Dr. Linda Spargo is University of Mississippi Coordinator, Special Projects emerita Chancellor’s Office, Director, Paris-Yates Chapel emerita Chancellor’s Office
By Bonnie Brown
Q: What was your first job at Ole Miss? What were your responsibilities?
A: Because I was a graduate student, I taught two sections of Freshman English each semester for six years. Dr. Ben McClelland also arrived that year to serve as a new faculty member to oversee the development of new methods of teaching freshman composition. This came out of a national shift in the teaching of writing, and Ben was a nationally recognized leader in this new movement. I was his graduate assistant, and he had a huge impact on my teaching of writing. As his grad assistant, we created the first Writing Center in the basement of Bondurant that was specifically for freshmen and peer editing. He also led the development of the Writing Project, a summer program for public school teachers in any discipline who wanted to increase writing in their field. We did a lot of work at many schools in Mississippi to teach new pedagogical methods and presented relevant research at conferences. When I finished my dissertation, I was named the first Director of the Writing Center and held that position for about three years until the Chancellor called and asked for some help.
Q: It is well known that Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat called you to the Lyceum and asked you to become his speechwriter. Talk about the interview and how you felt about assuming that responsibility.
A: I had become friends with the Khayats when I moved here in 1986. The Chancellor had just been named Chancellor in July 1995 and was overseeing the hooding ceremony when I finished my Ph.D. in August of 1995. By that time, I had been the Director of the Writing Center for three years. He called and asked if I could meet with him because he needed some help with some things as the new Chancellor. I was more than happy to help with anything and was so proud and excited that Ole Miss would be under his leadership. We met for about an hour, and he asked if I could help with communication and letters and issues around the production of all kinds or writing. My Ph.D. in English definitely was something he saw as a good indicator that I could write properly. He is a wordsmith and craftsman of language, so this was an important component to the help he needed. I told him that I would help in any way. A few weeks later, his assistant called and said: Are you going to come work for us or not? I was shocked! I had no idea that that was a job interview. So, my journey in that office began.
The Ole Miss that the Chancellor inherited needed a lot of life support. Student numbers were down; the campus was pretty but needed TLC; Martindale-Cole was a boarded-up gym; and the Lyceum had cats in it. There was a lot to do, and Chancellor Khayat was ready to get busy and fast. He was going to Rotary meetings, 200 high schools, meeting with alumni, the UM Foundation, faculty, staff, physical plant. I wore many hats while in that office because there was so much to do with students, recruiting, financial aid, housing, etc. I began just helping with the overwhelming amount of communication that the Chancellor’s Office generated and also what the Chancellor generated because of the excitement around his new position. He did begin to need speeches and slide shows and lots of them. It was rare if he repeated information in the same way. He was selling Ole Miss and was rolling up his sleeves to get going with his vision of Ole Miss being perceived as A Great Public University. However, as student issues and alums began to call for help, someone had to return a call and help solve problems. That Help Line became me. I worked with any and every department on campus all day, every day. It was intense and began to create the customer service foundation that the Chancellor wanted. I was representing The University of Mississippi — and the Chancellor. Fast forward five years: We raised $600k, got Phi Beta Kappa, have renovated Martindale-Cole, the Lyceum, built the Paris-Yates Chapel, Holman Hall and working on Honors College, Croft Institute, Lott Leadership, Bryant Hall, Residential Colleges. And the rocket was still going.
Q: How did you transition from speechwriter to Special Projects Coordinator?
A: I was always Coordinator of Special Projects. I wore many hats based on the multitude of problems or issues that arose and needed someone to handle them. A few years later, other titles were added: Academic Advisor, Director of the Paris-Yates Chapel, and Instructor of Business Communications for the School of Business. The transition away from speechwriting occurred about four years later when my role with students and parents grew and as the Chancellor’s speech requests soared.
I have to provide some context for this moment in time. When the Chancellor was hired, his principle goal was to transform the University from Good to Great. He wanted to strengthen our academic mission, thus his efforts to secure a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, grow our student population, renovate and build new facilities, create pride for our alumni, raise money, and the list goes on. He was focused on new branding when branding wasn’t a common word in marketing. He told everyone that his office was an “open door.” Friends and alumni were coming out of the woodwork to meet with him. There was so much energy, excitement, and hope, and it was truly amazing to be a part of the next 14 years of his tenure. However, his open door had one problem: he wasn’t there very much, or he was scheduled for months out. I became the open door, which got wider and taller!
Q: Parents and students often have very unrealistic ideas about college life. What was your approach to merging those ideas when advising students and counseling parents?
A: I probably met with 300 families a year. I felt that if I met them that I should then be available to help with problems as they arose for every student. We were also very focused on developing strong retention methods to keep students at Ole Miss. That translates to tuition dollars and better graduation rates. So, I have seen everything imaginable, and I began to develop strategies and ideas about how to help students grow up. I gave them “homework.” I also learned that parents needed a lot of guidance, and they also needed a lot of boundaries and directions about responding to their child’s issues. Everyone thinks that their child is coming to college to get a degree. They are and usually do get a degree. However, the reality is that their child is coming to grow up emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually, socially — it’s not just about academics.
Q: Tell us about some of your more memorable successes in establishing relationships with parents and students.
A: Every day that I walked into my office, I had a large stack of things to do, but I also knew that most of the day would be full of unknown encounters which would be an opportunity to help at least one person. I learned to set priorities because I had to assess the problem first. I learned that the problem could be very small, but to that person, it was huge and, more importantly, personal. Relationships came from just being nice, sharing my passion for the University, solving problems, going to the hospital or the auto repair shop, calling people back, giving them choices to make good decisions, being fair, being empathetic and compassionate, and being consistent with solutions no matter the economic status of the family. I told someone recently that just by calling someone back to let them know the status of a problem was worth a million dollars to that person. It built a lot of bridges.
Q: How did you deal with “helicopter” parents? You know, the ones that inserted themselves into every aspect of their student’s life.
A: Honestly, it was an honor to deal with any parent with a child in college. I had a daughter attend Ole Miss, and boy, did that give me perspective about this phase of student lives. I’ve definitely had a range of situations, but I did have a few strategies.
I always wanted to talk with the student instead of the parent. It’s surprising how often the parent doesn’t want me to do that but prefers to be the one communicating.
One strategy was to be direct and honest and always call them back. I explained policy often because if I’m saying “no” then I needed to explain why. I tended to also be the student’s advocate because most people don’t believe them or listen to them. Students usually blame the teacher if the grade wasn’t good. If the parent called, I explained that there are three stories and that they have only heard one of them, their child’s. The teacher also has a story, and somewhere in the middle those two merge into the third story, which is closer to the true story.
The goal was always to try to peel the parent away from resolving the issue and encouraging them to allow the student to solve their own problem and gain that skill.
Q: What are your strengths and how have they helped you be so successful?
A: It’s hard for me to talk about my strengths because our work in the Chancellor’s Office was based on helping students and families. I focused on service because it was always an honor to get to meet a student and a family and simply provide advice, guidance, and correct information. One simple phone call was often like gold; it connected me to a student or parent and personalized the situation and changed the dynamics and urgency of the moment.
I wasn’t representing me. I was representing The University of Mississippi, my alma mater, and the vision of a gifted chancellor to every person with whom I came in contact. I saw myself as part of a team that was rebuilding the University and whose dedication and hard work would contribute to the bigger cause of creating a great educational institution. Customer service was one of the most important building blocks in the Chancellor’s plan. I had the opportunity to treat people like I would want to be treated. Sometimes, I did that with a gentle nudge, sometimes a smile, sometimes a hug, sometimes my listening ear, sometimes a firm and direct piece of advice, and sometimes with tears. There were so many issues, and each person with a problem believed that the solution was very important to them and to their future.
I also took parents out of the formula as much as possible. I was teaching parents to let their child solve the problem, not the parent.
Some of the most meaningful moments came from simply helping one person get admitted to Ole Miss, face a teacher, get into the right major to discover their degree, change roommates, join a club, go to the infirmary, get a job, communicate with their parents, tell the truth, become a leader…. it’s a long, hard journey to graduation. There’s a lot for students to learn.
Everything that I had done in my life prepared me for this job. It was rewarding, and I was contributing and doing my part to build a better university. There is so much pride in what was being accomplished. It was easy to sell Ole Miss to people.
Q: What’s the title of the current chapter of your post-retirement life?
A: There’s So Much Left to Do