Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter is more than an academic in a suit. Much more.
BY AUSTIN DEAN
Photos: Bruce Newman and the University of Mississippi
On the first night of 2016, Ole Miss fans lit up the Superdome in New Orleans after watching their beloved Rebels win a Sugar Bowl for the first time in decades.
As the crowd erupted after the game watching quarterback Chad Kelly and Coach Hugh Freeze raise the Sugar Bowl trophy in victory, most of them paid little to no attention to the man standing near them united in celebration.
It was Jeffrey Vitter’s first day as chancellor of the University of Mississippi. And he spent it in New Orleans throwing landsharks and tweeting photos from the game as if he were a lifelong fan.
Few people saw it at the time, but the night was indicative of what the university community would come to realize as the year continued: Vitter was all in.
Of course, he wasn’t only there for the Sugar Bowl. New Orleans is his hometown and filled with the memories of family and the lessons he learned from his father, Père, and older brother, Al.
The Sugar Bowl victory ring Vitter wears every day is both a reminder of the day he became a Rebel and of the beginning of his journey in mathematics, computer science and higher education, a remembrance of the place where it all began.
“Al influenced me a great deal, but even in high school I was enamored wit the love and beauty of mathematics,” Vitter says. “It’s the amazing elegance of the order among chaos that mathematics represents.”
Vitter’s father was the chief engineer for Chevron following his time in the radiation labs during World War II. In the late 1930s, he joined the faculty at Notre Dame, which sparked a family tradition. In total, ten members of Vitter’s family have attended Notre Dame.
While at Notre Dame, Vitter excelled academically. By his junior year he was already taking graduate-level classes, devoting himself to abstract mathematical realities and constraints.
Vitter says all he wanted to do was solve problems to make life easier for people. While he knew his theoretical knowledge of mathematics was invaluable, he wanted a way to tackle challenges within the physical world.
His senior year was a watershed moment in many ways as he dove into computer science. Little did he know he’d end up as a leading contributor to the entire field.
Vitter’s academic and consulting work attracted the attention of several companies often trying to convince him to leave academia for other opportunities.
“I was fascinated by academia because I had the freedom to define my own vistas and explore any area that beckoned to me,” Vitter admitted. “Unlike an industry job or a startup company out in Silicon Valley, once you are in those environments you are only contained in those specific parameters.”
IBM almost succeeded in the 1980s while Vitter was doing consulting work for the hardware company, making relationships with several employees in the process.
In the end, however, academia won.
“What I’ve found is people who are best at making a difference in the world are those who understand the theoretical underpinnings of what they do,” he says. “Their approaches tend to be more elegant and not just ad-hoc. I felt that if I left academics that I would be losing that.”
Staying true to his word, Vitter committed himself to higher education and never looked back.
Brown, Duke, Purdue, Texas A&M and Kansas are among the institutions he’s called home, but he insists Oxford is unlike anything he’s experienced before.
“People are doing truly innovative things to make a difference in this world,” Vitter says, “from saving lives and making life safer … all the way to our underpinnings as people, how we relate, how we move forward as a society dealing with difficult issues.”
Only 17 men have served as chancellor. While each one faced his own personal and professional challenges, it’s unquestionable Vitter faced one an unusual transition given the tension between the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning board of trustees and the university after the controversial removal of former chancellor Dan Jones.
Jones was beloved among the university community, with his removal leading to protests and outrage toward the IHL. When the search began for a new leader, many worried Jones’ successor wouldn’t be as qualified or committed to moving the university forward.
Vitter managed to cut through that tension from the beginning, largely due to his presence on social media, which he uses to communicate and openly converse with members of the community about their concerns. It’s unprecedented at Ole Miss and considerably rare among leaders of other universities who aren’t as personally engaged with social platforms.
It definitely makes his job more challenging, but Vitter says he understands the importance of connection with the community.
“It’s important that I have to be able to keep the pulse of the university and be able to communicate in an effective way to let people know that we are a great university (and) committed to getting better,” he says.
Interacting with the community he serves on a personal level allows him to know who he’s leading, and for them to know him in return. As a result, Vitter’s been able to settle into the job with relative ease.
It helps that under Vitter’s leadership, built upon the legacies of Jones and former chancellor Robert Khayat, the university continues to excel in several areas.
And a Sugar Bowl doesn’t hurt, either.
“It did help that my first day on the job was pretty good,” Vitter said. “Now I get to wear this gaudy ring as a reminder.”