By NEMS Daily Journal
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate recognition on a university campus than the one that took place at the University of Mississippi on Friday.
Ole Miss dedicated its new law school building in honor of Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat, and the Khayat Law Center will permanently inscribe on one part of campus the name of a man whose legacy spans the entire university.
Khayat’s association with Ole Miss, first as a student, then as a faculty member, then as an administrator and chief executive, began 55 years ago. His tenure as chancellor from 1995 until 2009 was the most productive in the history of the university.
Long before Ole Miss students knew him as their chancellor, Khayat held forth in the law school classroom, where he intellectually nurtured hundreds of budding legal minds. He was known as a professor who held his students to high standards but whose kindness, compassion and sense of humor engendered a rare loyalty and affection among those he taught. That was evident in abundance in the crowd on Friday.
Khayat was at his best during his chancellorship when employing the logic, reason and persuasiveness of a skilled, well-trained lawyer, and the manner of an approachable university professor.
Those qualities helped him lead Ole Miss through unprecedented growth in academic programs, enrollment, fundraising and facilities expansion. They also were the hallmark of his efforts to help the university change where change was needed, as in distancing Ole Miss from its lingering image as an Old South bastion, owed to its long-ago integration crisis and its attachment to Confederate symbolism.
These were not easy changes, and it’s safe to assume that only someone with Khayat’s history at the university and the reservoir of trust and respect he enjoyed would have been successful at the task. The Phi Beta Kappa designation the university eventually received would not have come without those changes, nor would the university’s heightened national profile.
In addition to the impact he had as a law professor, it is especially appropriate that the new law center be named for Khayat given that its genesis was in his chancellorship. It is just one of many projects birthed in that era that will be at the heart of the university’s life and mission for decades to come.
Khayat, as is typical of him, attempted to downplay the personal nature of Friday’s event, preferring to see it as a celebration of the university and its achievements. That it was.
But without his legacy of leadership, Ole Miss would never have been in a position to have such a celebration. That makes it – appropriately – about him, too.