It’s been just more than a year since Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter was inaugurated in front of a full house at the Gertrude C. Ford Center and almost two years since his first day on the job, standing on the sidelines as blue and red confetti rained down on him and the victorious Ole Miss football team at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
In that time, he’s gained some fans with his jokes on Twitter and quirky tie collection, and he regularly releases blog posts from his own website, keeping the campus updated with big happenings on campus.
The Daily Mississippian sat down with Vitter and talked about what the last almost 700 days in office has been like serving as the 17th chancellor for the University of Mississippi.
At his investiture last November, themed “The Power of Higher Education to Transform Lives, Communities and World,” Vitter said he was privileged to be a partner in building a vibrant Mississippi through higher education.
He said he still believes higher education is the most important investment a state can make and he’s still committed to creating a better Mississippi.
Paving the way to that brighter future cannot be done in a day, though. During his first 100 days on the job, Vitter met with more than 200 groups in what he called the 100-day learning and listening tour. After interacting with thousands of stakeholders during that time, certain themes emerged. Those themes are academic excellence; healthy and vibrant communities; people, places and resources; and athletics excellence.
These four themes would be the basis for his Flagship Forward strategic plan. A transformative initiative under the academic excellence theme in the plan is the Flagship Constellations Initiative, which Vitter announced plans for at his investiture. There is a kickoff event for this initiative Friday at the Ford Center, where initial efforts will begin and a big donation will be announced.
“We have four constellations as they’re called, but basically, they are centers of excellence we’re going to be national leaders in, and that can really help recruit superstars,” Vitter said. “It’ll be a great way of attracting people to the university, whether that’s faculty, staff or students.”
Goals under the Flagship Constellations include: enhance the quality of academic programs, support faculty excellence, enhance students’ success and increase research and creative achievement.
Vitter said he didn’t have a favorite pillar, but as a flagship university, Ole Miss is focused on its academic excellence.
“Everything else follows from academic excellence. Our ability to make a real difference in the world is only there because of the excellence of what we do in the scholarly arena,” he said. “That’s probably driving everything, but all the pillars are really important.”
Vitter said a strategic plan, like Flagship Forward, is not about everything the university wants to get done but what needs to be focused on right now to achieve a next level of excellence.
Vitter said inevitable change is a part of getting better, so he’s actively thought about and discussed what changes the university and community do not want to see. This was a major lead in to the contextualization efforts on campus.
Vitter founded the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context in June 2016, which brought together about a dozen university community members to make recommendations for things on campus that should be contextualized or changed.
This came after a smaller committee drafted the text for a contextualization plaque for the Confederate soldier statue in the Circle. Many campus and community groups were upset with the wording of the text and not being included in the conversation. Some even argued that the statue should be removed rather than contextualized.
Vitter said the effort in contextualizing is to make it loud and clear that Ole Miss is a welcoming, diverse campus.
“That is our goal, and contextualization is a way of, frankly, acknowledging difficult parts of our past,” Vitter said. “I like to say we neither hide from nor hide the problems of our past, but as an educational institution, we’re learning from it.”
He’s also spoken with hundreds of stakeholders through forums and surveys figuring out what other parts of the Ole Miss identity shouldn’t change. The answer? Ole Miss Rebels.
Though Vitter changed the official on-field mascot for the university from the Black Bear to the Landshark this semester, he said the name “Ole Miss Rebels” is here to stay.
“We will always be Ole Miss Rebels,” Vitter said. “We’re Ole Miss Rebels for all the right reasons. Ole Miss Rebels are Rebels with a cause to be entrepreneurs, trendsetters, teammates, caregivers, people that really look out for others and ultimately leaders. That’s what an Ole Miss Rebel is. It’s not the Rebel from the old days.”
Athletics haven’t always brought happy announcements, though. It was just this past July when Vitter and Athletics Director Ross Bjork announced the resignation of head coach Hugh Freeze following a “pattern of personal misconduct,” including using a university-issued phone to call a number associated with an escort service. While all of this is happening, the impending verdicts of 21 NCAA allegations loom over the football team and university.
Other highlights during his two years include Ole Miss being classified as a Carnegie R-1 research university and the plans for $180 million expansion project on the university’s medical center’s children’s hospital.
“What we do at the university, both here and at the medical center, is really amazing, and we’re going to be moving forward in a number of important ways to capitalize on what we can do to strengthen our state, and, as I say, ‘There’s no more important investment for a state than higher education,’” Vitter said.
– Lana Ferguson