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Former university chancellor offers memoir of moving on at Ole Miss

December 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
During his time as chancellor of the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss, Robert Khayat made moves to repair the university's segregated past, drawing backlash for his efforts. Judy Woodruff talked to Khayat about his memoir, "The Education of a Lifetime," and what he learned about human nature along the way.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to an interview with the man who ushered in a new era at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, to generations of students and alumni.

His name is Robert Khayat, the former chancellor of the university. This image from October 1962 is seared in our national memory, a lone black man, James Meredith, escorted by federal agents enrolled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. A riot ensued. Forty-four years later, Khayat dedicated this statue of Meredith on the campus, one of the many actions he took to erase all remaining traces of the university’s segregated past.

Robert Khayat, born and raised in Mississippi, returned to run his alma mater in 1995 and retired in 2009.

Judy Woodruff talked to him recently about his new memoir, “The Education of a Lifetime.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Khayat, thank you very much for talking with us.

ROBERT KHAYAT, “The Education of a Lifetime”: Thank you.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re an unusual combination, a former football player college football, professional football, who went on to teach law, run a big university. How did athletics shape who you are?

ROBERT KHAYAT: Judy, athletics was always a part of my life.

As a child, my father had been a coach, and so the lessons of the athletics, discipline, practice, repetition, commitment, loyalty, teamwork, those sorts of values were just a part of growing up.

I was also in a family of six, and we operated as a team, because just that’s what — we had to. And, so, team became ingrained in me. And I think the lessons I learned as a child, as a semi-adult playing professional football, and then later really served me well when I became the chancellor of the university.

One of the rules of football that people often overlook is that, every 25 seconds or 30 or 45 — they keep changing that — the ball is going to be snapped. And so you really have three choices. You can either play, you can get stepped on, or you can get off the field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You decided to tackle something fundamental about Ole Miss.

ROBERT KHAYAT: I did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you made the effort that you did in the mid-1990s to try to change some of the vestiges of the old South, the symbol of the Confederate Flag, the signing of “Dixie” and so forth, and you found it was a lot harder than you thought it was going to be.

ROBERT KHAYAT: I did.

I was — I have to confess I was naive was about the intensity of the emotions about some of the traditional Southern symbols. I knew that there were problems for us, national — created national problems, because perception is so important. And in 1962, when we had the riot at Ole Miss over the integration of the school, and it was — it became international news, the perception of Ole Miss was established.

And I decided that, as chancellor of the flagship university of the state…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty years later.

ROBERT KHAYAT: Yes, 30 years later. And I think I had learned a lot through the years.

I knew that we could address it. I didn’t know what we could do with it, but I knew we had to address it. And by it, I mean racism, and poverty, and literacy, and really the fundamental value of respect, one individual respecting another individual.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The reaction was really — wasn’t just negative. Some of it was ugly. There were death threats.

ROBERT KHAYAT: There were.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us about some of the things that — some of the ways people responded.

ROBERT KHAYAT: Well, the most shocking, I think, of all of them was the death threat letters that came from all across the country.

There were people who lived in far West states and far Eastern states who wrote letters saying, you won’t live to see this effort completed. Your family won’t either, and neither of you will see us coming.

I was stunned by the level of hate and anger that surrounded that particular issue. And it was so interesting as I looked back. It wasn’t interesting at the time. It became interesting afterwards, and I looked back, and I thought about how much — how much emotion is invested in symbols, as opposed to substance.

I mean, I think of a university in terms of a place where people go to think and — freely and speak freely and experiment and challenge, and not fear any kind of reprisal, but that — when you get into that symbol business, that’s not — I think it changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also write, Robert Khayat, about what you learned about human nature from this. You said people say they’re for progress, but…

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERT KHAYAT: That’s right. That’s right.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT KHAYAT: I developed this little saying, that — that most everybody wants progress, but hardly anybody wants change, because change is almost always a little traumatic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think the — the South has moved beyond where it was?

ROBERT KHAYAT: Oh, lord. I mean, I was born in 1938.

And from where we were in 1938 to where we are now is just two different worlds. And the statement is always made, but there’s more to do. Well, of course there is more to do. As long as we’re human beings, and we interact with each other, there will be more to do.

But insofar as opening doors, treating people with respect, making people feel worthy, providing opportunities at Ole Miss, which was sort of the — sort of the epicenter, I guess, of that higher ed — education fight back in the ’60s, at Ole Miss, no student, because of race or religion or gender, any of that, can feel anything but welcome.

I mean, there — there are times where there are conflicts, but nothing — nothing that even resembles the way it was when James Meredith came to Ole Miss in 1962.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Khayat is the author of the book “The Education of a Lifetime.”

Thank you.

ROBERT KHAYAT: Thank you.