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Robert Khayat—A Legacy of Integrity

Chancellor Robert C. Khayat
Chancellor Robert C. Khayat

The word, “legacy,” has become tiresome along with a few others in the dictionary of political correctness, but anyone running hard in pursuit of one could take a few lessons from Robert Khayat. The former Ole Miss Chancellor, renowned college and professional football player for whom the University’s Law School is named, has forged a most memorable one, and the best part of the story detailing his legacy is that his goal was never to promote himself.

He said, “I wanted to get this job done for the joy of doing it. If someone asks how I would like to be remembered, I guess I would want them to say I was kind, that I tried to be respectful and kind.”

Maybe that is one reason he will not be easily forgotten. His was not a quest for power or personal prestige—although he was all about prestige for the university. He possesses a great measure of humility, a rare trait that is truly written on his heart and soul and ingrained from his earliest days by a momma who taught him to show respect to everybody and a dad who taught him to work hard at whatever he set his mind to.

Someone wrote an article about him years ago and called him a “Renaissance Man.” Renaissance man: An outstandingly versatile, well-rounded person. He is, but he didn’t get that way without a significant number of disappointments and humbling experiences along the way. What’s that old adage? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, ask Robert Khayat.

Kindergarten Principles Go a Long Way

Photo Courtesy of Nautilus Publishing
Photo Courtesy of Nautilus Publishing

Just in case you have not read The Education of a Lifetime, his personal memoir released in 2013, you need to know that every guiding principle that prepared Robert Khayat to be the courageous leader who confronted difficult issues like race, national perception, and the sacred cows of the Rebel flag and the much-loved Colonel Rebel—all the chutzpah that engendered his firm resolve to lift the image of his school in the eyes of the nation—well, it all started well before the first grade!

As the third of four siblings born to Eddie and Eva Pates Khayat, he had many an opportunity to learn lessons about teamwork, integrity, excellence, and faith. He calls his mother “the queen of my life.” She was just 16 when she married Robert’s father, Eddie Khayat, Sr. He was several years older and had attended Millsaps College on a work scholarship where he mowed the grass and worked in the library and the cafeteria. They did not have a lot, but there was love and stability, and his parents’ innate ability to bring out the best in each of their children.

It was his dad who taught him how to kick a football and to practice, practice, practice until he had mastered the skill. That dogged determination and pursuit of excellence likely had its origin in those daily kicking drills in their back yard.

Eddie Khayat had high expectations for his children, and none of them wanted to disappoint him.

Robert and his older brother, Eddie, Jr., were the yard maintenance crew, and his mother was deliberate in teaching them that, “No matter how poor you are—and I mean we were dirt poor— you can always be sure your yard and house look nice.” To this day, he can’t walk by a piece of trash without picking it up.

There is no doubt that the how’s and whys of The Princeton Review’s 2013 assessment naming Ole Miss the most beautiful campus in the nation all began with Robert Khayat in Moss Point, Mississippi doing what his mother insisted their family do.

There was a certain sense of stewardship in the way his mother approached everything—from yard work to relationships to nurturing her children. She had a gentle and respectful way of treating everyone and everything.

Robert well remembers the days of the late 1940s and early 1950s when racial tensions were in their infancy and Jim Crow was alive and well. Although the schools were racially segregated, most of his waking hours outside the schoolroom were spent with his three close friends, Junior, Peel, and Slew, who were African-American. It was a cardinal rule of his mother’s that he was never to address their mother by anything other than “Mrs. Gibson,” because that was the respectful way for a child to address the mother of his friends. Even as a child, the separate restrooms, schools, water fountains, and the signs that designated one entrance “white” and one “colored,” seemed silly to him. He didn’t dwell on it or think too hard about it at the time, but the childhood days of roaming free with his friends through his hometown and the fields and woods close by, laid the foundation for his commitment to helping change things that needed to be changed decades down the road.

Robert says, “Momma said to treat everybody with respect, and so that’s what my family did. I’ve got this theory. I believe God is love. Love produces respect and respect makes human relationships work together.”

The Green Freshman

KHAYAT_ROBERT2He remembers it all vividly—that sweltering summer day in 1956 when he set foot on the Ole Miss campus for the very first time. His older brother dropped him off with his single suitcase and sparse wardrobe in front of Garland dormitory. The campus was deserted because Robert had arrived a day early.

By the next afternoon things were bustling. Cars began to pull up to the dorms, and students with considerably more of everything than Robert owned were meeting and greeting each other. Robert was so homesick he could barely stand it. He was certain he was never going to fit in here. He felt like a barefoot country bumpkin who had landed in the middle of Manhattan.

Then there was the humiliation of the traditional freshman haircut which rendered him bald. Since he began classes in summer session, he had the unique privilege of facing the shears in June and again in September. School was hard. Chemistry was brutal. He tells the humorous story of Professor Cyanide Jones who told him at the end of the semester, “I am going to give you a passing grade only if you promise to never set foot in this building again!”

Thus ended his desire to attend medical school. He found his niche in history and in the college of liberal arts. He was going to become a history teacher.

It was on the athletic fields, however, that Robert Khayat distinguished himself. He excelled at both football and baseball. One of his great disappointments during his college years was that even when his teams won the conference—which they did several times—they could not advance to an NCAA competition. Ole Miss was prohibited from participating in any athletic game where the other team had African-American members. Robert recognized again that something needed to change.

His success in both football and baseball brought him notoriety on campus, so much so that his fellow students elected him Colonel Rebel during his senior year. It is one of many ironies in the Robert Khayat story that one who so loved and revered the traditional Ole Miss symbols during his college years would be the very Chancellor who fought hard to let them go. There came a point where the core principles instilled in him by his mother and father were simply in direct conflict with the negativity surrounding the Confederate flag and Colonel Rebel.

“Much to my surprise, I came to realize that symbols are more powerful than substance. They just are. I understood the emotion. I understood the affection. I understood people saying the history of the flag is my heritage, but it’s not everybody’s heritage,” he said. And for so many, the symbols of that heritage were incredibly painful. That bothered Robert—a lot.

One of his most admirable qualities is his willingness to listen to what others have to say.

His longtime friend, Ed Meek, who headed up Public Relations and Marketing at the University for 37 years said, “After a conversation with Robert, people come away feeling heard.” That is intentional. He learned it in his childhood.

He has been invited to speak to the entering freshmen this year. He plans to make it short and sweet, but I imagine that is in part because he wants them to remember his two significant points. Number one is to listen and observe “no matter how boring or tedious. Really listen and digest what other people say.” His second point is about the relationship between opportunities and choices. He encourages new students to recognize the scope of incredible opportunities that exist in a university setting, but the degree to which they succeed and grow as human beings will be determined by the simple choices they make every day.

The In-Between Years

'Skin in the Game: As a Washington Redskin, Khayat's battles against Big Daddy Lipscomb at the line of scrimmage would pale in comparison to his fight to change Ole Miss for the better.
Robert Khayat in a Washington Redskins uniform

In 1960, Robert left Ole Miss for a professional career with the Washington Redskins. Despite his claims of being the greenest freshman ever, he had experienced a time that was more like a novel than real life. “It was Camelot to us. We had 3,000 great students, two back-to- back Miss Americas, great football teams—but the irony of that time to me is that we were segregated.” In retrospect, it was more like a bubble than anything else, and the world was truly on the brink of change.

His first year, the Redskins did not win a game. The second year the team was absolutely elated to sign five African-American players who brought significant talent and skill. Their record was better, but a long way from sensational. At the same time the Redskins were celebrating their new players, the Ole Miss campus was erupting in race riots over the first African-American student’s enrollment. The contrast was stark. Robert Khayat, who had never had a contentious racial thought, was very sad over the resistance he saw in the images that came across the newscasts. The beautiful campus of his college years looked like a war zone.

He enjoyed his NFL career. He played football in the fall and went to law school during the spring semester. School was not very expensive, and Robert was among the highest paid players at $10,000 a year. It sounds pretty good when you compare it to history teachers in Mississippi who, at that time, were making $2,200 a year!

As Robert says in his book, he genuinely enjoyed everything about law school. He loved to think and to write, which probably surprised a lot of people—himself included! He graduated third in his class and moved to the Gulf Coast to set up his practice. He soon discovered that he did not have the same enthusiasm for the actual practice of law that he had had for school! When an offer came in 1969 to come back to Oxford and teach at the law school, he jumped at the chance. Teaching was truly his delight, and Ole Miss was still the place he loved.

Full Circle

KhayatIn 1993 he was urged by many friends and alumni to submit his name for the position of Dean of the Law School. When the faculty, who were his peers, met to agree on the final slate of candidates, they voted Robert Khayat as “not acceptable.” It was more than hurtful. It was humiliating in a way to think that the very people who taught beside him had not only just voted against him, but had also labeled him “not acceptable.”

But then we all know “the rest of the story.” God’s ways are always higher than our ways. Less than two years later Robert Khayat was selected as the 15th Chancellor of his beloved alma mater. Had he been selected Dean of the Law School, he would never have been Chancellor. All the skills he had honed through the years teaching, coaching, selling pharmaceuticals, playing sports—even working in a grain elevator—had been a part of the preparation for leading the University of Mississippi. Who would have thought?

In 1995, all was not Camelot as it had been 35 years earlier. Everything about the University appeared to be in decline. Enrollment was down. The campus bore little resemblance to the one that Robert remembered in its glory days. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There was not one single aspect of academia, athletics, facilities, and morale that couldn’t use an overhaul. The challenge was daunting. Maybe the most daunting of all was the news from his CPA friend who took a look at finances that—unless a few needed changes were made—the University of Mississippi was going to be bankrupt within four years.

Robert was committed to not let that happen. He had vision and passion as well as that Khayat tenacity and work ethic that his mom and dad had instilled in him. He hated the word “can’t.” He would turn things around. No doubt.

And true to his background and experience, the first thing he did was pray his four-point prayer for wisdom, courage, energy, and peace. The second thing he did was assemble his “team,” those who, as he says in his book, “would be better, more talented, and more capable in their areas of responsibility than I would be.”

Someone with a bigger ego could never have accomplished what the “team” did! And with the team in place, he set about “listening.” He is big on “listening,” and that included setting up appointments with each of the major departments. His keen sense of reading other people made him sensitive to the fact that these department heads who were experts in their fields likely had a bit of cynicism toward the new Chancellor. In their minds, he was just a good ol’ boy football player. As Robert says, “Football players don’t get to be Chancellors. I knew that, too.” He was on a mission to earn the trust and respect of his faculty because it would take teamwork to pull the University out of its mediocrity.

The results were staggering, but not without blood, sweat, and tears.

He says, “I really did have a vision, and I could see—I could see what we could be if we could commit to doing it. And that we could gain national respect and internal respect for ourselves and for the state. We could be a bright light.”

Raising money was on the short list of immediate necessities. He was good at raising money.

As his long time friend Ed Meek put it, “Who could possibly tell that man, ‘No’”?

Along the way, the campus exploded with fresh ideas, an honors college, a leadership institute, a performing arts complex, the Center for Racial Reconciliation, the Center for International Studies, and national awards like being named the number one accounting school in the country—and the list goes on. Good things were happening, but at the center of it all was one man who knew how to bring out the best in everyone—much like Eddie and Eva Khayat had done with their four children.

The Race Thing

The first time Robert told his team that his vision for the future was that the University become a destination for a world-class education, they practically laughed him out of the room. His reply, “Is there one good reason why we can’t be?” There was never a doubt in Robert’s mind that they would not succeed. In time, others bought in to the idea. While being a darn good Chancellor, he was also a very good cheerleader. And seeing is believing. The “before” and “after” is legendary!

One of his biggest goals was to bring a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to campus. (He did, by the way.) But he knew what he had to do to accomplish that. Ole Miss’s first application had been denied in 1982. Since that first one, several other applications had been rejected. The reasons were all spelled out clearly. None of the stipulations were impossible obstacles in Robert’s eyes. But among the reasons for rejection was this biggie—racial issues and disassociation of the University from the Confederate flag.

In the eyes of those beyond Mississippi, the University had never really recovered from the debacle of 1962. This would prove to be a huge elephant in the room. Robert Khayat, Moss Point good ol’ boy who had loved the camaraderie of his childhood friends, Peel, Slew, and Junior—and who had truly thought all that “colored” and “white” stuff was silly—had no idea how difficult this would be. His eyes would soon be opened.

On another level, the athletic department continually expressed how hard it was to recruit top athletes who were African American because of “that flag.” The flag had been an issue there for more than a decade. So, this was not rocket science.

The flag had to go. This was clear, but how to get the buy-in from fans, students, and alumni was the challenge. Dictating its demise would be destructive and divisive. He needed an unbiased third party to assess the situation and make a recommendation.

Robert was stuck between a rock and a hard place on this issue. Perception was important. The Phi Beta Kappa application was important. Recruiting in every department was important. Perception may not always be reality, but it was key to getting Ole Miss the respect and reputation Robert knew was possible. What was that public perception across the country? If it was bad, he wanted to change it. He needed experts to help him find that out. How do you hire the best experts when you are all but flat broke?

God. That is how. He had an opportunity to play golf with an alumnus who actually handed him a check for $200,000, a gift to the Foundation for whatever was needed. This was about the price it would take to hire a national public relations firm to do a thorough analysis of Ole Miss’s national image. He calls this a “miracle,” and it was just one of several that he can personally attest to along the way. (You need to read his book.)

Robert says the hardest news to receive from the PR firm was there was, for the most part, NO perception of Ole Miss. But when it did appear on anybody’s radar, it was about the Confederate flag. At that time, the University purchased a couple of thousand flags a year to throw into the student section at football games. Robert describes the “genius” of someone on his incredible team who came up with the idea to ban sticks in the stadium. Students could bring a flag. It was their first amendment right to bring it, but it could not be attached to a stick. It took a year, but all the flags did disappear.

During that time, the death threats and disparaging letters were constant. Many of his old friends called him a coward, a traitor, and a turncoat. In the opening chapter of The Education of a Lifetime, Robert tells the story of the police officer that entered his office, letter in hand, to tell him about death threats and to insist on a strategy to ensure the safety of his wife, Margaret, and their children.

He stuck with his mission, but that was a lonely time. He admits he loved the flag, too. It was just so hard for the man who was so good at listening to others to come up against an opposition that refused to understand why that flag was not a symbol of pride to everyone. Who better than a former Colonel Rebel to set the example for others?

Years later so many of the friends who shouted the loudest over the removal of the flag came to say, “You were right, but I hated you while you were doing that.” Robert says, “I hated me, too. But it was the right thing to do.”

Being a successful leader takes courage, the kind Robert prayed for every single day, and the kind only God could supply. The temptation is always to take your eyes off the goal because the crowd is so loud. Football was a good training ground for Robert Khayat’s true calling. His dad taught him to keep his eye on the ball and to follow through. It worked in football and it worked in the biggest challenge of his life.

The University of Mississippi is a better place today because of his unwavering determination to leave that beautiful place better than he found it. It was never about destroying the honor and integrity of the school he loved. It was all about enlarging the family circle and moving forward together. And I have to ask, WWJD?

Story courtesy Mississippi Christian Living

Written by Marilyn Tinnin

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