Dean-duo takes next step together in their careers


Married deans Dan and Mary John O’Hair are both stepping down from their positions at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Rick Childress

Husband and wife dean-duo, Dan and Mary John O’Hair, came to UK together and now they’re stepping down together.

Dan is the Dean of the College of Communications and Information and Mary John is the Dean of the College of Education. Both announced last month that after nine years as deans, they will leave their positions in August 2018.

“We think it’s very rare,” Mary John said. “We don’t know of any other research, land-grant universities that have spouses as deans.”

“We’ve heard the national average for how long a dean stays in office is somewhere between four and five years,” Dan said. “And we kind of wonder if maybe we lengthened that because we had each other to be supportive of.”

The O’Hairs said they are stepping down because they want to pursue their passions as teachers and researchers in their respective colleges.

“We decided that if we came here together, we would probably leave together as deans, but we have no intention of leaving as faculty,” Mary John said. “That’s too important to us.”

Both husband and wife said they are excited to be teaching and researching full-time. Mary John is especially excited about the relationships she’ll be able to form as a full-time professor.

“You can do lots of great work as an administrator and a dean,” Mary John said. “But at times you miss out on some of the really close connections with students and faculty.”

While also missing teaching, Dan is excited about possibly resuming his past research, in which he studied hurricane warning systems.

“I think I want to go back to that because—there’s been a lot of hurricanes,” Dan said. “And there’s been a lot of new graphics and messaging that the National Hurricane Center has developed since whenever I was studying. So I think it’s time for someone—maybe like myself—to take a look at how effective those messages were maybe during Irma and Harvey.”

During their tenure as deans, both said they had left a good legacy for their colleges.

Dan said the College of Communication and Information has doubled the size of its budget, number of students and amount of faculty. The college has also created several new majors, including the information-communication technology degree.

Mary John said the College of Education has created several new entities that can promote improved education practices, both nationally and internationally.

The College of Education also partnered with 17 eastern Kentucky school districts and secured $30 million in funding for those districts. The college provides support for leaders and teachers in those districts.

The O’Hairs said their marriage has made them better deans.

“I know we both have relied on each other,” Mary John said. “And it’s always good to bounce ideas off someone that you know will tell you straight up, ‘That’s crazy! Don’t do that!’ or say ‘Wow! Wish I would’ve thought of that.’”

“We call it commiserating,” Dan said, of when the couple goes home and shares the tough parts of their days.

Before UK, the O’Hairs were faculty at the University of Oklahoma but were drawn to Lexington by the persistence of a UK dean search committee. At first, the committee was only pursuing Dan, but he had already turned down two UK offers.

While at a football game in Kansas City, Dan received a phone call from one of the chairs of the UK search committee.

“He goes, ‘Dan, I’m trying one more time,’” Dan said. “And did you know that the Dean of Education job is open too?’ The reason why that was interesting to both of us is that my wife was a professor of education at Oklahoma. So there were two dean jobs open simultaneously.”

Dan hung up the phone and told Mary John the good news.

“He said, ‘Guess what—there’s also one in education,’” Mary John said. She was delighted.

“She goes, ‘Oh my god, that would be so much fun to be deans together,’” Dan said. “One thing led to another and here we were.”

So, the O’Hairs began the interview process, loved the school and decided to begin their deanships together at UK.

“I just fell in love with our students and the faculty,” Mary John said. “And Lexington on top of everything else is just a great place to be.”

Their children soon followed them. Their daughter became a school teacher in the Lexington area and their son completed his undergrad at UK.

Their daughter and her husband soon announced that they would be having a child.

“Now, we’re grandparents with our first Kentuckian born here,” Mary John said. “They’ll be expecting another in March.”

Dan said the yearlong search process for new deans will begin soon and that it’s very possible that, for next year, the colleges will receive interim deans.

“I did enjoy being a dean,” Dan said. “It was a lot of fun. It was the right level of challenge for me at the time. But I think it ran its course and I’m about ready to get back to the other things that I love.”