Dr. Robert Khayat, a graduate of the University of Mississippi and former pro football player who served as the university’s chancellor from 1995 to 2009, has just come out with a new memoir, The Education of a Lifetime. In it, he details the challenges he faced during his chancellorship.
Weld: Tell us about your affiliations with Ole Miss prior to being the university’s chancellor.
Robert Khayat: I was an undergraduate student there from 1956 to 1960, where I played football and baseball. Then I came back after some time in pro football [with the Washington Redskins]. I went to law school, got a degree, practiced law, and then became a faculty member at the law school. Later, I served as vice chancellor for development, and then ultimately became chancellor in 1995.
Weld: What were your greatest challenges as chancellor?
RK: There were many, but I think our biggest challenge was to revitalize and inspire our faculty, staff, students, and alumni to believe that we could compete with the best universities in America.
Weld: What were your greatest accomplishments?
RK: Strengthening the creation of new academic programs, such as the Honors College, the International Studies program and the Institute for Racial Reconciliation. I think those were really important. We were able to revitalize and beautify our campus. We built a beautiful performing arts center, and renovated and restored lots of old buildings. A number of academic programs, such as accountancy and pharmacy, achieved national recognition and are included among the top five of those programs nationally.
We were granted the right to host a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most respected academic honorary organization in the world. They only grant membership to two or three schools a year. We had been, for many years, denied membership for a variety of reasons, but we were finally able to meet those standards. It was very important for us that we gained membership to that prestigious group. I think that a lot of faculty, students, alumni and staff felt better about Ole Miss than we had before. We had struggled for many years with cultural challenges, but now we’ve made lots of progress in those areas.
Weld: The theme of “opposition to change” runs throughout the book. A number of times you said that many people explained their purpose for doing things as, “Well, because we’ve always done it this way.” How did this affect your career and your goals?
RK: I just knew there were things that we had to do if we were going to enhance our standing among other universities, and some of those things included change. I developed this phrase that I used: “Most people want progress, but hardly anybody wants change.” It’s almost impossible to make progress without changing some things, and so we had to address a number of issues, some of them as fundamental as how we managed our budget, others more emotional and public, like the disassociation from the Confederate flag, which was a really difficult and emotional national issue that we positively resolved.
If you didn’t grow up in this environment, then you don’t really have any way of knowing how mixed the feelings are about the traditions of the Old South as opposed to modern America. [My team and] I felt that the university had the duty to help lead our state and region forward, and to help create more progressive attitudes.
Weld: What were some of the traditions?
RK: There was this national perception that Ole Miss was a “Deep South” university, wedded to the traditions of the past, mostly related to race. We had to make it clear that we were a progressive, open university and that respect was the value that we embraced and promoted, without regard to politics or wealth or religion or race or gender or anything else. [Waving the Confederate flag at Ole Miss games used to be] a tradition, but the flag was never an official symbol or mark of the University. It had become so associated with us that people assumed it was “our” flag, and the truth is that once the Ku Klux Klan, and the Neo-Nazis, and the Skinheads, and other negative groups misappropriated that flag, the university just couldn’t have the same kinds of symbols. It was just unacceptable. But there was a lot of emotion tied up in that flag. I’m 75, and people from my generation had grown up with that flag being part of our lives without any awareness that it had racial implications.
Weld: What led you to write this memoir?
RK: Several things. One is that I had a very public job, and every day we read about public figures and we get headlines, stories, television and radio reports, but we don’t ever really get the background information. I felt a duty to tell people who had any interest in what we were doing some of the background behind the ultimate decisions. There’s always a backstory, and it hardly ever gets told.
Public officials have to be discreet, but they reach a point when there’s a time to tell the public the full story. I felt that because of the public nature of a public university, it was important that someone who was on the inside of the decision-making process, to do society a real service by telling more about each of the major events that occurred over the period of 14 years that I served as chancellor. That, and I’ve always wanted to write a book. I don’t know why, I always did. I didn’t think I had time until now.
Khayat will be signing copies of his memoir next week at the Southeastern Conference Headquarters in downtown Birmingham on Tuesday, October 29 at 5:30 pm. Books can be purchased at the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood or at www.alabamabooksmith.com.