The Philanthropists

USD Board Chair Don Knauss and his wife, Ellie


Don Knauss, chair of USD’s Board of Trustees, and his wife, Ellie, have generously agreed to increase their philanthropic giving to USD to $50 million as their investment in educating ethical and compassionate business leaders. In honor of their remarkable gift, our business school will be known as The Knauss School of Business. The following is an excerpt from a wide-ranging conversation between Dean Tim Keane, PhD, and Don and Ellie Knauss. To watch a video of the interview, go to

Dean Keane: You have been so generous with your time and resources over the years in support of various philanthropic causes. What motivates you to give so much of yourselves?

Ellie: Education is the great equalizer. We’ve felt that in our bones since we started looking at how can we use what we’ve been blessed with to help other people.

Don: The only way to get at this core issue in our society today — which is inequality — is people have to get educated. There’s talent everywhere. There’s not opportunity everywhere.

Dean Keane: Your support of USD and the Knauss School of Business has been incredible. Why do you feel compelled to invest in us?

Ellie: The support that we’re giving USD comes from a place where we have trust in the fact that they have their finger on the pulse of not only what’s happening on campus, but what’s happening all over the world. 

Don: If you look at the vision and mission of this university, it is anchored in creating leaders who engage in ethical conduct and compassionate service. That is very consistent with our values.

Dean Keane: How have your experiences shaped your values?

Ellie: People always ask us, ‘What was the most incredible thing in your career?’ It’s pretty easy to say that the biggest growth and the best opportunities came out of those several years in South Africa.

Don: When I was sent to South Africa, the head of Coca-Cola said to me, ‘Your job is to train Africans to take over this business, because they’ve been shut off from opportunities for decades.’ What I realized very early on, was that these tenets of leadership — integrity, humility, compassion for people — exist in every culture. 

Dean Keane: At the Knauss School of Business, we believe in the concept of Kairos, which refers to a time when forces come together that demand bold action. In early 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, it was the Kairos moment that signaled the end to Apartheid. You met Nelson Mandela — I know that must have affected you deeply.

Ellie: It was a Kairos moment for our family as well, because I think all of our children grew as a result of that. It was a phenomenal experience and I think we all came out of it closer to understanding what was important. 

Don: It gave us a much more global mindset. You know what? We’re much more alike than we are different. So what are we going to do to create opportunities for people who have that talent around the globe?

Dean Keane: Our aspirational vision in the Knauss School of Business is to drive business stewardship of the world through values-driven free enterprise. Stewardship requires business, arguably the most powerful force in society, to be intentional about protecting and caring for that society. Your charge from Coca-Cola in South Africa was a perfect example of business stewardship. Our vision is different from other business schools, but what else makes us different from your perspective?

Don: When I think about the vision for the business school here, what separates it, in our minds, is a combination of world-class academics along with real, practical work experience.

Ellie: It’s a different way of doing things now. So much more is collaborative now, than it’s ever been before. 

Dean Keane: Your investment in the Knauss School of Business includes the construction of our new, state-of-the- rt business school complex, and the Knauss Center for Business Education building. In your view, how is our vision enabled through the Knauss Center for Business Education? 

Don: That building’s going to be a world-class facility to enable that kind of interaction with people. How things are structured, the openness, the lightness, the ability to innovate with each other, that design was, I think, critical to creating that kind of atmosphere. Every student who wants those opportunities is going to have access because of this investment. Not if they can afford to do it, but now it can be made available to them, and I think that’s going to create a whole ripple effect.

Dean Keane: Everything we do in the Knauss School of Business is focused on our students’ success. We deliver learning through the highest quality curriculum, reinforced and integrated with multiple experiences that help our students grow their business toolbox skills and their soft skills. This generation of students face tremendous stress, exacerbated by the pandemic. How will they thrive in the future?

Ellie: This generation, I’m so excited by them. I see so much enthusiasm, I see so much intelligence, I see so much thinking outside the box. They’re going to solve the problems of the world. I’m confident of that. We just have to make sure they have the opportunity and the tools to do it. And I think they can get a lot of that here.

Dean Keane: As I mentioned when we started this interview, you have been so generous with your time and resources over the years. How would you sum up the legacy of that generosity?

Don: A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives. And that’s the way, I think, we’d like to be remembered. This has an impact.  

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