SEARCH



reputation

EVENT AT A GLANCE

Objective: Increase enrollment and financial support by holding events to atone for the institution’s racist past.

Strategy: Build the events around a formal and accepted strategy for effective apologies: publicly accounting for the offense; accept responsibility for the damage; express remorse; and demonstrate a commitment to change.

Tactics: Issue formal and public apologies to those affected by the university’s 1962 desegregation riot. Collect oral histories from students, officials, and others who lived through the time. Sponsor ongoing symposia to address race-relations topics.

Results: Enrollment is up more than 12.8 percent overall and 12 percent among African-American students, while the school’s endowment has grown by 48 percent since the event.

he past is never dead,” William Faulkner once said. “It’s not even past.” The Nobel Prize-winning native of Mississippi was referring to the scarlet letter of racism that still disfigures the American soul. For the University of Mississippi, in particular, that past is as indelible as a dried bloodstain.

Set in a state whose citizens lynched at least 500 victims since the 1880’s Jim Crow era — including the torture-murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 for the “crime” of whistling at a white woman — the Oxford, MS-based university’s student body was as white as a bar of Ivory soap. And university officials were keen to keep it that way. In 1958, white authorities went so far as to have Clennon King, an African-American professor from Mississippi’s Alcorn College, declared insane and committed to an institution after he attempted to register for a summer session at Ole Miss. Three years later, the school twice rejected Air Force veteran James Meredith’s application to transfer there from nearby Jackson State College. Courts first backed the university’s denial, with a federal judge insisting there was no proof of discrimination.

Then, in September 1962, the Supreme Court ordered the university to admit Meredith. Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, who once publicly vowed no school would be integrated while he was in office, sped to the campus and physically blocked Meredith from entering. That lit the fuse for the explosive confrontation that came next. President Kennedy ordered in 5,000 army troops and 500 federal marshals to form a protective cordon around Meredith when he registered on September 30. Furious that their “rights” were being trampled, a mob of 2,000 howling white students and locals boiled over into a full-scale riot. Blasting shotguns and whipping Molotov cocktails, the crowd injured 168 marshals, including 28 by gunfire, before being subdued. In the end, two people — and a university’s reputation — lay dead. Meredith, protected by a phalanx of armed guards, endured a year of taunting and hazing before graduating in August 1963, with a degree in history.

Mississippi itself has come a long way since then. It is not illegal anymore to advocate social equality there. Hospitals are no longer required by law to build separate entrances for whites and blacks. Interracial couples can marry. But by the late 1990s, the University of Mississippi was about as popular as a bowl of cold grits. From the 1980 through 1989 academic years, the Oxford campus averaged about 9,400 students, while between 1991 and 1995 enrollment plunged by nearly 850. Over the same span, the average number of black students, although rising slowly, accounted for just 10.6 percent of enrolled students — in a state where 37 percent of the population is African-American, the highest proportion in the country. What’s more, its endowment fund — a university’s lifeblood — was only $75 million. Ole Miss’ legacy of racism hung over it like an ancient curse. The school needed to do something before somebody put it in a museum, next to Scarlett O’Hara’s hoop skirts.

An angry mob gathered in 1962 outside Ole Miss’ signature building, the Lyceum, to prevent James Meredith from entering and integrating the school. Forty years later, the school issued an apology to Meredith from the very same spot.

Knowing it couldn’t make a history of racial violence disappear with just slick marketing and catchy slogans, Ole Miss began taking action. It outlawed the use of sticks at football games to prevent fans from flying Confederate flags on them, and retired its antebellum-y mascot, Colonel Reb. But while sincere, the steps just weren’t enough to convince prospective students that Ole Miss had expelled its share of the southern legacy of police dogs and axe handles. Then in 1999, the university opened the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which promotes cultural diversity in several Mississippi communities. But it wasn’t until 2002, when the university and the institute decided to create an extraordinary event, that the ghosts of Ole Miss could be banished.

A RECONCILIATION STRATEGY

Called Open Doors, the event’s goal was to do just that — open the doors to a better, brighter future for the university by testifying to the dark sins of the past. Yet in a part of the country where the Civil War is still sometimes called The War of Northern Aggression, that could be a dangerous proposition. “There was no road map for how to do this,” says Dr. Susan M. Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute. “In the past, we handled things like this badly. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me this was only going to open old wounds, I could retire nicely to the Virgin Islands.”

Fortunately for Ole Miss, Glisson delayed her retirement plans. A specialist in the history of race and religion in the United States, she knew that a legacy of murders, lynching, and oppression wasn’t going to be soothed over by warmed-up Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul fuzzies. Instead, the event would be fueled by the power of apology. “An apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, this is precisely what it manages to do,” wrote Nicholas Tavuchis in “Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation.” Now the subject of several high-profile books (“On Apology”), advocacy groups (the Sorry Works! Coalition in Glen Carbon, IL), and a formal part of the reconciliation process in South Africa, apologies have emerged as an integral part of the healing — and, yes, marketing — process.

Whether quickly offered by JetBlue Airways Corp. for detaining passengers on its stranded flights, or most recently by the Australian government for its past policies that separated Aboriginal children from their parents, apologies that genuinely express remorse can become part of an effective strategy to rehabilitate a tainted image — or perhaps even prevent one from being damaged in the first place.

James Meredith, Ole Miss’ first black graduate, sits with other graduates prior to receiving his degree during the school’s graduation ceremony on August 18, 1963 in Oxford, Mississippi.

Research by Jennifer K. Robbennolt, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois College of Law, found that subjects “injured” in a hypothetical collision were almost 40 percent more likely to accept a settlement that covered nothing more than their medical costs if they received a full and sincere mea culpa from the person at fault. The number, Robbennolt cautions, may rise or fall in different situations, but still suggests the transformative power of atonement. But it was the promise of metamorphosis, not mere damage control, that led Ole Miss to try this high risk/high reward strategy. “These would be irreversible public rituals of atonement,” Glisson says. “People would know we were committing ourselves to redressing wrongs.”

EVENTS AND APOLOGIES

Unlike most events, Open Doors would not open and shut quickly. The initial event was meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Meredith’s entering the university and would be a few days long. But to help the effort have real impact, Open Doors would actually be comprised of many smaller events over the course of one full year. “This could not be a one-off,” Glisson says. It was addressing, essentially, an emotional topic, and like any attempt to build an emotional relationship, its success would come only by building trust over time. But the most important element would be the event that kicked off Open Doors.

Like reuniting the roster of a famous team or the cast of a legendary movie, Glisson and the university started by tracking down participants from 1962. It invited Meredith, alumni, teachers, and government officials, including nearly 40 of the remaining soldiers and federal marshals who had risked their lives protecting Meredith. It also invited those who had stood in the right all alone then and were castigated for their stances, such as Duncan Gray, an Episcopal minister reviled for preaching racial tolerance from his pulpit, and Sidna Brower Mitchell, the editor of the Daily Mississippian student newspaper, whose simple calls for calm in her editorials resulted in a demeaning censure from the student government. “They were the unsung heroes who never got their due,” Glisson says.

But the kick-off event wasn’t going to be about group hugs and trust falls. The focus would, instead, be part of the formula psychologists and conflict-resolution experts have established for effective apologies: a public, honest, and detailed account of the offense; an acceptance of responsibility; an expression of remorse; and a demonstrated commitment to change.

SAY YOU'RE SORRY

Often passive — “mistakes were made,” “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” — insincere apologies can be transparent. But the good ones follow a strategy of genuine repentance with effective redress.

JetBlue Airways Corp.
When a massive snowstorm forced JetBlue Airways Corp. to cancel nearly 1,000 flights in February 2007, customers were stranded, delayed, and even trapped on board aircraft that could no longer return to a gate. The airline’s CEO David Neeleman immediately took responsibility for the operational implosion, acknowledging that travelers “deserved better — a lot better — and we let you down.” He followed the very public apology with specific action, including compensating the victims with cash vouchers and free airline travel, and creating JetBlue’s own airline passengers’ “Bill of Rights” with financial remedies for future delays.

Ford Motor Co.
Apologies sometimes skid and swerve before they arrive safely. After Japan’s Bridgestone Corp.’s Firestone tires began coming apart on Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer SUVs at unusually high rates in 2000, both companies collided in a breakneck blame game. Then Jacques Nasser, CEO of Detroit-based Ford, issued an unequivocal statement of regret, communicated clearly how consumers could get new tires, and then replaced 13 million of them at a cost of about $2.1 billion. As Georgetown University professors Lamar Reinsch and Ameeta Patel wrote in the Business Communications article “Companies Can Apologize,” saying “we’re sorry” isn’t automatically evidence of guilt. In business, apologies, like honesty, can be the best policy.

Southwest Airlines Co.
After the Federal Aviation Administration announced last March it planned to smack Southwest Airlines Co. with a $10.2 million fine for flying planes that hadn’t met inspection deadlines, the Dallas-based company regained altitude when CEO Gary Kelly owned up to its deficient maintenance, placed the responsible officials on administrative leave, and launched a visible plan of action that included hiring an outside expert to better its maintenance. “Southwest will likely come out of this episode looking good because it did the right things quickly and in the right ways,” says Peter M. Smudde, associate professor of public relations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and co-editor of “Power and Public Relations.”



The university started the public accounting with an oral-history project. It assigned figures including guard representatives, Mitchell, James Symington (administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s), Dr. Cleveland Donald (the university’s second black graduate), Constance Baker Motley (Meredith’s chief legal counsel), Richard B. Wilson Jr. (1962’s associated student body president), and even Louis Guy and Robin Reed Hendrickson (Colonel Reb and Miss Ole Miss from 1962) to speak to political-science, history, journalism, and law classes. The university accepted responsibility with the oral-history project where, over a three-day period, teachers and students interviewed and videotaped 60 alumni, faculty, guards, media representatives, and university and government officials to create a permanent record of the school’s shameful actions in 1962.

Ole Miss had waited 40 years to apologize. But now, it faced its past head on with a public — and profound — mea culpa. Beginning with a ceremony on the event’s first day, Oxford’s mayor presented the federal guards with keys to the city, while the student senate revoked its censure of Mitchell. Later that evening, during a calm outdoor dinner held on the very spot the riot had exploded, stories poured out from locals who had lived in fear that long-ago September when white thugs ruled the streets of Oxford with a racism that burned as hot as their makeshift bombs. “These were stories we had never heard that were as healing as they were revealing,” Glisson says. As if to underscore, then repudiate, that fear, university chancellor Dr. Robert Khayat stood on the front steps of the Lyceum — which had once served as a hospital for Confederate troops and, almost a century later in 1962, as a haven for the U.S. marshals — and apologized to James Meredith for the injustice done him. Then he and Meredith led the crowd of 2,500 to a new green space dedicated for a civil rights monument.

Over the course of the following year, the reconciliation event unfolded into a series of event-lets: films, photo exhibits, symposia, and lectures that, under their collective weight, left the once-mainstream racism of Ole Miss’ past looking as aberrant as the beliefs of the Flat Earth Society. Open Doors closed its year with a four-day conference on racial reconciliation, hosted by the William Winter Institute.

STELLAR GRADES

James Meredith, the first black student to enter and graduate from the University of Mississippi, was an active participant in the racial-reconciliation event that helped repair the university’s image among today’s students in Mississippi.

Since the event series concluded, attendance at Ole Miss has grown more than 12.8 percent to approximately 14,000 students, with the number of black students increasing 12 percent during the same time to nearly 1,800. What’s more, the endowment fund has grown by 48 percent.

Whether it’s an intimate apology between an aggrieved couple or a nationally broadcast expression of regret between a guilty corporation and its wronged customers, the full impact of the apology is not always immediate, but rather it plants the seed in the long run for a more fruitful relationship. In addition to holding a similar event every year since the inaugural Open Doors event series in 2002, Ole Miss has gone from the initial stage of apology — accepting blame — to the final and most difficult one: demonstrating a commitment to change. Evolving the events from ritual and entertainment into the gritty work of rebuilding communities ravaged by racism, the William Winter Institute, backed by Ole Miss, began proactively working for affordable housing, aligning itself with a micro credit union, halting predatory lending, and spearheading an effort to mandate the teaching of civil- and human-rights history in public schools.

The original event also inspired related events in other Mississippi counties offering public testimony and atonement to those who suffered during those raw, dark days, such as the families of assassinated civil-rights leader Medgar Evers and the three civil-rights workers murdered by Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, who was belatedly convicted of the crime 41 years later in 2005 — a consequence in part of the William Winter Institute and Ole Miss’ efforts to create an event to remember the killings. For each event, the university offered its assistance in setting up a tableau of public rituals, witnesses, and victims who testified to crimes past.

“There is no way I could have anticipated how this would continue to work itself out,” Glisson says. “The events created a rhetorical space to address the past and affect the future.” Maybe, as Faulkner said, the past is never really dead, but with events like these, the sound and fury that accompanied Ole Miss’ deformed history will eventually be gone with the wind.e


CHARLES PAPPAS, senior writer;
emcauliffe@corporateeventmag.com
Back to Top