Note: the following was originally published in the Capital Area Bar Association Newsletter.
The Education of a Lifetime is former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat’s memoir. Sprinkled with wisdom and humor, the book is an enjoyable read. Divided into seventy-five short chapters, the book covers Khayat’s childhood in Moss Point, playing football for Ole Miss and the Washington Redskins and ends with his term as chancellor at Ole Miss. Khayat’s life intersected with many renowned Mississippians and important events over the last fifty years. Like Forrest Gump, Khayat hung out with Elvis, played for a legendary football coach and has a charming personality. Unlike Forrest Gump, Khayat is smart.
When I picked up the book I was eager to read Khayat’s account of losing his bid to become dean of the Ole Miss Law School in October 1993. As one of Khayat’s former students, I supported his being named dean. But in a surprising (to me) 14-7 vote, the law school faculty voted Khayat “not acceptable.” The book explains that the fourteen faculty members who voted against Khayat viewed him as unacceptable because they wanted an African-America dean of the law school. Ironically, the faculty members who were trying to improve the law school’s image on racial issues were voting against a man who would go on to lead the University’s efforts to modernize its image on racial issues. The faculty vote was hurtful to Khayat. But it all worked out for the best. Khayat was named Chancellor of the entire university. And it’s likely that some of the faculty members who voted against Khayat now work in the new law school that bears Khayat’s name. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
Two years after Khayat lost his bid to become dean of the law school, the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning unanimously selected Khayat as the fifteenth chancellor of the University of Mississippi. Khayat served as chancellor for fourteen years. He led the transformation of Ole Miss from a second class university to a flagship institution of which the entire state can be proud.
When I arrived in Oxford as a law school student in 1990, two things quickly became apparent to me: (1) people who attended Ole Miss as undergraduates had a deep affinity for the university and Oxford; and (2) I did not understand why. I did not tell anyone that, but I remember thinking it. I also remember feeling a bit guilty about my thoughts. But now I do not have to feel guilty—Khayat basically says the same things in his memoir.
The transformation of the university and Oxford during Khayat’s tenure was remarkable. When Khayat became Chancellor, the campus looked run-down and the main library was a bit of a dump. The appearance of the buildings and grounds on campus were vastly improved. Khayat led efforts to raise funds for projects like the Barksdale Honors College, Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts (site of a 2008 presidential debate) and library improvements required for the school to obtain a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
There was also little appealing about the City of Oxford in 1990 compared to today. A first time visitor to Oxford today would have a hard time envisioning the town just twenty years ago. During that time period, the square transformed from appearing to be on life support to arguably the coolest venue in the state. Twenty years ago people drove into Oxford on game days and left town after the game. Now, Oxford is a destination even on non-game weekends.
Rather than run from Ole Miss’s embarrassing past on racial issues, Khayat tackled them head on. In Charles Eagles’ book the Price of Defiance- James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, Eagles examines the lingering damage caused to Ole Miss by the State of Mississippi’s open resistance to Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. In The Education of a Lifetime, Khayat picks up where Eagles left off and describes the efforts in the 1990’s to 2000’s to repair the scars at Ole Miss caused by the resistance to end white supremacy. Khayat notes: “[t]hose of us who grew up in the white South, and particularly Mississippi, were so accustomed to Old South songs and sights and symbols during sporting events that the origins of the emblems weren’t carefully considered. Nor was the pain they caused.”
The two main symbols Khayat is talking about are the Confederate flag and the Colonel Rebel mascot. Khayat—at the urging of the head coaches of all the major sports on campus—realized that these symbols had to go. Yes they hurt the university on the playing fields because it made recruiting black athletes harder. But more importantly, these symbols stained the university’s perception nationally and linked the school to Mississippi’s efforts to prevent desegregation and an end to white supremacy in the 1960’s. To many people, the symbols made Ole Miss look racist.
The decision to eliminate confederate symbols at Ole Miss was deeply unpopular with some people. The school received hundreds of letters protesting the decision, including many filled with curses and threats. Honestly, many of those who were most offended were nuts. But unfortunately, it was not just crack-pots who were unhappy with Khayat’s leadership on the symbol issue. Khayat had friends who disagreed with the decision and let him know it. There was no convincing many people who disagreed with the decision to move forward by cutting some of the ties with the past. But it’s hard to argue with the University’s success since those decisions were made.
Getting rid of Colonel Rebel was fairly easy. Getting rid of Confederate flags at games raised First Amendment issues and was a trickier problem. Ultimately, the school did not ban the flag. Instead, it banned the sticks that flags are attached to. It was pretty clever. The implementation of the stick ban is a good story that Khayat covers in detail.
Khayat is about as humble of a former professional athlete as you will ever find. Most of the football stories in the book center on Khayat’s descriptions of being physically over-matched when he arrived at Ole Miss and in the NFL. Maybe so. But Khayat was a key member of Ole Miss’ greatest football team ever: the 1959 team that gave up a total of twenty-one points for the entire season, shut out eight opponents, and lost only to Billy Cannon and LSU on the most famous single play in the history of college football. If Ole Miss stops Cannon’s epic 89-yard punt return or punches it in near the goal line later in the game, the 1959 teams goes down in history as probably the greatest college football team of all time. Khayat made the Ole Miss team of the century, played in an NFL Pro Bowl and was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
One of the funniest stories in the book is Khayat’s description of introducing himself to Ole Miss’ legendary football coach Johnny Vaught when Khayat arrived at Ole Miss as a freshman. Vaught, who was hitting golf balls in a campus field at the time, dismissed Khayat with, “I look forward to you being a Rebel, Eddie.” Then, whenever Khayat kicked a field goal or extra point, Vaught would congratulate him with “good job, Eddie.”
The Education of a Lifetime is both informative and enjoyable. Anyone with an interest in Ole Miss, Oxford or Mississippi history will probably like “Ed’s” book.