In every region of this country people have fond, often charming and usually faintly ridiculous notions about the characteristics they possess. New Englanders, for instance, like to imagine that they are shrewd and thrifty, honest but sharp, as durable and dependable as the flinty earth that harbors them. Westerners see themselves standing tall and formidable in their high-heeled boots, tolerant but not susceptible, straightforward rather than clever, as noncommittal and rugged as their own broad plains. Southerners, of course, are gracious but touchy, hotheaded but also warmly hospitable, dashing suitors but always chivalrous defenders of their womenfolk, who are as gentle and soft-voiced as mourning doves.
Sometimes it does happen that reality lives up to the legend. There probably is no better proof of this than the 5,300 students who are attending the University of Mississippi.
The young men at Ole Miss are astonishingly broad-shouldered and happily carefree. They are friendly and courteous, but there is a slight swagger about them, and they walk the land as if they own it.
The young women at Ole Miss are softly pretty, and they smile often and cut their eyes when they say hello, and it is no wonder at all that in rapid succession two of them have been chosen Miss America. The wonder is that girls from other regions even have a chance, and although not all of them really seem as gentle as doves, all Ole Miss coeds do walk with an identical little seductive waddle, like so many happy goslings.
There may be a touch of deception in all of this, of course. But the gently rolling, well-tended square mile of campus at Oxford, Miss. could not be anywhere except in the Deep South. There are magnolias scattered among the elms, oaks, redbud and dogwood trees, and on flat and sultry days their fragrance is everywhere, just as sentimental novelists claim. Mockingbirds sing in the trees, and on quiet nights when the moon is riding high katydids fill the air with a soft keening, and lightning bugs blink everywhere.
There are, naturally, no flat, geometrical and glass-faced buildings at Mississippi. Even the newest of them are Georgian or modified Georgian, and two of the surviving four antebellum buildings are Greek Revival, with tall white columns which gleam in the moonlight or look cool and gracious when struck by the dazzling sun.
Every institution of higher learning has, of course, an esprit, a driving force or a coordinating force. At any of the Ivy League colleges this probably is love of learning, or if not actually love, at least respect for knowledge laboriously gathered through the ages. The earnest and preoccupied young men encountered at these schools look as if they could discuss Kant or order a meal in French. There are students at Ole Miss who look as if they could do these things, too, but they are not numerous, and nobody is alarmed that they are so few.
This is not to say that scholarship is considered unimportant at Mississippi. The books are there, the professors are conscientious and the university has compiled some impressive statistics to prove that it provides—in the words of its able and highly respected chancellor, Dr. John Davis Williams—"a climate of learning." Forty-eight percent of the faculty at Ole Miss hold doctoral or other terminal degrees, for example, and this is far above the average for colleges and universities in the U.S. Furthermore, freshmen entering Ole Miss in 1955 scored above the norm for the South on the college qualification test, and each year since then freshmen have made higher scores than the year before. In 13 of 17 major fields of study Mississippi graduates scored above the national mean. Ole Miss has produced 18 Rhodes scholars—which ranks it high among schools that have received scholarships.
So it is not demeaning Ole Miss, really, to report that its esprit is football. A great many people will find this shocking, of course, and while, perhaps, it is not the ideally perfect esprit for a university, it is not altogether bad either, and in the case of Ole Miss football undoubtedly has, up to this time at least, done more good than harm.
Ole Miss is not a football foundry. In almost round figures it costs $10.5 million for the university to keep its doors open each year. Football brings in $400,000 a year, and while this is not a sum to be dismissed lightly, it just about carries the school's athletic program—that is, it pays all expenses of its football team, such as travel and equipment, plus grant-in-aid scholarships to a team of 48-odd (room, board, tuition, books, fees, laundry), as well as paying for all unprofitable sports such as baseball, tennis, track, golf and basketball. If there is a surplus, and last year there was one of $30,000, it is used to set up nonathletic scholarships.