Thursday, January 20, 2022

Robert Khayat — A Legacy of Respect and Accomplishment

 

Photo by Robert Jordan
Former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat

Note from Steve Vassallo, HottyToddy.com contributor: Former Chancellor Robert Khayat experienced one of the greatest challenges that anyone could ever undertake. He attempted to change something most dear to him in order to preserve it while, at the same time, making it even greater. This was done under one of the most scrutinizing microscopes anyone could ever endure. Throughout this process, he became a leader that would place him in the “hall of fame” of life. At the end of his tenure as Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, even his fiercest critics had to be impressed. Here are his reflections.
HottyToddy.com — Chancellor, in my opinion (as well as countless others) no two individuals have done more to promote the image of Ole Miss than yourself and John H. Vaught. How do you feel about this statement and viewpoint?
Robert Khayat — Coach Vaught put Ole Miss on the map via athletics. Our team, that I was fortunate to work with, (both internally and externally) was charged with the responsibility of changing the perception of the University. The erroneous images of Ole Miss that evolved from the events of 1962 were a challenge with which previous chancellors and their staffs also had to cope.
HottyToddy.com — During your tenure as Chancellor, what was your most difficult decision?
Robert Khayat — Providing adequate resources for faculty, students and staff. Education is our product but we must operate pursuant to sound business principles. We provide educational opportunities. The university is similar to a municipality in that we are responsible for many of the same systems such as streets, energy and safety.
HottyToddy.com — The campus changed a great deal in your 14 years at the helm. What change delighted you the most?
Robert Khayat — Enhancing the quality of our academic programs and facilities. Beautification of the campus also helped change our self perception and improved the morale of the community.
HottyToddy.com — You accomplished a great deal in balancing the needs for academics as well as athletics. How difficult is this relationship for a chancellor?
Robert Khayat — Probably the most difficult of all challenges we face is reaching that balance due to the intense emotions people have about athletics. Athletics is the most visible of all we do. However, academic quality has to be first on the agenda. Establishing a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at Ole Miss; an Honors College; the International Studies program; and the research initiatives under the direction of Alice Clark and others were all essential to our success. When I became Chancellor, we were on NCAA probation and that had to be addressed immediately in order to be able to compete within the SEC. Our financial statement was weak and enrollment had declined between 1991 and 1995 by 1,000 students. We had to change that trend….and did! Enrollment is over 20,000 this year.
The core mission of a university is to create and disseminate knowledge. We must provide an environment for students who are primarily in the 18-25 age group for their transition into adult life in order to allow them to become leaders and be successful in their respective fields of endeavor.
HottyToddy.com — What inspires you more than anything else?
Robert Khayat — A lifelong desire to lift Mississippi and Ole Miss up and change the way we are viewed by both the outside world and ourselves.
HottyToddy.com — Your recent book, “The Education of A Lifetime,” has received rave reviews. Were you surprised with the level of success of the book?
Robert Khayat — Yes I was. I had never written a book, but believed Ole Miss had a story that needed to be told. I had a great team who assisted me, especially my editor/publisher, Neil White. The book was written from the perspective that it was easy to read with shorter chapters and frequent changes of the subject. I truly believe in “teams” and I am totally grateful for the one assembled for this project. The book is now in its second printing.
HottyToddy.com — True leaders surround themselves with extremely capable individuals. Did you rely on your “team” in reaching difficult decisions?
KhayatMClub
Khayat, while at Ole Miss.

Robert Khayat — Yes I did. I believe a leader must be emotionally secure to be able to do this. I developed a rule in forming a team. I wanted people in positions who could do their jobs better than I could. Secondly, they must have the responsibility and authority to make decisions and then be accountable for those decisions. I relied on each member of the team to succeed. The success of Mississippi Power following Katrina is a perfect example of that philosophy. Their CEO, Anthony Topazi, (I served on their Board at the time) allowed field personnel to make key decisions involving significant resources to avoid delays in restoring power. In only 11 days, all power was restored to 181,000 houses and businesses.
HottyToddy.com — Define the word “success.”
Robert Khayat — Based upon a great deal of information, establish challenging goals. Next develop a strategy to reach those goals. The pursuit of the Phi Beta Kappa Chapter is a prime example of this. The university had previously failed a half dozen times to accomplish this in attracting a chapter. At the time of our new initiative, only 261 out of some 3,000 institutions had accomplished this status. There were four to five key items involved that took our team three years to complete. It was challenging and a great deal of work and in the end we received 86 percent from the certification team.
HottyToddy.com — Your accomplishments are too many to discuss in as brief a discussion as this one. What are the top two or three while you were at Ole Miss that come first to mind?
Robert Khayat — Number one is the “core value” of our university became Respect. We had to include more students of all races and nationalities as well as faculty and staff. Secondly, we had to change the way people viewed Ole Miss as a university in strengthening all academic programs. Third, the nurturing of the campus and its subsequent transformation by involving an incredible Landscape Director (Jeff McManus) created the beautiful environment that exists today.
HottyToddy.com — Do you think our alums place too much emphasis on athletics?
Robert Khayat — No I don’t. This is a national love affair. We had to understand the value America places on athletics in balancing strong academic programs with athletics with the proper resource allocation for each.
HottyToddy.com — Ole Miss has a great academic reputation partly because of your success as Chancellor. Despite this, we continue to be known as a party school in many circles. Is this a fair characterization?
Robert Khayat —The party school reputation puts us in the company of Yale, Dartmouth, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas and other great schools. Actually, we don’t pay much attention to that unscientific poll. That information is gathered by stopping students on campus and asking “Is this a party school?” Readers can guess what the response is likely to be.
HottyToddy.com — You have chosen to make Oxford your permanent home. As worldly an individual as you are, did you ever consider retirement somewhere else, especially in an exotic setting?
Robert Khayat — This is not a yes or no question. Margaret and I did a great deal of analysis and evaluation in making this decision. I wanted upon leaving the university to “get out of the way” while at the same time being available if needed. Our children were born here, most all of our friends are here as well as memories too many to name. The scales were tilted for us to stay home.
HottyToddy.com — If there was just one thing you could do over again in your life, what would that be?
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Khayat, a football player at Ole Miss, said he would have been a better student if he could do it over again.

Robert Khayat — I would have been a better student my freshman year (undergraduate). I really did not become a “good student” until Law School.
HottyToddy.com — Because of your gift of being an exceptional speaker, would you have enjoyed a career in politics?
Robert Khayat — No. My father was a career politician. I was fortunate to have found a position that is very close to politics without having to ask people to vote for me. I do not have to have individual accolades as I prefer “team concepts.” And I sincerely uphold the belief that education is the answer to everything.
HottyToddy.com — In conclusion Chancellor, let’s fast forward to September, 2019. Tell us what you would like to see the Ole Miss of that year include that’s different than today.
Robert Khayat — Unqualified respect as one of America’s truly great universities. This would include all aspects of the university.
Final Note: How do you describe this man? Icon, visionary, fearless leader or simply an individual who clearly understood what God had as his primary mission in life. The admiration and respect that so many of us have for this gentleman are off the charts. This university that we all love so dearly was his mission in life more than any other. And Chancellor Khayat, we are grateful each and every day that your mission was accomplished!

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