Veteran Ole Miss chancellor to retire June 30

Photo courtesy University of Mississippi
Photo courtesy University of Mississippi

JACKSON, MS (AP) -  Outgoing chancellor Robert Khayat helped transform the University of Mississippi, once the site of one of the South's bloodiest integration battles, into a leader in racial reconciliation and a respected national institution.

Khayat, who announced Tuesday that he'll retire on June 30, increased minority enrollment at the university nearly 79 percent since he took over in 1995.

The Oxford-based campus, where federal troops had to escort James Meredith in 1962 as he became the first black student to enroll, is now home to a nationally recognized institute dedicated to bridging racial divides. In September, the university hosted a prestigious presidential debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

Khayat also built Ole Miss into one of the region's most prosperous schools as its operating budget grew from $114.3 million in 1995 to its current $472 million. The university's research and development grants exceed $100 million annually and he helped the university raise nearly $800 million in private donations. Forbes Magazine ranked Ole Miss among the nation's top 25 public universities last year.

"I leave with an abiding affection for the people and the school, and with confidence that this university will continue to provide the quality programs so vital to our state and region" the 70-year-old Khayat said in an Ole Miss press release.

Amy Whitten, president of the state College Board, said the panel will meet Jan. 15 to accept Khayat's retirement and discuss the university's transition.

Khayat's long association with Ole Miss began when he was an undergraduate in 1956. He was a standout athlete as a baseball catcher and football kicker who went on to a three-year professional career with the Washington Redskins. Khayat returned to Ole Miss' law school in 1963 and three years later he joined the school's faculty.

Refining the university's image was a priority that culminated with the presidential debate last September.

"An honest look at us will say this is a university that came from 1962 - where it took the United States military and the president to get one black person in school - to a very diverse community where people treat each other with respect and affection," Khayat told The Associated Press in an interview last year.

Two people died in the 1962 uprising that many consider a defining crack in the South's segregationist society.

Years before Meredith's attempt, another civil rights activist tried to become the first black student at Ole Miss. NAACP leader Medgar Evers, assassinated in Jackson in 1963, was denied entry to the university's law school in 1954, but some four decades later his relatives are among those who have earned degrees, said his brother, Charles Evers.

Khayat has "shown tremendous progress toward blacks," Charles Evers said Tuesday. "Medgar didn't make it, but I have two granddaughters, one graduated last year from Ole Miss and one will this year."

Khayat has always "encouraged dialogue and debate" about race, said Susan Glisson, director of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, created by the university in 1999 to research race, discrimination and its impact.

Khayat's emphasis on diversity issues extended into medical research, as well, said Dr. Dan Jones, vice chancellor of health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

"When it comes to health disparities across races, Chancellor Khayat encouraged the Medical Center's leadership to expand its vision and role in addressing these disparities in our state and nation," he said.

In 1999, UMC became a partner in a national study of heart disease in blacks.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)