SID SALTER: Khayat’s memoir offers lessons on change

H9BW_sid_salter_opinion_cilumnThe national perception of Mississippi is a hard nut to crack. Regardless the realities which explode the perceived myths once we actually can get someone disparaging the state to pay us a visit and give us a try, the perceptions of our state as poor, backward, insular, and in many cases racist, remain.

Perhaps no university president since MSU’s Dean Colvard in 1963 recognized that fact more readily than did former Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat – who led Ole Miss from 1995 through 2009. Colvard risked his life and career at MSU in authorizing the “Game of Change” with an integrated Loyola of Chicago team in the 1963 NCAA basketball tournament.

Khayat wrestled some of those same demons 34 years later in the 1990s when he took on his university’s Old South vestiges – the Confederate flag, the song “Dixie” and other symbols that he came to believe were holding the university back.

When Mississippi State’s 2013 baseball team made it the finals of the NCAA College World Series earlier this year, ESPN announcer Mike Patrick incensed many Mississippians with a poorly constructed on-air remark that was – I think – actually intended as a compliment about how well MSU fans traveled for the historic deep tournament run.

“The coaches told us this morning a lot of people came here from Mississippi that can’t afford the trip,” said Patrick. “But they came here to support their kids. They are so proud of them and everybody is waiting for this team to explode.”

Regardless the fact that MSU fans had filled Omaha’s nicest hotels to overflowing, packed the city’s best restaurants, and turned the Ameritrade Park baseball venue into a literal sea of maroon and white, the perception of “poor old Mississippi” prevailed. Patrick’s garbled syntax in describing the huge MSU crowd to a national TV audience didn’t help.

In Khayat’s new book “The Education of a Lifetime” (Nautilus Publishing, 320 pages), the former Ole Miss and Washington Redskin football player describes the challenges of taking ownership of changing Mississippi’s image and the image of his alma mater during his tenure at Ole Miss. The book offers insights into leadership and the difficulties of leadership when one is sailing against the winds of popularity.

The book offers an honest account of how Khayat led Ole Miss through a painful period. I taught journalism at Ole Miss in the late 1990s and watched the slope-shouldered chancellor bear up to public criticism from friend and foe alike. I watched and heard several of the protests led by out-of-state race baiters.

Likewise, I saw loyal Ole Miss fans who didn’t agree with Khayat on his philosophies. But as several voices in the Khayat memoir note, Robert Khayat was the only chancellor who could have accomplished what he did at Ole Miss not merely in terms of addressing troublesome symbolisms, but in orchestrating a strong movement to a new and better image.

Khayat’s swan song was his work along with staff member Andy Mullins in bringing the 2008 presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain to the Gertrude Ford Center at Ole Miss.

The nation saw a different Ole Miss, a different Oxford and a different Mississippi during the national and international coverage of that debate.

Khayat’s book is a reminder that our state’s universities play a unique role in bending the tired old erroneous perceptions of Mississippi. Like Colvard did in 1963, Khayat had the courage to go against the political grain to do what he believed was right and what forced people to take a second look at Mississippi.

His memories of that compelling journey make for a remarkable, worthwhile book that both enlightens and entertains.

SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.