The Talented Mr. Canoe: Khayat Book a Study in Courage

'Skin in the Game: As a Washington Redskin, Khayat's battles against Big Daddy Lipscomb at the line of scrimmage would pale in comparison to his fight to change Ole Miss for the better.
‘Skin in the Game: Khayat’s NFL battles against Big Daddy Lipscomb at the line of scrimmage would pale in comparison to his fight to change Ole Miss for the better.

Former chancellor’s life story is one of intense love of Ole Miss and dogged determination to better it.

It’s always disappointing when I read angry epistles on the Internet from certain Ole Miss “fans” griping that Robert Khayat “ruined” Ole Miss by removing the confederate flag and Colonel Reb (the latter left the sidelines in 2003). It’s ironic, because the same people are ecstatic anytime Oxford and Ole Miss are mentioned—and they are mentioned often—in national media in laudatory terms.

Even the more extreme of the complainers beam as they boast about how gorgeous the grounds and buildings are at Ole Miss and takes personal pride in academic achievements announced regularly from the university. They excitedly gear up for football season after the most incredible football signing day in Rebel history. And they take it all for granted.

The Education of a Lifetime, Robert Khayat’s new autobiography, should be required reading for anyone who calls himself an Ole Miss fan and especially those who pine for symbols of a Ross Barnett-era, idealized image of what some folks, perhaps innocently, think those symbols mean. The nation now takes Ole Miss seriously, and you can thank Robert Khayat.

When the former championship Rebel kicker, NFL player, law professor, and vice chancellor took over as chancellor, Ole Miss was in decay. Physically and developmentally, the campus was dying. Football was in a holding pattern of mediocrity, based in an outdated stadium. A study revealed that most people around the country knew nothing about Ole Miss, and those who had any impression at all just knew us for racism, specifically the Meredith riot and the confederate flag. Every head coach in any sport in the modern age battled the image of racism when trying to recruit black players—in fact, rival teams kept files of negative images of Ole Miss to scare recruits away from Oxford (this practice continues, but is typically a failure once recruits visit Oxford and Ole Miss today). All of the above had to change, and in The Education of a Lifetime, Khayat shares the journey he undertook to resurrect all that is fantastic about Ole Miss, expand and improve upon it exponentially, and share our story with a nation.

Before Khayat left office, that nation tuned in to watch a presidential debate broadcast from the Ford Center, hearing positive reports from thousands of journalists whose story of Ole Miss was about the present, not the past, informed of myriad strides attributable to Khayat’s leadership. The Ole Miss story no longer ended with the Meredith enrollment. And it now has no end in sight.

Khayat’s narrative in Education, sharing his emotions, conflicts, and struggles, goes back and forth in time, offering anecdotes from the many phases of his life—giving glimpses of the challenges and experiences along the way that shaped his courage to enable him to make hard decisions as chancellor and see them through. His all-encompassing love not only for Ole Miss but for the state of Mississippi and its image and future is inspiring.

It is with no pride that I confess that I, too, ignorantly but with good intent once thought there was nothing wrong with the confederate flag; my view was that we all viewed it as a symbol of school spirit and football, and if the nation couldn’t understand we didn’t imbue the flag with racist intent, then they were the ignorant ones. I thank Robert Khayat for opening the blinds and letting the sunlight of the outside world into the minds of many like me who just didn’t get it. Imagine the absurdity of the notion: “We’re not racists. You’re supposed to come talk to us and find that out. Don’t mind the big flag on the Grove tent. Why isn’t anyone interested in Ole Miss?” As much as so many Ole Miss faithful understood, or thought we understood, the splitting of hairs that made our meaning for the symbols different from from that at a Klan rally, Khayat quickly realized that outside the Grove, there is only one interpretation of the flag, and it was the latter. That interpretation was understandable, but Khayat knew we could fight it.

His obsession—and he uses the word “obsession”—with kickstarting and fueling Ole Miss’s return to glory, by taking ownership of and doing something about the elephant in the room that is race, was the driving force that primed the pump for university achievements during his chancellorship, including the following as just a few examples:

  • Between 1995 and 2009, enrollment at Ole Miss grew 78.5 percent.
  • Research and development grants at Ole Miss topped $100 million during each of the last eight years of his chancellorship.
  • The university’s endowment grew from $114.3 million to $472.4. The operating budget grew from less than $500 million to nearly $1.5 billion.
  • Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigiouis liberal arts honor society, awarded a chapter to Ole Miss (the inch-at-a-time progress Khayat made toward getting the chapter is an interesting part of the book and a perfect illustration of the critical importance of his taking on race issues).
  • The Barksdale Honors College, Croft Institute for International Studies, Lott Leadership Institute, and William Winter Institute for Racial Reconcilation were created.
  • The number of National Merit Finalists in the freshmen class more than doubled.
  • More than $535 was invested in physical facilities on the Oxford and Jackson campuses.

Khayat’s stated mission was to transform Ole Miss into a great public university. That mission was accomplished in only 13 years, and the progress continues. It would be impossible for a book about that journey to be uninteresting, but even so, this tome is made all the more engaging by Khayat’s knack for telling the inside stories. Among those anecdotes is one about how Ole Miss got the funding for the very arts center that would enable Ole Miss to attract the presidential debate. Tip your hat to Mr. Canoe.

Robert Khayat’s The Education of a Lifetime goes on sale at all fine bookstores on September 10, 2013. For more information, or to order online, visit RobertKhayat.com.

— Tad Wilkes, tad.wilkes@hottytoddy.com

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