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Community Appreciates Vitter’s Command, Looks Ahead to Qualities of 18th Chancellor

Hottytoddy.com staff report

When University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter announced he would be stepping down in January, three years after becoming chancellor, the reaction around the Oxford-Lafayette-University community ranged from disappointment to a sense of victory.

However, now the focus for most becomes the question Ole Miss has to answer once again – Who will take the helm of Mississippi’s flagship university?

Vitter Arrives to Ole Miss

Vitter was chosen as chancellor after the IHL board decided not to renew former chancellor Dan Jones’ contract. A committee was formed to find a new chancellor and Vitter was selected out of eight final candidates. He was the provost for the University of Kansas before coming to Ole Miss.

He assumed the Chancellor position Jan. 1, 2016 in the midst of the NCAA investigation—one that saw a top 10 recruiting class that won a New Year’s day Sugar Bowl under the direction of then-head coach Hugh Freeze.

The football team self-imposed a bowl ban after 21 allegations, including seven level I violations with three labeled as lack of institutional control.

Following the NCAA investigation, enrollment at the University dropped for two consecutive years across the university’s regional campuses and medical center.

There were 23,780 students enrolled at the university during fall 2017 compared to 23,258 in fall 2018 — a decrease of 2.2 percent or 522 students. Last year’s decline of 1.9 percent was the first in over 20 years, making this two years in a row that overall enrollment has declined.

Donor’s Name in Question

The most recent debacle Vitter faced during his tenure followed a controversial Facebook post made by longtime donor Ed Meek that attributed the presence of two black women on the Square to a “3 percent decline in enrollment” and said “real estate values will plummet as will tax revenue.”

After the post made by Meek received severe backlash from the University of Mississippi student body, faculty and alumni, Vitter publicly asked the donor of the journalism school on Facebook to remove the comment.

Although the post had been deleted by Meek, the journalism school and students called for his name to be removed from the department’s building.

University faculty asked Meek on Friday, Sept. 21 to request his name be removed within a three day time period. Meek responded to faculty the following day, Sept. 22, requesting that his name be removed.

The journalism faculty accepted his response and on Sept. 25, Vitter stated, “Based on the request made on Saturday, September 22 by Dr. Ed Meek to remove his name from the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media, University officials are accelerating our standard process for considering a change to the name of an academic program.”

After being approved by several campus councils and ultimately Vitter, the IHL approved the name change at its monthly board meeting Oct. 18.  

Community Leaders’ Respond

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill said the city has enjoyed a successful partnership under Vitter’s leadership.

“I appreciate the contributions Dr. Vitter and [his wife] Sharon have made not only to our University, but also to our community,” Tannehill said. “I am confident that Dr. Vitter will continue to make a positive impact on the students, faculty and community in his new role. We wish him well.”

Tannehill said she’s confident that the LOU leadership will continue to work together to achieve mutual goals.

Former Oxford mayor Pat Patterson was serving as mayor when Vitter joined the Ole Miss family.

“The university and the community have been blessed with a series of outstanding men who have given of themselves as chancellor and in service to the LOU community,” Patterson said. “Jeff Vitter was one of them.”

Lafayette County Supervisor and board president Jeff Busby said he hasn’t worked closely with Vitter on many projects.

“However, the times I’ve dealt with him, he’s always been very cordial and seemed to care about the community,” Busby said. “He was always polite and very encouraging to me.”

Alumni, Student Leaders Weigh In

Alumnus Hayes Dent, president of Hayes Dent Public Strategies in Jackson, Mississippi, received his degree in public administration from Ole Miss in 1989. Though he was never a student under Vitter’s reign, he says the decisions made in the Lyceum have affected the university’s alumni base.

“What I’ve felt like, really since Dan Jones was chancellor, is that over the past five years there has been a disconnect between the Ole Miss Alumni—what we know as the Ole Miss family—and administration at the Lyceum,” Dent said.

On a more personal note, Hayes said having three children attend Ole Miss has been a blessing, but he wishes more Mississippi-based students would choose to spend their colleges years in Oxford.

“We are currently losing a battle to our neighbors in Starkville and others institutions across Mississippi,” Dent said. “At end of the day, what is going to make Ole Miss a great school is going to be having a strong base of students from Mississippi.”

Dent said for “several months,” he’s been involved in Standfast Ole Miss — the public affairs campaign whose expressed goal is to compel the Mississippi Board of Institutions of Higher Learning to assist in a restoration of free speech and academic freedom that, in the view of the campaign founders, have all but disappeared from the Ole Miss campus.

The group is looking at other leaders around the state for the qualities they believe the next Ole Miss chancellor should embody. He mentioned Bill LaForge at Delta State and Mark Keenum at Mississippi State, both alumni of their respective universities.

“Standfast Ole Miss is working with the college board to help them understand that someone from Ole Miss may be a great future leader,” Dent said. “We’ve been working to make this happen for a long time.”

Graduate Student Council President Christopher Bright-Ramos, a doctoral student in the Arch Dalrymple III Department of History, praised Vitter’s hard work, his contributions to research and the graduate program, which, unlike the school overall, has increased enrollment.

“He has a vision of a productive, scholarly university that embraces learning, research, and service,” Bright-Ramos said. “Over the past few years the campus has become more pedestrian-friendly, adding to the already welcoming environment present when he was invested. There is open ground on a new STEM center that will serve as testament to his love of research. And the university now enjoys R1 status, the highest level of research.”

Bright-Ramos said the future chancellor should be someone who loves Ole Miss and can articulate that love to a wide audience.

“We’re doing some amazing things here, but we don’t do a great job of communicating that to the world,” he said. “The next chancellor needs to have a loud voice and the boldness to challenge anyone that tries to associate us with unwarranted negativity. We can control the narrative surrounding Ole Miss … We need an attitude of excellence. I want a chancellor who brings that.”

While many want to look forward, some Ole Miss grads want the next Chancellor to bring back some of the school’s traditions.

“I want a Chancellor who has the guts enough to make a public statement that Ole Miss has done more than enough—maybe so much so that it has hurt our image—to improve our image to appease the PC crowd,” said Jason Wilson, a 1998 Ole Miss graduate. “I want a Chancellor to say we are the Rebels and the Colonel is our mascot and he will make sure Ole Miss educates everyone on why it does not hurt our image.”

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