For the University of Mississippi, tonight's scheduled debate is about more than presidential politics: Officials hope it also helps combat what might 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 would provide the 160-year-old school with the opportunity to show, once and for all, that it has moved beyond its infamous and self-destructive reputation as a bastion of white supremacy.
Officials at Ole Miss have said they've spent $5.5 million in advance of the event between John McCain and Barack Obama
Curtis Wilkie, a journalism instructor and alumnus who helped bring the event to the school, 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 in the past half-century, and some of the most dramatic changes have occurred under the leadership of Robert Khayat, a former Ole Miss football player who became chancellor in 1995.
Khayat is a product of the old, segregated Ole Miss; he has used his football clout to placate good-old-boy alumni while nudging Ole Miss into a new era. He oversaw what was, in effect, a ban on the display of the Confederate flag at football games; the erection of a statue to 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, coupled with new recruiting efforts, have helped boost black enrollment from 5.8 percent in 1995 to 14 percent this year. The state of Mississippi is about 37 percent black.
“I feel that we've really made tremendous progress,” Khayat said. “…At times it was rocky. Some of my friends were no longer friends.”
Marcus Thompson, a black communications major, grew up in nearby Sardis. He knew when he enrolled more than four years ago that there were vestiges of Old South symbolism: The band, for example, still plays “Dixie” at the games.
But he came anyway, lured by the promise of a top-shelf education. White students have been polite to him, he said, although he almost never socializes with them.
“It's supposed to be the same world, but it's separate,” said Thompson, who sticks with black friends. “That's one thing the school's got to work on, is the social thing.”
Two student groups, One Mississippi and Respect Mississippi, have been trying to tear down some of the old barriers, including separate black and white Greek social systems, by holding multi-racial retreats and picnics and soul-baring “story circles” to help students see their commonalities. It's slow, but students such as 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.”
Outside of the student union last week, Michelle McAuley, a senior studying speech pathology, sat with fellow sorority members, all of them white.
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.”