For me, the ranking triggered a mental image: Ole Miss Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat nailing the longest field goal of his illustrious career. How long? Somewhere between 14 and 60 years long.
In 1960, when the standout Rebel football (and baseball) player left Ole Miss for the Washington Redskins, the oddsmakers might have given the history major a smidgen of a chance of returning one day as a football coach. But no one – not even the Moss Point native himself – could have predicted he would, 35 years later, stumble – literally – into the role of Ole Miss’ CEO.
If you have met the charismatic, intellectual former law professor, but not read his memoir, you might assume everything in life conveniently fell into his athletic lap. Khayat exudes a charmed existence, never forgets a name, and could boast (but doesn’t) of a jaw-dropping list of successes ranging across football fields, law school classrooms, academic halls, board rooms, and the family dining table. But a deserved read of his autobiography, The Education of Lifetime, reveals the surprisingly rocky path. On the cover, his former law student John Grisham describes the book as “engaging and unflinching.” But flinch you will as the altruistic, rookie statesman takes the field in a more complex game sans rules and referees, with the stakes as high as every college student’s future.
As Chancellor, the accidental executive adopted a single, albeit daunting, goal. He simply wanted Ole Miss to be a “great American public university.” And just like his 50-yard field goal in Yankee Stadium against the New York Giants in 1960, he scored. But the academic field goal was more challenging and protracted. Along the way, the neophyte administrator would be blindsided, horse-collared, facemasked, stiff-armed, and even benched.
Now, ostensibly retired and living just off the Square in Oxford, Robert Khayat can claim the nearby 640-acre prodigious Ole Miss campus as his trophy case. Notable medals include the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Croft Institute for International Studies, Lott Leadership Institute, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Robert C. Khayat Law Center, and Patterson School of Accountancy.
The WSJ ranking, of course, is not about sports, tailgating, rich traditions, or a pristine oak grove. Rather, the WSJ strives to help “[p]arents and students … find a school that offers excellence, fosters intellectual development, provides practical skills, and … positions its graduates to find a good job.”
In its ranking of over 1,000 schools nationwide, the University of Mississippi came in at 325. The laudable University of Alabama made the list at 398. Expectedly, private schools – with higher tuitions, lower enrollment, and lofty admission standards – rule the top 25 and dominate the top 100. In the SEC, the top rated college is Vanderbilt University, coming in nationally at an impressive 21st ranking. Vandy has a student body of just half that of Ole Miss, and a tuition six times the superb deal offered by Ole Miss. The role of a public university – especially for a state that falls nearer the lower rungs of prosperity – is different and problematic.
The WSJ is hardly the first college guide to tout Ole Miss. In 2012, after Khayat’s retirement but due to his stupendous efforts, Ole Miss landed a prized spot in the Top 20 of Forbes’ Best Value Colleges list. Recognizing this value, out-of-state students flock to Oxford and now make up 40 percent of the student body.
And the run isn’t over. In the fall of 2016, Ole Miss achieved new highs for entering freshmen ACT (24.7) and GPA (3.54). Future enrichment is ensured with a $2.4 billion annual budget (FY2016), total endowment over $600 million, and private gifts exceeding $100 million each year since 2012, with a staggering $194 million in the last fiscal year.
Too often, the ubiquitous college rankings deal with the major sports – football, baseball and basketball – which have an unwarranted but decided impact on high school seniors’ college choices. The academic side of each university, however, plays the crucial role in each graduate’s success in life. The WSJ’s rankings recognize the academic prowess of the University of Mississippi.
It is both paradoxical and pleasing that Robert Khayat, a former jock, deserves the credit for making Ole Miss a Great American Public University.
» Ben Williams, the author, is a Jackson, Mississippi attorney, three-time graduate of Ole Miss, and one of thousands of law students who studied under Law Professor Robert Khayat. Email Ben at MBWJ@aol.com. Ford Williams, the artist, attends the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD)