get there?”

And when I met with volcanologists they very wisely said, “Give us a month and we’ll send you a message.” And they wrote an incredible explanation, but it wasn’t, “We need X-amount of dollars.” It was, “We need money to do the following things: here are three people we want to hire by name.” And then, you know, equipment and building and research money.

MHS: And you made a great gift.

CL: I think that’s the model of the university of the future. I think much of what we do is interdisciplinary now. Think of the Ballmer children’s mental health initiative, the Knight Campus, volcanology.

MHS: You mentioned that when you look back, one of the biggest achievements was governance. What impact do you think having our own board had on the University of Oregon?

CL: When you have a local board, one focused on Oregon or Oregon State or Portland State, you’re much more likely to get alignment between what the university can do, wants to do, can get funded, et cetera, and that it’s that sort of localized, customized focus that has a zillion dimensions. Everything from what your academic programs and dreams are and what kind of students you get and who your competitors are, and I think that’s ninety-nine percent of it.

And I think the board plays an important role. It’s easy for me to say. But if you think about people that were on our original board, they’re smart, they know the university, they know the state they are passionate about. You get ten or twelve or fourteen of those people in a room, something really interesting happens.

MHS: And then you held us together. The vision that you articulated—the vision of excellence, there was never a question about it. Everybody was consistent. 

CL: One example I’ll tell. We imposed upon ourselves the question of, “Are we efficient as well as effective?” So, we looked at how much money we spend for every function versus any other university, and we kept hammering down. And you did a great job of every time we figure out how to save five dollars in road maintenance, you’d move it over to hiring another faculty position. Well, you know, that doesn’t happen unless you have a local board.

And then we produced our recommendation for tuition and then the higher ed commission said, “Nope, that won’t work. You have to do something different.” And I said, “Look, we either believe the work we’re doing, or we don’t believe it. And if we believe it, we’re not blinking. Tell them we can’t change it.” Well, my guess is you had to lace your shoes up a little tighter that day because it was easy for me to say, “Go tell them, Mike.” Right? But I think that staked out a view about the University of Oregon. We basically said to the world, “We trust what we’re doing, and you should trust what we’re doing.”

MHS: And that Oregon deserves a great comprehensive public university.

CL: Absolutely. And we had the theme right. And it’s the right thing.

MHS: What are the two or three things you’re most proud of during your eight years?

CL: I had a minor role in it, but I think getting our own board, getting that approved, has to be really important. Hiring you is clearly one. And we love this building, the business school. We had no idea what this would be like, but Gwen and I used to come, and the people didn’t know who we were, we’d come and sit in the coffee shop and learn all about the faculty and all we could overhear, all kinds of stuff.

But I think that the best part is the association with the people. The people here are amazing. They are. It makes you proud to be a Duck right now.

MHS: Very, very committed. They love the place. I remember you pushed me. You always pushed me, but I remember we were thinking through how to ask Phil Knight for a billion dollars, and we conceptualized, with your help, the Knight Campus. And you remember the day that we all—I think it was you, [trustees] Connie Ballmer, Ross Kari—we got together in the conference room, and we went through the pitch. Did you ever think we were going to be successful?

CL: I was certain Phil and Penny wanted to help. We had been in a number of conversations with him where we had tested ideas, so once we heard the idea that became the Knight Campus, I was certain that Phil and Penny would find that attractive and would want to help. And I had a lot of conversations with him. One day he said, “Well, how much helping?”

I think I said, “I’m going to have trouble saying this, but a billion this year and maybe a billion next year.”

Chuck Lillis and Phil Knight
"At a time when the university was in need of strong leadership, Chuck stepped in to lead the new board and fundamentally changed the trajectory of our university" —Phil Knight BBA '59 (accounting) Chairman Emeritus, Nike Inc.   

MHS: All right.

CL: Once you learned to just say with a straight face, “a billion,” you know, who knows what will happen?

MHS: I really got to believe that.

CL: Phil and Penny have done so much for this university. And one of the things about Phil and Penny, they demand that it be done right. And that is a priceless position to be in.

MHS: You and Gwen were leaders in philanthropy at the University of Oregon. What do you think the future of our university is with respect to philanthropy? How important is that going to be in our future?

CL: I think it’s almost everything, the kinds of programs you want to develop and all of us do, those are investments of passion. And as you know, those have to be done perfectly. And you and [Vice President for University Advancement] Mike Andreasen are a great team. You guys have done a great job of it and with a lot of other people’s help.

MHS: You mentioned passion. And I think that’s what you will be remembered for on this board—your passion for the University of Oregon, your passion for everyone around you, and your passionate embrace of the future, which is higher education. I just can’t thank you enough.

CL: It is a golden time for our university here.

MHS: Thanks to you.

CL: I’d say it’s been a great partnership and a great friendship.

MHS: That will remain. Thank you.

—Edited by George Evano, Oregon Quarterly

—Photos by Charlie Litchfield, University Communications