Lloyd Gray 6/16/09
hed: Khayat has valued the Oxford-Ole Miss 'town and gown' link
By JOE RUTHERFORD
The east portico of the Lyceum, the historic executive office building at the heart of the Ole Miss campus, looks eastward down University Avenue, the tree-shaded connector between campus and the city of Oxford, a thriving, idyllic college community touching the edges of the university's enclave but remaining pleasantly distinct.
The relationship between town and gown in any university community could and should claim distinctions, but Oxford can lay honest claim to extolling the degree in which it and the university are very close but not one.
Outgoing Chancellor Robert Khayat, who will retire in a newly built Oxford home, has helped strengthen that relationship in his 14 years at the helm.
Oxford Mayor Richard Howorth, who leaves office next week after two terms, said Khayat has always been open-minded and even-handed in dealings with the city, and had a record of delegating responsibility - and then becoming the executive decision-maker at the appropriate time.
"He has been involved through his vice chancellors and other assistants, but he is not always directly involved," Howorth said.
Oxford, way back in 1837, was named in hope that it would attract a university like its namesake city in England. As political decisions were made in the mid-19th century, Oxford's founding dream came true. It beat Mississippi City on the Gulf Coast as the site of Mississippi's first state-supported university - by one vote. Oxford had fewer mosquitos up north in the rolling hills, and less health risk, it was said.
In 1848, the University of Mississippi opened its doors.
Today's Oxford/University relationship is strongly cooperative and, most would say, mutually beneficial.
"I can't think of serious disagreement we have had during my tenure as chancellor, except deciding on how we would share fire protection, and we finally resolved that," said Khayat.
There's mutuality in almost everything:
* Many students (or their parents) buy and/or rent real estate while enrolled.
* Many students become Oxford and Lafayette County voters.
* Student and university-related visitors drive sales tax spending and entertainment income.
* Most university employees and faculty members are Oxford residents, and they become participants in community life, with community interests beyond exclusively university concerns, including running for and winning elective public office.
* The university makes its facilities available for some Oxford community activities; the city and university jointly own Ole Miss's first-class baseball home stadium.
* Campus police depend on Oxford police for many joint enforcement issues.
At the bottom line is this: The degree to which Ole Miss prospers, Oxford prospers, and as Oxford prospers it becomes as much an attraction for new residents as the university.
Using the university as its chief amenity, Oxford and Lafayette county lay claim to the second-fastest growth rate in northern Mississippi, second to DeSoto County, part of metropolitan Memphis, U.S. Census studies show.
"I think Oxford and the university have grown in their understanding of the relationship over the years," said Howorth, an Ole Miss alumnus, long-time Oxonian and business owner (Square Books).
Howorth, however, added, "I don't see us (in our relationship with Ole Miss) as being too different from eight years ago, when I was elected. The citizens of the community are almost all very closely connected to the university."
Howorth said Oxford and UM always keep in mind that they are legally separate entities, with unique responsibilities defined by boundaries and "different fiduciary responsibilities. It is not as if we can put it all together in a bag and routinely assimilate it."
Khayat said he recognizes those differences, and has encouraged the university's staff and faculty who live in Oxford to become as deeply involved in civic life as they think appropriate.
Howorth said many points of contact with the university are event-specific, like the long-term planning surrounding the first presidential debate of 2008 on the campus. It drew thousands of visitors to Oxford, which had it own slate of special programs in tandem.
"I think the university appreciates the city of Oxford. I often have said we are joined at the hip," Howorth said.