Khayat discusses new book, time at university

Posted on Sep 6 2013 - 8:04am by Bracey Harris
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Robert Khayat, Chancellor Emeritus.
Photo by Austin McAfee.

To say former University of Mississippi chancellor Robert Khayat has lived a storied life is an understatement. That story will be shared with the public when Khayat’s first memoir, “The Education of a Lifetime,” is released Sept. 10.

When the Moss Point native enrolled at The University of Mississippi in 1956, he could not predict the bond that would be forged and would last for decades.

“It was a pretty natural decision,” said Khayat of choosing to attend the university.

The first connection Khayat had with Ole Miss was his high school football coach, Dixie Howell, who played football for the Rebels.

After Khayat witnessed two practices of the Ole Miss football team in Biloxi for the Sugar Bowl, which was full of, as he described, “glitz and flashiness,” his decision was made. Although he was tempted to go to LSU or Alabama, he never lost that special feeling for Ole Miss.

Now, 67 years after enrolling, Khayat reflects on his 14 years as chancellor of The University of Mississippi in his memoir.

In his book Khayat takes readers on a journey from his childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to his efforts to challenge the image of Ole Miss as an institution still mired in racial hostility and shape it into one of America’s premier public universities.

Tuesday, The Daily Mississippian sat down with Khayat before he headed off to a reception for his new book.

Sitting in the parlor of the Lyceum, one thing became apparent: Khayat knows how to handle the press — a fact that’s not surprising considering the almost constant scrutiny his administration received as a result of dealing with some of the university’s most controversial symbols.

A lettered student athlete, Khayat played on the university’s baseball and football teams. The baseball team won the SEC championship, but state officials banned them from participating in the College World Series for fear they would compete against black players.

He explained that although segregation was considered the norm, he and several of his teammates grew up playing sandlot ball with black kids. Although they would never be classmates, friendships were still able to develop in some cases.

“It broke our hearts,” he said of the decision that caused them to miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

When Khayat’s administration challenged the use of the Confederate flag, a regional outrage ensued.

It can certainly be argued that the last time he drew such ire from the Ole Miss fan base was when he missed the field goal against Tennessee, but even that response paled in comparison. No death threats were received over three points.

He is blunt about why the flag removal process got underway. Coaches informed him that other schools were using it against them.

So the decision was made to remove the Rebel flag with tact. Arguments were made that the fans purchase tickets with the expectation to see the field, not a flag. So the size of the flag was regulated. Next came the safety issue. As a result, no sticks with a pointed edge were allowed, including umbrellas, flags and hot dogs on a stick.

Khayat’s dedication to racial progress might come as a surprise. After all, he grew up a white man in one of the most extreme situations of racism, known as the “Southern way of life.”

When asked what made him different from many others of his generation, he pointed to his late parents.

“Did your mother teach you?” he asked. “It was the same with me. My parents taught me to respect everyone regardless of race.”

The progress of the university was questioned in the aftermath of the 2012 election protests.

Khayat’s view on race at Ole Miss is a sentiment shared by many. Things are not perfect, but we are much further than we were.

“I am confident that they’re still conflicts, but they aren’t limited to Ole Miss and Mississippi,” Khayat said.