Chancellor reinvents tarnished image of Ole Miss

Published 11:13 pm Saturday, November 1, 2008

Moments before Barack Obama and John McCain took the stage for the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi, the crowd of more than 700 gave Chancellor Robert Khayat a standing ovation.

Khayat has had many incarnations — All-Pro NFL kicker, law professor, fundraiser — but the applause was acknowledgment that the 70-year-old’s true calling seems to be his current job: making Ole Miss into a national player for reasons beyond its racially charged past.

Khayat believes the school’s all-out effort to host the presidential debate and a subsequent appearance by Obama sent a strong message to the rest of the country.

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“An honest look at us,” Khayat said, “will say this is a university that came from 1962 — where it took the United State military and the president to get one black person in school — to a very diverse community where people treat each other with respect and affection.”

The Sept. 26 debate was held just a few hundreds yards from where two people were killed and dozens injured during the effort to keep James Meredith out of Ole Miss.

For decades, the school couldn’t shake off the effects of what Meredith called the war to force his enrollment. Many believe Khayat’s leadership pushed Ole Miss to the point where it could withstand the probing questions of thousands of journalists, and to confront the questions that have lingered within the school itself.

“Our current chancellor is certainly a little bit more than the physical leader of our university,” said vice provost Donald Cole, the founder of the Ole Miss Black Student Union who was expelled in 1970 for protesting conditions for minority students. “In a real sense, over the last 10 years he’s really been our spiritual leader as well. He’s kind of taken a mediocre university and he’s made the people believe in themselves.”

A favored son who was both an academic and athletic star, Khayat took over a listing institution in 1995. He realized the school had a poor self image and immediately issued a challenge — turn Ole Miss into a great American university.

As a fundraiser, Khayat is a salesman like few others. Gregarious and leonine, his calendar is mapped out months in advance and dotted with openings, dedications and announcements of new partnerships and donations.

Under Khayat, the university has raised nearly $800 million in private donations. His Campaign for Excellence alone earned a staggering $529.6 million.

“The outpouring from the Campaign of Excellence was from individuals that were just waiting for the right person to come along,” Cole said. “Those individuals who gave $1 million, the chancellor looked them dead in the eye and said, ’You can give $5 million.’ Nobody else could’ve said that but the chancellor.”

All this money has led to more of everything that makes a university attractive: research opportunities, better pay for professors, smaller class sizes, new facilities, federal programs. Forbes Magazine now ranks the school a top 25 public university.

For the pitch to work, Khayat knew he’d have to make Ole Miss — the name used to by slaves to describe the matriarch of a plantation — an acceptable place to invest those millions.

Khayat, who is white, was born poor on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Moss Point. College would have been out of the question without a scholarship.

When he got there, he quickly grew to love the free exchange of ideas, interacting with his professors and — as an athlete — seeing the best of what college life had to offer.

He went on to a Pro Bowl career as a kicker with the Washington Redskins.

Over time, he was drawn back to Oxford, returning to Ole Miss in 1963 to start law school. He found a campus still hostile to minorities, but softening. He joined the faculty as a law professor before spending some time in private practice and going back to become vice chancellor for development in 1984.

The school’s “scars and abrasions,” as Khayat calls them, have always been evident. But as he took over, he wondered how outsiders viewed the school. One of the first things he did was ask his friend and longtime Ole Miss benefactor Jerry Hollingsworth to help him assess the situation.

Hollingsworth, a retired doctor and car dealership owner who’s given so much money to the university that the football field is named for him, helped fund a study on Ole Miss’ image.

Khayat began a campaign against the Confederate flag, long an unofficial emblem for the school and its football team. He was met with an unexpected furor he called the toughest he’s encountered, yet dealt with it in a creative way: He couldn’t limit a flagbearer’s right to free speech, but he could limit the right to carry sticks into the stadium.

The ban was enacted in 1997 and stood up to a court challenge.

“What’s interesting about that is the private giving to the university went up,” Khayat said.

It instantly became easier for donors to give and for groups like Phi Beta Kappa to have a presence on campus.

University enrollment is up 5,000 in Khayat’s tenure to a school-record 17,601, with about 2,000 minority students.