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

By: Janice Endresen
head and shoulders photo of Chuck Knight

Charles “Chuck” Field Knight ’57, BME ’58, MBA ’59

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.”

photo of Joanne and Chuck Knight standing side by side
Joanne and Chuck Knight

A dynamic, transformational 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.

A Cornell varsity football player who stood six feet, four inches tall, Chuck had a dynamic personality that matched his stature. He and his classmates Bob Staley and Al Suter, both ’57, BME ’58, MBA ’59, like Chuck, and also competitive athletes, became fast friends during their six years together at Cornell. Years later, in the 1970s, Chuck successfully recruited Staley and Suter to work with him as executives at Emerson Electric, which they did for many years.

photo of 3 men with arms around each other, facing the camera and smiling
Classmates Bob Staley, Chuck Knight, and Al Suter, all ’57, BME ’58, MBA ’59

“Chuck Knight was incredibly competitive, focused, and demanding: If you had a code-red problem, nothing stood in the way of solving it,” said Staley, a Cornell trustee emeritus and Presidential Councillor. “Knight was no pussycat with us, just because we were old friends,” he joked. “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. You had to make that business competitive, meaning you had to have a process you followed diligently, with discipline. That’s the Emerson management process that Chuck wrote about in his book, Performance Without Compromise.” 

 A shared belief in people-centered business leadership

“Chuck understood the importance of creating an environment in which people can drive towards and achieve excellence,” 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.”

Upper body photo of Andrew Karolyi standing with his elbow on a bookshelf nest to a red banner hanging for a bookshelf in the foreground
Andrew Karolyi, now the inaugural Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, next to a banner celebrating Cornell’s capital campaign, “To Do the Greatest Good”

A generous philanthropist, inspired by Cornell

Their shared love of Cornell inspired classmates, friends, and colleagues Chuck Knight, Staley, and Suter to join forces and give back to the university in many ways, including endowing the Harold Bierman Jr. Distinguished Professorship of Management at Johnson, named for a beloved, long-time professor of management and finance; the Emerson Professor of Manufacturing Management; and, along with two additional friends, Lou Conti ’41 and Dick Loynd ’50, they made a major gift to renovate and expand Schoellkopf Memorial Hall that resulted in naming Friends Hall in their honor. In addition, Chuck, Staley, and Suter all came back to campus regularly to speak in Hal Bierman’s Cases in Finance class and in the manufacturing management classes held at Johnson.

“We all had a strong interest in international business because we ended up working for a very global company,” said Staley about Chuck, Suter, and himself. “There are a lot of reasons why Chuck Knight would love that his family has made this decision to endow the deanship of the SC Johnson College.”

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.

Large group photo of adults and children, members of several generations of the Chuck and Joanne Knight family
Chuck and Joanne Knight (center) with their four children and their children’s families in the early 1990s

“Cornell has been and will continue to be very important to our family,” said Lester Knight, a founding partner of RoundTable Healthcare Partners and non-executive board chair of Aon. “It’s a place where we all built lifelong friendships.”

Chuck was also actively engaged in the city of St. Louis, where Emerson is headquartered. He served on the board of trustees of Washington University from 1977 to 1990 and named the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the university’s medical school. As chairman of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Chuck helped to create what is now BJC HealthCare. The Charles F. Knight Emergency and Trauma Center at Barnes-Hospital was opened in 2002. He led efforts to support the St. Louis public schools and fundraising for the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

“We lived well, but there was always a recognition that we were lucky and an expectation that we had a responsibility to give back,” said Lester.

“For Chuck,” said Karolyi, “it was all about the drive for excellence and the importance of civic leadership for the greater good. He lived our core values as a business college. How perfect to have the deanship named in his honor.”

Related links:

Emerson Electric CEO to give Hatfield Lecture at Cornell Sept. 26 (9/13/1996)

With dance and tributes, Duffield is dedicated (4/14/2004)

Knight family still supports business-minded engineers (10/20/2010)