Posted by on June 04, 2015 in Blog
Robert Khayat has always been surrounded by issues of race. As Chancellor of Ole Miss, he confronted the spectres of race head-on, preaching the values of respect and equality that his Lebanese father had taught him.
Born in 1938 in Mississippi, Khayat was raised by his mother and Lebanese immigrant father. He witnessed firsthand the harshness of racial prejudices and segregation that persisted in southern culture. Despite that prejudice, Robert’s father instilled in his six children a rich sense of their Lebanese heritage, and the importance of showing deep respect for all people, no matter race, religion, or class.
Khayat went on to attend college at University of Mississippi, where he was a star kicker for the school’s football team. At the time, the school flew the confederate flag as its banner and rallied around its mascot, the colonial Rebel.
After graduation Khayat played in the NFL as a kicker for the Cleveland Browns, and earned no less than two law degrees—including one from Yale— before serving as a prominent law professor at the University of Mississippi. He would eventually be named Chancellor of his alma mater in 1995.
Khayat’s tenure as Chancellor of the University of Mississippi spurred a period of intense debate on the university’s history of racial inequality and violence, with Khayat leading the call for change. In a bold effort to chart a new path forward, he launched an investigation into the university’s practices that discouraged diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. He discovered that the use of racially charged campus symbols like the confederate flag, and the darker periods of the school’s history, had led to a negative perception of Ole Miss as a remnant of southern racism. With the investigation’s results, Khayat undertook a controversial campaign to change many historic campus symbols – like removing the confederate flag.
His bid to rebrand the school without the confederate flag or the colonial Rebel as mascot, while divisive at the time, ultimately led to a 78% increase in the enrollment of minorities at the University of Mississippi. He retired from his position as Chancellor in 2009 at the age of 71. Khayat’s fearlessness in the face of criticism was what ultimately drove the university to address its past and present shortcomings, and reimagine itself as a campus that welcomes and celebrates racial diversity and equality.
Robert Khayat is now a popular figure among athletes, students, and activists alike. He is a recipient of both the NFL Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Football Foundation Distinguished American Award. The publishing of his much anticipated memoir “The Education of a Lifetime” in 2013 has also drawn significant praise, being named a New York Times bestseller and receiving a silver IPPY award for best memoir in the nation from a small press. Above all, he is known for transforming Ole Miss from a school with a racially charged, checkered past to a prestigious, inclusive, and diverse university.
Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.