Like many baby boomers, John O’Haver finds himself somewhere between the way things have been and where things are headed. Fortunately, his years of experience and vision for the future make him a perfect fit to lead the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Mississippi.
As chair, O’Haver replaces Clint Williford, who retired June 30 after 33 years at the university. The professor is confident that he can continue building on the foundation laid by his predecessors.
“My short-term goals are to help our two new faculty members off to a great start in teaching and research, hire a permanent instructor and an additional tenure track assistant professor, and to shepherd the program through reaccreditation in 2016,” O’Haver said. “I also am aiming for curriculum changes and revisions to ensure that our students graduate with the technical, writing, speaking and teamwork skills needed to be leaders in their profession.”
Farther down the road, O’Haver looks to further develop appropriate long-term mentoring and growth opportunities for four untenured faculty members, helping them to develop ongoing, externally-funded research programs. He also plans to encourage regular alumni giving to support scholarships for students, increase the department’s national reputation as a top undergraduate chemical engineering program, develop more long-term co-op and internship relationships and increase the number of faculty to return to a 20-to-1 student-faculty ratio.
O’Haver has a proven track record of achieving goals he sets for himself and others. A 2012 Elsie H. Hood Teacher of the Year Award recipient, he is known for his lively teaching style, and alumni cite him as a major influence on their own successes.
“For me, teaching is much more than just the content, though it is obviously very important. Teachers shaped my life; I want to be available to help others,” said the native Oklahoman, who also serves as director of the UM Center for Math and Science Education. “This award is a recognition that others think I have done my job, and done it well. That I have covered the content, but also influenced lives for the better. That has always been my desire.”
A member of the UM faculty since 1996, O’Haver accepted the position because he needed a job and the position looked like a great balance of teaching and research. Almost 20 years later, he says his students, teaching, creative challenges and colleagues remain what he loves most about working at the university.
“The most personally fulfilling part of my job is exemplified by an incident that happened a few years ago, when a student came down two flights of stairs to throw up in my trash can,” he said. “When I asked why they passed two sets of restrooms to come to my office, they said because they knew I’d take care of them. If I have the reputation of helping my students, academically, personally and professionally, that is very fulfilling.”
Anecdotes aside, O’Haver has won praises from people on and off campus.
“While having the fervor to reach out to public schools, Dr. O’Haver has been a respected researcher, a mentor of undergraduate and graduate researchers, a superior classroom teacher and an innovative administrator,” said outgoing Chancellor Dan Jones. “O’Haver is the university’s only faculty member to have twice been recognized with the Faculty Achievement Award, UM’s highest award given to a single faculty member each year who combines excellence in teaching, research and service. As a teacher-scholar, Dr. O’Haver is our university’s very best.”
“He engages in life coaching as much as teaching,” one student wrote in her nomination letter for the Hood award. Another marveled that, “Dr. O is the best teacher I have known and is undoubtedly an even better mentor.”
O’Haver had always wanted to be an educator at the university level.
“When I left teaching high school to go back to grad school, I knew that I wanted to go into academia. I just love working with students,” he said. “I love the ‘lightbulb’ moments. I like being a mentor to those who want me to be one.
“I poke fun at myself. I am very transparent. I do a lot with problem-based learning. We do a lot in teams. I try hard to make the tough concepts very clear and memorable. I try to relate them to life and then ask them to apply the concepts.”
The goal is to let students know he cares, O’Haver said.
“My undergrad days were some of the worst for me, mostly because I didn’t have anyone in my life that I could ask tough questions,” he said. “So I am available to say to students, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve walked the rough path. I’ve made these bad decisions and I can tell you what happened.'”
O’Haver earned his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees in secondary education and his doctoral degree in chemical engineering, all from the University of Oklahoma. Since joining the UM faculty, he has been a leader for outreach efforts that focus on using university-level expertise to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching in public schools, with special emphasis in the K-6 grade levels.
He was appointed associate dean for academic and student affairs for the School of Engineering. In this role, O’Haver developed new programs, including a set of writing courses for engineering students and a special class to help certain entering engineering majors shore up their fundamental academic skills.
An accomplished researcher with expertise in applied surfactants and surface chemistry, he publishes regularly in the peer-reviewed journals in his field and has directed the theses and dissertations of approximately 20 students, including a number as part of a cooperative arrangement with institutions in Thailand.
O’Haver and his wife, Kevie, have a son, Hudson, and a daughter, Maren, both 18.