Joe Rutherford 6/16/09
Lloyd Gray 6/17/09
hed: Old South symbols bent to Khayat’s influence
By JOE RUTHERFORD
Robert Khayat came to the Ole Miss chancellorship with the controversy surrounding the university’s use of symbols associated with the Confederate South widely discussed but unresolved.
The controversy had not encountered Khayat.
He understood what was at stake from inside the tent, and rather than back off he confronted the issue.
“I knew we had to deal with the flag if we were going to be able to move on to larger, more important goals,” he said.
The controversy probably would not have been resolved so decisively had not their presence at athletic contests become a source for worries about recruiting – especially African-American football players turned off by a flag associated with slavery.
Decades of Ole Miss students and fans routinely waved small Confederate battle flags stapled to small dowel sticks, and the band playing “Dixie,” a Civil War-era march favored by southerners, egged on the partisans.
Another ubiquitous symbol, a “Col. Rebel” mascot – a costume donned by a student and worn on the sidelines at football games – personified the image of a planter, white-clad, broad-brimmed hat, and carrying a cane. It was a total Old South package.
Controversy about the flag bubbled to the surface as early as the tenure of Chancellor Porter Fortune (1968-1984) who declared that the Confederate banner was not an official emblem.
Then, competing coaches and players learned that the flag, the colonel and “Dixie” all could be used against Ole Miss in recruiting.
The flags disappeared when Khayat – ever the lawyer – banned sticks/staffs in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. No sticks, no flag waving.
Some of the few diehards who would not comply were asked politely to stop using the flags, and some who would not were removed.
Some who hung flags over the side of the stadium, flat against the concrete, were approached directly during games by Khayat, and asked to remove them. His persuasion prevailed.
Next went Col. Rebel, with some straightforward praise from some black football players – and great sighs of relief from many alumni and fans who were glad to have it all behind them.
“I think Chancellor Khayat was uniquely qualified to deal successfully with the situation,” said Tupelo attorney Guy Mitchell III.
Mitchell, an ardent Ole Miss supporter and fan who has multiple season ticket packages and is a graduate of the law school, said Khayat has the “combination of experience as an Ole Miss graduate, as a former football player, as an NFL player, and as a much loved faculty member, that gave him impeccable credibility with all alumni.”
Mitchell said the “trickle down” from a popular chancellor’s office can’t be discounted.
“I think most alumni were actually relieved it was over. Many who wanted the flag and the Col. Reb gone did not have the standing to be persuasive, but Khayat solved that problem,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said some fans will never forgive nor forget but they are in a minority, and there will be no turning back.
In some ways, Khayat’s timing preempted Ole Miss from further exposure when controversy erupted after the NCAA banned the use of offensive Native American images and nicknames by sports teams during postseason tournaments.
Stanford University, which had been the Indians, changed its mascot to Cardinal, a color, during the 1960s, when complaints about inappropriate racial/ethnic stereotypes first surfaced.
Khayat, in a recent interview with the Daily Journal, said the Confederate/slave-era mascots and symbols damaged the university’s reputation and its quest to become recognized as a great public university.
Khayat also said a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the most-cherished honorary society, would never have been granted the university if the flag and the colonel had remained.
Khayat also has dealt with Ole Miss’s image as a party school – a campus and culture soaked in alcohol and not adequately concerned with academics.
The naming of a special study committee – and behind-the-scenes work to change state laws – ended long-ignored restrictions about adult drinking on campus and legalized drinking by students 21 and older in specific places on the campus where alcohol is legal by local and state statute. The law allows institutional rules wide latitude in controlling drinking site-specific.
Alcohol and excess use have not disappeared, but the new law and new rules lay out specific parameters of tolerance, which is proving workable and enforceable in most cases.