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Columnist: How one person made a difference for Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. — Today, the University of Mississippi, affectionately known throughout the ages as Ole Miss, is a changed institution from its turbulent days in the sixties and seventies, its revival owing principally to the selfless and impactful leadership of one man – Robert Khayat, the progressive and dogged former chancellor.

Khayat was a consequential administrator, a selfless leader who gave of himself to his alma mater, with an appreciation for history. He cogently recognized that for the betterment of the institution and its survival, hard core changes had to come about.

Institutions throughout the Deep South had to wrestle with integration issues after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregation was illegal. It would take time as diehards yielded grudgingly, many succumbing to ugly and violent restraint.

Georgia, fortunately, managed better than most of its sister states because of progressive leadership. Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who campaigned on a segregation platform, nonetheless, refused to close the schools when the courts decreed that the University of Georgia admit black students.

The UGA band stopped playing Dixie long before other football playing institutions in the Southeastern Conference called for a halt. Ole Miss was the last, and it happened on Robert Khayat’s watch. The waving of the Confederate flag died on his watch. Colonel Reb, the mascot with the planter’s hat and cane – looking very much like he might own a large plantation with cotton fields populated by black have-nots, went away during Khayat’s time as chancellor.

If you are interested in a treatise on the value of courageous leadership during challenging times, you will do well to read Robert Khayat’s “The Education of a Lifetime.” Khayat’s career in education is singular in that he matriculated at Ole Miss via a football scholarship.

He was a lineman and a placekicker in the Johnny Vaught era when Ole Miss was winning big but haunted by Billy Cannon’s 89 yard punt return Oct. 31, 1959 in Baton Rouge, which led to a 7-3 defeat of Ole Miss which had national championship aspirations.

Khayat knows what it was like to win big games, but also knows of the lessons learned from defeat when a Billy Cannon had a miraculous run or when a failed place-kick made him the focal point of a big game loss, becoming a pariah over a football game. All of that became valuable seasoning for a man who would someday run a major university.

Khayat became chancellor of Ole Miss on July 1, 1995. He was embarking on the institution’s greatest era of achievement. His task was formidable and overwhelming.

The best students in the state were leaving for degrees outside Mississippi’s borders. Attracting distinguished faculty was a challenge, the Ole Miss endowment was embarrassingly small by comparison, library volumes were woefully inadequate and the campus needed a facelift – among other things.

With the ambition to make Ole Miss a nationally regarded institution, Khayat made out a list of priorities and set forth, undaunted, to achieve his objectives. The mission was about his alma mater, not about himself. By putting the institution first and providing competent leadership and underscoring team building, he and his staff transformed Ole Miss into a respected and venerated institution.

He wanted Ole Miss to be more than the Grove, that 10 acres of a tailgating haven on game day, which gets rave reviews nationally. He wanted more than a showcase social atmosphere where pretty women cavort in high heels, men often wear coat and ties, with chandeliers hanging over salivating tailgate spreads as an old home week environment is enhanced by a “Hotty Toddy.”

Ole Miss has never taken a back seat when it comes to tradition, tailgating and old style collegiate socializing. Khayat was compatible with the social scene, but he wanted his alma mater to get the elephant off campus – the tragic race relations history.

He was encouraged by his sister, Kathy, who lost two husbands to premature death, but who had “….an innate understanding that we are measured not by our victories and losses but how we react to both.” That motivated him to persevere and take the slings and arrows that came from those in violent opposition to his taking on controversial decisions – he even got death threats. However, he knew what had to takece for Ole Miss to rise above its entrenched negative image. He was perfect for the job.

I have always been charmed by Robert Khayat’s story. Owing to a friendship with his brother, Eddie, who became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, I got to know the Chancellor. It was intriguing that a former football player would rise to such a level of hierarchy. Reading Khayat’s book yields confirmation that enlightened, selfless leadership can work wonders for an institution of higher learning.

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Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.