When Nic Lott walks around the University of Mississippi campus, he already looks like a seasoned politician - greeting students and pondering this year's presidential race.
Like many who come to this sprawling and modern Southern campus, where bursting crimson azaleas bloom around a monument to Confederate veterans, Mr. Lott says his heart has always belonged at Ole Miss, the oldest public university in Mississippi - and the one with the most segregated history.
As the first African-American student body president in campus history, Lott typifies how Southern universities - long a crucible of American race relations - are changing.
From the Gothic spires of Duke University in North Carolina to the antebellum lyceum here, many colleges are still struggling to shed residues of a racist past while fighting for multicultural harmony in the 21st century.
Perhaps nowhere is the symbolism of change more poignant than in the sight of this gregarious Mississippian, dressed in a blue cotton shirt, strolling around a campus that just 39 years ago needed National Guardsmen posted in doorways just to admit a black student.
"Sure it helps for other minority students to see that this kind of election can be won by a minority," says Lott, aware of the import but understated about it. "It certainly can't hurt, but race was never an issue in this election."
Even so, a new stream of racial incidents - often hoaxes - plagued schools in the South, and across the country, in fact, in the 1990s.
In February, racial bathroom graffiti, defacement of Black History Month bulletin boards, and vandalism to a hall director's apartment stirred up the Ole Miss campus. Lott says many students may not have even realized race was an issue until the incidents.
Students didn't riot as they did in the 1960s. Instead, they held candlelight prayer vigils to inspire awareness. Out of the ferment, the school drew up a list of recommendations, including the establishment of a new Institute for Racial Reconciliation and Civic Renewal.
Certainly Ole Miss isn't alone in coping with such events. Though isolated, they have occurred at many schools and have proven troubling for recruitment, especially as traditionally white universities try to lure African-Americans away from black colleges.
"There's still the tendency on the part of a significant number of people to think there's an uncomfortable and unwelcoming atmosphere for African-Americans in the South," says Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "But people who live here know that's simply not the case."
Despite racial incidents on the Duke campus, the university has stepped up minority …