Khayat Recounts His ‘Education of a Lifetime’

Former chancellor gives readers a look behind the scenes at Ole Miss's turning points

OXFORD, Miss. – Robert Khayat began committing his childhood memories to paper when he was a University of Mississippi law professor, writing stories about his adventures and experiences so his children could learn from them and pass them down to their children.

That exercise has led to “The Education of a Lifetime,” an engaging memoir connecting events and lessons from Khayat’s childhood, college days and careers as an athlete, attorney and educator to turning points in the history of his beloved Ole Miss. With the university’s 15th chancellor as their guide, readers get a behind-the-scenes peek at the institution’s ascent as a great American university.

The memoir is being released Tuesday (Sept. 10) by Nautilus Publishing Co. That evening, Khayat kicks off a 13-city tour to meet friends and sign the book at Off Square Books in Oxford.

“This book grew out of my desire to communicate to as broad an audience as possible the value of respect and the benefits of team membership, whether it be with an athletics team, choral music group, prayer group, political group or whatever,” Khayat said. “When a group of people come together and are united and focused on some kind of objective, they have a far better chance of reaching that objective.”

The book’s stories recount how Khayat assembled a leadership team that helped the university attract big-dollar donors, launch a renowned honors college, undertake a massive building program, swell its enrollment and host its biggest event ever, the 2008 presidential debate. Readers learn the “back stories” of how he became the Rebels’ kicker, why an eccentric potential donor called him “Canoe,” how he reassured a U.S. president about his necktie choice and how a late-night bowl of cereal led a renowned scholar to speak on behalf of the university before the national council of Phi Beta Kappa.

The stories often reveal humor in events and situations, but they also reveal bitter disappointments, such as his 1959 team’s loss to LSU, his law school colleagues’ rejection of his application as dean and his father’s arrest and subsequent conviction.

“Robert Khayat’s extraordinary life has had more rough patches than most observers would believe,” author John Grisham writes in one of the book’s cover blurbs. “In this engaging memoir, he provides an unflinching look at the challenges, the adversity, and the ups and downs of a career that ultimately transformed a great American university.”

Those challenges often led to lessons that helped Khayat lead his alma mater past many obstacles, such as disassociating itself from the Confederate flag.

“I wanted people to understand how emotional that situation was and how strongly people on both sides felt,” Khayat said. “My job as chancellor, as a fiduciary, was to do what was best for the university. It had become very apparent to me that being associated with the Confederate flag was not in the best interests of the university, regardless of how anybody felt about the flag.

“There was never any intent to destroy the heritage or the history or the memory of people who made great contributions to the university. It was just that our society had evolved to a point where that particular symbol was incendiary and it created harsh feelings and made people hurt.”

Looking back, removing the flag from the university’s image has produced tremendous benefits for the entire university, he said.

“We now have nearly a thousand Phi Beta Kappa members from Ole Miss, and we would not have received Phi Beta Kappa had we not distanced ourselves from the flag. I personally would rather see a student with a Phi Beta Kappa key than waving that flag at a football game seven times a year. That was not a hard choice; getting through it was hard, but it was not a hard choice to make.”

Oxford bookseller and former mayor Richard Howorth suggested the book’s title, and Khayat said it perfectly describes the tome’s message.

“It’s all about being educated in a lot of different situations,” he explained. “I don’t include everything, but part of that education was working in the school bus shop replacing rings on the pistons of International Harvester school buses and changing tires. Part of it was mowing grass, and part of it was two-a-day practices at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, Calif., and Carlisle, Pa., and part of it was working with the NCAA and getting to know people like Sally Ride and George Steinbrenner and the time at the White House.

“There are lots of experiences through which I learned valuable lessons that I think were beneficial to all of us when I became chancellor, because I brought that body of experiences and knowledge to the job without even thinking about it.”

Although this is Khayat’s first book, he found the process of completing it so invigorating that he is considering themes for follow-up manuscripts. One possibility is a book about the spirit of leadership, featuring more lessons he learned from people in his life. Another is a volume about the various legends of Ole Miss. Yet another is that book of childhood stories he started collecting decades ago.

As he begins his book tour, which will put him on the road in a way he has not experienced since retiring as chancellor, Khayat is excited about seeing people, answering questions about the university and talking some football.

In the meantime, he hopes readers will grasp the significance of a lesson he learned long ago – the critical importance of respect – and work to apply that value to all their dealings.

“I don’t try to push my faith or religion on anybody else, but I believe that God is love and that love is the source of respect. I think respect for everything and everybody is a value that would serve us all well, especially if you think about the social and political and cultural challenges we face. When respect breaks down, relationships break down, too.”

What is happening on Capitol Hill is an example of what happens when people disregard the benefits of teamwork, focusing on a common objective and respect for one other, he said.

“Part of the problem in Congress – this logjam or impasse between the two parties and the president – is based on lack of respect for individuals and ideas. There was a time when people in Congress disagreed vehemently but never stopped respecting each other and trying to negotiate solutions. We need to find a way to get back to that.”

UM Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat will sign copies of “The Education of a Lifetime” beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Off Square Books in Oxford, kicking off a 13-city tour. Other stops include:

Sept. 17 – Garden District Books, New Orleans, 6 p.m.

Sept. 24 – Lemuria Books, Jackson, 3-5 p.m.

Sept. 25 – Southern Cultural Heritage Convent, Vicksburg, Noon

Sept. 26 – Old Courthouse, Gulfport, 6 p.m.

Oct. 3 – Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, Atlanta, 6 p.m.

Oct. 13 – Lee County Library, Tupelo, 2 p.m.

Oct. 15 – Memphis Botanic Garden, Memphis, 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 29 – Southeastern Conference Headquarters, Birmingham, Ala., 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 30 – University Club of Nashville, Nashville, Tenn., 6 p.m.

Oct. 31 – Lauren Rogers Museum, Laurel, Noon

Oct. 31 – Off Square Books (Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast), Oxford, 5:30 p.m.

Nov. 6-9 – Mistletoe Marketplace, Jackson

Nov. 19 – George W. Bush Presidential Center Library, Dallas, 5 p.m.