In 1995 Robert Khayat was selected Chancellor of The University of Mississippi—a school with declining enrollment, decaying buildings, poor morale, and an association with racist symbols. During his 14-year tenure leading the university, Ole Miss disassociated itself from the confederate flag, minority enrollment increased by nearly 80 percent, the endowment tripled, Phi Beta Kappa awarded the school a chapter, and, most importantly, the university moved from being a closed society to a culture that embraces respect and dignity for every individual.
The following description of the reaction to the university’s efforts to ban the confederate flag inside the campus football stadium in 1997 is excerpted from his award-winning memoir The Education of a Lifetime (Nautilus Publishing).
The letters, telephone calls, and fax messages started pouring into the Lyceum. They came from all corners of the United States. Some arrived from Europe.
A few supported my efforts in the image review, but the vast majority came in the form of condemnatory allegations. By far, the loudest, meanest, and most prolific came from people from states other than Mississippi. That such a local issue had become national, even international, in scope astonished me.
From the outset, the letters focused on my “treasonous behavior” and attempts to destroy the “heritage” of the South. The writers—from Montana, South Carolina, Maine, and Michigan—somehow claimed an ownership interest in the state of Mississippi, Ole Miss, and the university’s athletics spirit program, though they had absolutely no connection with the university.
But some did come from Mississippians. Letters from friends, classmates, former teachers, and coaches pleaded with me to stop erasing symbols that held deep meaning for them and the school they loved.
One letter contained a tape recording from a Mississippi minister’s sermon. The preacher, from a nearby church, delivered a rousing message to his congregation about how it was absolutely and simply “un-Christian” to consider any changes in the use of the Confederate flag.
Among the boxes that arrived at the Lyceum was one bearing a return address I recognized. It was from a friend from Starkville (home of our in-state rival Mississippi State). My assistant opened the box and brought it into my office. She handed it to me, and I looked inside. It was a complete set of women’s pink underwear. The note inside read: Try these, Robert. They should fit.
I dictated a return note thanking him for the thoughtful gift and encouraging note. Then I placed the box of underwear in a corner of my office.
But not all the communications from friends and associates were as lighthearted. At my home on a Saturday morning, I received a telephone call from a former coach—a man I had called a friend for nearly 40 years.
“You are destroying the university,” he shouted into the receiver. I listened quietly until he finished yelling.
“I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope we’ll get through this process together,” I said. He hung up on me.
He wasn’t the only friend to call...or react. During the first two weeks of the controversy, my office received more than 150 letters. Some of the messages were nothing more than angry diatribes. Most expressed confusion about my motives.
When I fielded telephone calls, my attempts to rationally discuss the subject were complete failures. I faced a complex, emotionally charged issue that evoked feelings I could not combat. The best I could do was listen, be as polite and civil as possible, and empathize with any pain or discomfort they felt during the process.
Those of us who grew up in the white South, and particularly Mississippi, were so accustomed to Old South songs and sights and symbols during sporting events that the origins of the emblems weren’t carefully considered. Nor was the pain they caused others.
In my childhood bedroom, two small, vividly colored Confederate flags hung over my bedroom door. I saw them every morning when I awoke and every evening when I climbed into bed. I didn’t know anything about the history of the flags, but I loved the red and blue colors. As I grew and started to follow football, I associated the flag with the great Ole Miss football teams of the 1940s and 1950s. And as a teenager, when I heard the term “Johnny Rebel,” I assumed the reference was to Johnny Vaught’s Ole Miss Rebel football squad.
I think that many dedicated Ole Miss football fans from the 1940s to the 1990s had similarly naïve—if not innocent—attachments to the symbols. For many of us, the fact that the flag was being waved on behalf of extremist political positions didn’t matter. Of course, Governor Ross Barnett had embraced the darker side of the symbols during the integration crisis at Ole Miss, taking center stage at halftime of a football game to link the school’s traditions with the importance of maintaining segregation. But for most of us, most of the time, those symbols had been more benign. That may seem naïve in retrospect, but those who embrace symbols don’t always think about what they represent to others.
On any given fall Saturday, the Ole Miss stadium was packed with tens of thousands of fans cheering on great athletes. The cheerleaders would throw bundles of colorful flags into the student section of the stadium, the smell of bourbon and cigar smoke wafted through the stands, the air was filled with music from the Ole Miss Band—the Pride of the South—and the crowd chanted the “Hotty Toddy” cheer in unison. And, during Coach Vaught’s tenure, the team usually won the game.
Not unlike the spectacle of a religious tent revival, the drama and action and sounds and sights of college football turned otherwise mild-mannered men, women, and children into screaming, joy-filled zealots. Mothers and fathers brought their sons and daughters to the games, as they had for generations, to share—and pass along the traditions of—the revelry.
Those friends and alumni who didn’t fully understand our review process believed it was these memories I was trying to take away.