University of Mississippi chancellor emeritus Robert Khayat’s much-anticipated memoir “The Education of A Lifetime” is not just the story of a man: It is the story of a school and a state.
Born in Moss Point, Khayat was a high school football standout and signed with Johnny Vaught’s Ole Miss Rebels in 1956.
“You represent all that is good about Mississippi. If you are champions, the state will be a champion,” Vaught once told the team. “We owe it to ourselves and to the people of Mississippi to be the best we can possibly be.”
That quote resonated with the young Khayat and would spur him on as his destiny continued to be woven into the Oxford campus.
Khayat’s childhood dream of being a doctor gave way to a short professional football career in the NFL after which he earned law degrees from Ole Miss and Yale Law School. He served as a law professor at Ole Miss until his appointment to chancellor in 1995.
While the opening chapters crackle with Khayat’s play-by-play football recollections with the Ole Miss Rebels and Washington Redskins, the real meat of the book dwells on his efforts to reform the University of Mississippi from a struggling Deep South college into “one of America’s great public universities.”
The book shows how Mississippi has evolved since the days of Jim Crow. One doesn’t need to look much further than Oxford to see the tug and pull that goes on today in Mississippi between the Old and New South.
When Khayat took the helm of the stately university in 1995 it had barely been a generation since the iconic campus was scarred by National Guardsmen and rioters clashing over the enforced admission of the segregated school’s first black student James Meredith.
During the early days of Khayat’s tenure, Confederate battle flags, “Dixie” songs and Colonel Reb were still regular icons at the weekly football games. That is until the university’s administrative quarterback called an audible.
“The elephant in the room, of course, was Mississippi’s tragic race relations history,” Khayat writes. “The challenge was to move from segregation, separation and discrimination to an open society and culture with full access to all.”
Khayat writes of the conversations he had with friends, faculty and staff including Ole Miss football coach Tommy Tuberville. “We can’t recruit against the Confederate flag,” Tuberville told him.
After hiring a public relations firm and ordering a massive inspection of every inch of the Oxford campus and its institutions, Khayat came to the conclusion that “perception was a critical component of any forward movement for the university… that perception included not only how we were perceived by others, but how we perceived ourselves.”
While those difficult years of re-branding nearly reignited the Civil War in Mississippi, Khayat was emphatic that changes had to be made. “I want the best for our students,” he told faculty and staff. Letters poured into his office including death threats that were investigated by the FBI.
“Dixie” is still played at Ole Miss football games but the Colonel Reb mascot and the Confederate flags are officially gone. The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation was founded in 2006 and a memorial honoring James Meredith and the school’s 1962 integration was built that same year next to the famous Lyceum.
Increasing enrollment and contributions were Khayat’s other two leading priorities and he vividly describes relationships with donors ranging from the eccentric Jackson socialite Gertrude Ford to the Silicon Valley billionaire Jim Barksdale, each of whom founded the university’s performing arts center and honors college.
Between 1995 and 2009, enrollment at Ole Miss increased 43 percent while minority enrollment grew 78 percent. Research and development grants topped $100 million.
Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s leading liberal arts honor society, awarded a chapter to Ole Miss and more than 800 students have since been inducted.
Perhaps, the university’s proudest achievement was hosting the nationally-televised 2008 presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.
“It wasn’t lost on the 3,000 journalists that we were hosting the first African-American presidential candidate just a few hundred feet from where the Meredith crisis took place,” Khayat writes. “Most importantly, I felt the world now had a better picture of the Ole Miss that I knew and loved.”
Khayat writes not as an outsider but as an insider. He is every bit an Ole Miss Rebel as anyone you’ll meet in The Grove on game day. He is just as candid in remembering his defeats as his victories whether its missing a critical field goal against the Tennessee Volunteers or having his bid to become dean of the Ole Miss law school rejected.
Khayat’s tenure was one of reform from within. While some of his decisions are controversial to this day, depending on who you ask, they no doubt put the University of Mississippi on the map and under the microscope.
That searing introspection and its inspiring results are well worth the read.