Khayat recounts life lessons learned
by Courtney Warren
Jan 30, 2014 | 1525 views | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jobe Auditorium had a full house on Wednesday night to listen to Dr. Robert C. Khayat, who served as chancellor of The University of Mississippi from 1995 to 2009.

He is a former College Football All-Star and was the All-Pro Kicker for the Washington Redskins before attending Yale Law School.

He was also a professor of law at The University of Mississippi Law School from 1982 to 1995 and the building now bears his name.

It was through those experiences Khayat wrote his book "The Education of a Lifetime," and as the second speaker in the colloquia series, Khayat explained to listeners how and why they should and deserve to change Mississippi for the better.

Delta State University President Bill LaForge described one of his first encounters with Khayat in his introduction and said, "I was a lowly first year student, working as a work study student and I was loaned by my supervisor to Robert Khayat. I was loaned to him because he was moving his offices from one end of the law school building to the other but what happened after that describes Robert Khayat and the way he is to a T. I didn't work by myself that afternoon moving all of his books — we did it together and he taught me some valuable lessons that very day dealing with people."

Khayat opened with several humorous stories from his childhood including his first chemistry class freshman year in which he was tutored every single day by the teacher and still made an eight out of 100 on his final exam.

"I could name every element on that table! I just didn't know what they meant or why they mattered," he said, adding he was a pre-med student at the time.

Khayat also recalled a teachable moment on the football field.

“I was selected with 35 other 22-year-old boys to go play in the Chicago All-Star game, which put us kids against National Football League championship teams. So here we are 22-year-old boys playing 36 men. We trained in Evanston for three weeks. Our head coach realized we couldn’t really play head to head with these champions so they had two of us in each position.

“I was a left guard and I was a place getter. The plan was that I would play a quarter, he would play a quarter, I would play a quarter, and he would play a quarter and we might make it through the night.

“It meant when we kicked off I would start. A guy named Sherman Plunkett ran right over my alternate, I mean right through him."

Sherman Plunkett was an offensive tackle for the champion Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959 and was known for his massive size. While the typical lineman in the 1960s weighed in at around 250-260 pounds, Plunkett was almost 100 pounds heavier.

Khayat said after Plunkett plowed over his alternate he watched to see what the reaction would be from his teammate, who was then on all fours.

"I looked at him really close and wondered what he was going to do. Chicago was built for the Olympics, so Soldier Field was a horseshoe stadium, and on that end of the stadium it just got dark because that's where the track was. My man started crawling toward the darkness. He's crawling towards the darkness and I know I'm supposed to go in because that's what you're supposed to do when your alternate gets hurt, you go in," said Khayat.

After reaching the field, Khayat put his hands on his knees to prepare for the play and it was at this point he should have been looking directly into the other player's face.

"I was looking into my man's sternum. My man was number 76. I was 22, I weighed 216 pounds—I wasn't shaving yet, O.K. He was 32, he had a big black beard, he was 6'8”, and weighed 315 pounds. He said to me, 'Does your momma know you're out here?' I said 'Yes sir'.

"They snapped the ball and I started to try to tackle but I couldn’t hold so I grabbed his big ole leg and he was dragging me. He called me sweet pea! He said 'Sweet pea, let me go,'" explained Khayat.

Khayat then decided this was a teaching moment and said he thought, "I am going to law school. I learned a big lesson that night. There's always someone smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, has more endurance — somewhere that person exists no matter where you are."

After telling a few more humorous stories about his football career and what those lessons taught him, Khayat began talking about his time as a law professor at Ole Miss.

He said after years of teaching he applied to be dean and was told the law faculty said he was unacceptable.

"They didn't just vote that they didn't want me. They said I was unacceptable. You want to feel bad about yourself, get called unacceptable," said Khayat.

He explained that the phrase, "when one door closes another opens," is true and despite his being upset over not getting the deanship, 16 months later, Khayat became chancellor.

"You've got a guy who can't pass freshman chemistry, who plays football, who thinks he's going to be a high school history teacher, who is unacceptable to his colleagues to be the dean of the law school and ends up being chancellor," he said.

Khayat went on to explain that a person must think well of themselves to have others think well of them.

After the riot of 1962 when James Meredith became the first black student at Ole Miss, the school had difficulties with racism and keeping an African American population of students.

This was a subject that was close to Khayat and he recalled being asked by a reporter when did he become so sensitive to race?

Khayat told the reporter that his father, who was Lebanese and therefore dark complected, took himself and his family to church and went to sit on one of the front rows in the sanctuary. It was then that a woman named Ida Thompson came and rested her hand on his father's shoulder and told him that he and his family would have to move to the back row of the church.

Upon becoming chancellor, Khayat began to face the issue of racial discrimination head on and began visiting public schools all over the state, including all black schools.

"We went in there and the principal said 'I have to tell you, we've never seen a white chancellor from Ole Miss walk in here.' And I said 'I'm not surprised and I will be back.' We've increased our African American enrollment by 73 percent since 1995. African American students now feel totally welcome and have served for years now in leadership positions across the board," explained Khayat.

Despite Ole Miss increasing the interracial relationships on campus, the media was still knocking the school around.

"Anything that possibly had to do with race, the film of the riot of 1962 was played," he said.

"We decided as a community we were going to adopt a value — respect. Everyone gets treated with respect until someone gives you a reason not to. It works through every level of staff, all faculties, all administrators, all alumni. Respect is the value you will find on the Ole Miss campus. You won’t find perfection and you won't find that absence of controversy and conflict, but for the most part you will find harmony and respect," he said.

Khayat discussed the importance of giving credit where credit is due and not only delegate responsibility but also delegate authority.

Ending his lecture with telling of how the new ‘no stick rule’ in the stadium and removing the confederate flags has changed the perception of the campus and caused racism crimes to drop, Khayat said, "Not only did we change the way we were externally perceived, we changed the way we saw ourselves."

Khayat encouraged LaForge and said he must have the courage to lead the university and also said to all those listening in the audience, "You are an absolute beacon of light in the Mississippi Delta. This is the organization to take on the Delta and you have the perfect person to lead and revitalize the Delta."

With all of the listeners silent, encouraged by his words, Khayat ended by saying, "I hope you'll decide to put together agencies and get some federal help and be a model for the county, state, and maybe the world. I really think Delta State can do that."