A lasting legacy of leadership

Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat announced his retirement Tuesday effective June 30.

In 1994 Gerald Turner left as Chancellor at Ole Miss to become President of SMU. He continues to lead the Dallas school today.

When Robert Khayat was introduced to the Ole Miss family as its next Chancellor, there was an almost unanimous stamp of approval from Rebel Nation.

The public gathering to announce Khayat as Chancellor in the Student Union was several months before he was actually installed in an academic ceremony in Tad Smith Coliseum.

I don't remember which College Board officer said it, but his announcement in the Student Union that Khayat had been chosen went something like this. "I don't believe we've ever made a more popular choice."

In a situation like that under some trying circumstances, it isn't always easy for so many to be on the same page. Khayat, the former baseball and football player whose professional path led from the Washington Redskins to the NCAA Foundation as its leader to the Chancellorship of his alma mater, came as close as anyone could to having full support of an entire University family.

There was actually a lot of excitement surrounding the news. I was working at The Oxford Eagle, and we had quite a bit of coverage on the important events leading up to and following the announcement. I wrote a column titled "The People's Chancellor" and I believe Khayat fulfilled that successfully for the past decade and a half.

Being in the sports department, I still knew the importance of Khayat becoming Chancellor. Ole Miss athletics, in a sense, had grown stale and had, in some ways, stalled.

Football was headed for its second NCAA probation in a decade. Men's basketball had been to the NCAA Tournament only once. Baseball hadn't been to an NCAA Regional in 17 years.

And that was just in athletics, where Khayat had served as interim athletics director for several months before becoming Chancellor. There was plenty of work to be done academically and in fundraising, on campus beautification and in overall morale of Ole Miss people.

That's why Robert Khayat becoming Chancellor was so important.

At the time, the Khayats were my next door neighbors at Hillside Condos on Bramlett near Oxford High. I don't remember all the details, but I believe they'd sold their house and were waiting to see if their next move was into Carrier House, the on-campus residence of the Chancellor and his family.

I didn't fight the crowds to congratulate them at the Student Union. I did the neighborly thing and walked next door later in the day for a short visit with the new Chancellor and his gracious wife, Margaret.

There was a lot to be done, and the Khayats were excited to be going about the task of getting things done.

It wasn't long before they moved from Hillside to Carrier and Ole Miss began to transform before us. You know what's happened. No need to go through the lengthy and impressive list of the past 15 years. It speaks for itself.

In some instances, like the beauty of the campus, the Presidential Debate, the Phi Beta Kappa chapter, athletics facilities improvements, and another Rhodes Scholar from Ole Miss, they don't speak to us, they yell.

It hasn't been a perfect 15 years. Perfection isn't necessarily an attainable goal when charged with leading an entire nation of people, in this case the Ole Miss family.

But Robert Khayat was the perfect choice for Ole Miss at a time when she needed somebody who loved her and would nurture her as his own.

Robert Khayat walked the Ole Miss campus almost every morning he was Chancellor. There's no way to count the number of steps he has made nor measure the distance Ole Miss has progressed since he became its leader.

The next Chancellor has big shoes to fill. Robert Khayat's footprints will be here for generations.

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