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The Sweet Spot

By Robert C. Khayat
It was my privilege to serve as chancellor of the University of Mississippi for fourteen years. During that time, I had remarkable opportunities to meet thousands of wonderful people, visit most parts of our nation, observe first-hand the challenges and opportunities we confront individually and as a society, and to begin to understand the complexities of our lives.
In the weeks ahead, I will attempt to introduce you to some of the remarkable people I met, share with you experiences that I had as a result of the office I held, and, perhaps, make you smile or maybe cry.
The word “privilege” is one that I use often, because I am constantly aware of the gifts we share as Americans. Frequently, I have asked random selections of people what they value and cherish most as Americans. Without exception, the answer is freedom.
Not only the First Amendment freedoms of assembly, speech, religion, press and petition, but the freedom to move about as we wish, to go fishing or to the library if we choose. I am going to try to avoid fussing at you or at myself, but I am going to urge all of us to not forget, in fact to actively remember and talk about our privileges –– beginning with freedom.
It seems that a presidential campaign places more emphasis on what is wrong rather than what is right about America. There is no doubt that we face serious issues at home and across the world, but our history teaches us that we have repeatedly confronted and conquered economic distress (The Great Depression), war (WWI, WWII, as well as Korea, Vietnam and now the Middle East), social unrest (the 1960s and ‘70s), disaster (Katrina and the Dust Bowl), major changers in social and physical structures (the Civil Rights Movement and interstate highways), and this list could continue. The point I wish to make is that it is within our power and ability to manage contemporary challenges.
To do so, we must find ways to reach middle ground in our public discourse. The current gridlock most evident at the national level is in fact found locally as well. The freedoms we enjoy are founded on the belief that thoughtful people will rationally disagree and seek good-faith resolution of even the most divisive issues.
As chancellor, I participated in a number of highly emotional discussions where all of us found it difficult to maintain our composure, listen to and hear those with whom we disagreed, and keep our focus on the question: What is best for the university—our students, faculty, staff and the public we serve? An easy trap is to not hear those who disagree with you and fail to see that there are probably at least two sides to every disagreement.
So often, those of us on the outside of a public discussion do not have adequate (or accurate) information on which to make a decision or perhaps even have an opinion. I learned as chancellor if I would listen to those who disagreed with me, I almost always softened my attitude and frequently modified any decisions that were mine to make. Of course, the difficulty is always finding the “sweet spot” of balance that is so critical in all we do.
I have intentionally avoided specific examples of some of the challenges that were part of the life of the university, the state or nation. Because of my experience as chancellor, I am probably qualified to discuss matters of concern of the university and plan to do so. However, items on the national agenda demand a lot more accurate information ­­––facts–– than are available to those of us in the general population. By taking this approach, I am adhering to one of the lessons I learned as chancellor–Do not speak or write unless you know the facts.

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