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CAMPAIGN '08: THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Ole Miss hopes debate will spotlight campus progress

September 25, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

OXFORD, MISS. — For the University of Mississippi, Friday's debate is about more than presidential politics: Officials hope it also helps combat what may be one of the most enduring public relations problems in American higher education.

They know that for many Americans, Ole Miss means little more than the deadly 1962 riot sparked by the matriculation of the first black student, James Meredith, and the 1990s-era controversy over the display of the Confederate flag at football games.

But if the debate goes off as planned, it will provide the 160-year-old school with the opportunity to show, once and for all, that it has moved beyond its old, infamous and self-destructive reputation as a bastion of white supremacy.

First, of course, the school will have to wait and see if the debate takes place. On Wednesday, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said he would not participate unless Congress approved a bailout package for Wall Street by Friday. The Commission on Presidential Debates said in a statement that it was "moving forward with its plan" for the debate. School officials said they were still prepared to host candidates McCain and Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.

"The chancellor just said, 'We've been ready for the debate, and we're still ready,' " said Curtis Wilkie, a journalism instructor who helped bring the event to the school.

The university lobbied hard and has spent $5.5 million to prepare. Wilkie, an Ole Miss graduate, said it would be the first time since the 1962 riot that so many reporters would be paying attention to his alma mater. As a result, he said, it would be "the most positive event that's taken place in my lifetime" for Ole Miss.

The school's transformation has been gradual since the riot and the subsequent desegregation of the campus. Some of the most dramatic changes have occurred under the leadership of Robert Khayat, a former Ole Miss football star who became chancellor in 1995.

Khayat, a gregarious man, is a product of the old, segregated Ole Miss; he has used his gridiron clout to placate good-old-boy alumni while nudging Ole Miss into a new era.

Khayat oversaw what was, in effect, a ban on the display of the Confederate flag at football games; the erection of a statue of Meredith; and the creation of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which promotes positive discussions of race on campus and around the state.

These changes, along with new recruiting efforts, have helped boost black enrollment from 5.8% in 1995 to 14% this year. The state of Mississippi is about 37% black.

"I feel that we've really made tremendous progress," Khayat said, though not everyone agreed with the idea of change.

"At times it was rocky," he said. "Some of my friends were no longer friends."

A number of black students say the atmosphere is comfortable and cordial at Ole Miss.

Marcus Thompson, a communications major, grew up in nearby Sardis, Miss. He knew when he enrolled more than four years ago that there were still vestiges of Old South symbolism. The band, for example, still plays "Dixie" at games.

But he signed up anyway, lured by the promise of a top-shelf education. White students have been polite to him, he said, although he almost never spends time with them socially.

"It's supposed to be the same world, but it's separate," said Thompson, who sticks with black friends from his hometown. "That's one thing the school's got to work on is the social thing."

That kind of reality, of course, is a fact of life in many parts of the U.S. At Ole Miss, it is fortified by separate black and white Greek social systems. Although some are comfortable with the status quo, others think it is one last barrier that must fall for the school to fully heal.

Two student groups, One Mississippi and Respect Mississippi, have been trying to tear down some of the barriers, holding multiracial retreats and picnics and soul-baring "story circles" to help students see their commonalities.

It's a slow process, but students like Patrick Weems, 22, say they are making headway.

"I think it's becoming OK to come out and say, 'You know what, it's wrong that this is happening, that we have an all-black and an all-white system,' " said Weems, who is white. "And it is tough because we are insecure people. It's easier for us to go to our little niches."

Melissa Cole, a 20-year-old junior, joined One Mississippi after spending her freshman year hanging out with all-black campus organizations like the Black Student Union. They were comforting, she said, like a family. But she also began to feel alienated from the mainstream Ole Miss experience. The friendly but separated social system, she said, seems to breed misunderstandings.

"The conversations people could have -- not just between black and white but all races -- could open up some eyes," she said. "I think the reason some people do these things is because they don't know. They don't know when they sing 'Dixie' it hurts me."

Outside the student union last week, Michelle McAuley, a senior studying speech pathology, sat with scores of her fellow sorority members, all of them white. They were waiting for the results of a homecoming queen runoff between two white women.

McAuley had no qualms about singing "Dixie." (Students traditionally shout "The South will rise again!" after it is played in the stadium.)

"I don't think anything about the slaves or anything like that when I sing it," McAuley said. "It's just our heritage."

Khayat said the Ole Miss administration can only do so much to make people want to socialize together. He said these things often change over years and decades.

He noted that his father, who was Lebanese, was blackballed from a fraternity at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., because of his ethnic background. Decades later, Khayat was accepted into the Ole Miss Greek system.

"You'd have to expect this to be one of those things that happens over time," he said.

--

richard.faussett@latimes.com

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