Historic gift funds the deanship and research at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

A historic $15 million gift from Joanne Knight in honor of her late husband, Charles “Chuck” Field Knight ’57, BME ’58, MBA ’59, has established the Charles Field Knight Deanship of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and provides the dean with discretionary resources to seed innovative, high-reward research projects for faculty and students across the college.

SC Johnson College Dean Andrew Karolyi became the inaugural Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business on January 28, when the Cornell Board of Trustees approved the new title. “It’s an incredible honor to be the inaugural Charles Field Knight Dean,” said Karolyi. “The naming of our college’s deanship for one of Cornell’s most notable alumni forever elevates the stature of the college while providing a lasting tribute to Chuck Knight, an iconic business leader who was widely recognized for his business acumen and drive to be the best. I’m extremely grateful to the Knight Family. Their gift affirms what we’ve been doing and helps to drive us towards our North Star.”

The SC Johnson College launched in 2016, uniting the strengths of Cornell’s top-ranked business schools—the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management (Johnson), the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management (Dyson), and the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration (Nolan)—and creating one of the largest and most comprehensive business colleges in the nation. It brought together faculty from across the schools who share strong pockets of common interest and created interdisciplinary themes that foster collaboration and innovation.

Lester B. Knight III ’80 (Eng), MBA ’81, Chuck Knight’s son, was inspired by the merger. “I’m personally excited about that combination of schools under one college—Johnson’s graduate and Dyson’s undergraduate business education plus the Nolan School’s focus on hospitality and hotel administration,” he said. “Bringing the three schools together in this way provides students with a unique combination of assets that enables them to get an incredible business education.”

Lester Knight believes that contributing to the success of the college by helping to fund it with a naming gift in honor of his father is a fitting tribute to his dad. “He was a widely recognized, global business leader—one of the top business executives of his generation,” he said. “He was tough, he worked hard, and he was always determined to be the best. We hope that drive to be the best will be what he represents for Cornell.”

Supporting the college in this way strikes just the right chord for Joanne Knight, too. “If my husband was here today,” she said, “he would be very proud to have this deanship named for him because Cornell is where his business career started.”

A transformational, people-centered leader

Chuck Knight was the youngest person to be appointed CEO of a multi-billion dollar company when he took the helm of Emerson Electric in 1973, at the age of 37. During his 27 years as CEO, he transformed Emerson from a domestic manufacturer of motorized electrical products to a global technology giant. Through his acquisitions, the St. Louis-based company grew from annual sales of under $1 billion to nearly $15 billion. In 2021, Emerson was ranked 181 on the Fortune 500 and listed 83,500 employees worldwide.

“Chuck Knight was incredibly competitive, focused, and demanding,” said classmate Bob Staley ’57, BME ’58, MBA ’59, who was a senior executive at Emerson Electric for many years and is also a Cornell trustee emeritus and Presidential Councillor. “At the same time, he was fair and just superb at personal interaction. He had incredible leadership skills, and part of that was his enthusiasm for business, which he believed was the best game in town.”

“Chuck wrote about the importance of creating an environment in which people can drive towards and achieve excellence in his book, Performance Without Compromise,” said Karolyi. “He knew that people had to implement the disciplined planning and control systems to make sure you identify opportunities and move towards them. Chuck’s philosophy that it is people who make a difference is at the core of his success as a management leader.

“That philosophy is so beautifully aligned with our college’s commitment to develop people-centered leaders,” continued Karolyi. “I think of this gift as an affirmation of our goal for the SC Johnson College: to become the world’s preeminent college for developing responsible, principled leaders equipped to effect change essential to achieving sustainable, shared prosperity.”

The Knight Family’s legacy of giving to Cornell and beyond

The Knight family has been extraordinarily generous to Cornell over four generations, beginning with Chuck’s father, Lester B. Knight Jr., Class of 1929, who made significant investments in engineering, business, and science. Chuck continued this legacy; his philanthropic support of Cornell also includes the Charles F. Knight ’57 Nanoscience Laboratories on the second and third floors of Duffield Hall. With two more generations of Knights who graduated from Cornell, the family’s nearly century-long ties to the university are among the strongest and deepest of any multi-generational Cornell family.

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