Interim UM System president counts on deep Missouri ties

Friday, January 21, 2011 | 5:34 p.m. CST; updated 7:41 p.m. CST, Friday, January 21, 2011
Steve Owens was recently selected as the University of Missouri System interim president.

COLUMBIA — Running the state's four-campus university system requires the University of Missouri president to wear any number of hats: corporate manager, campus cheerleader, education advocate and traveling salesman.

Steve Owens, the 55-year-old career lawyer named interim university president earlier this month, will be expected to sell the university's merits to budget-pinching lawmakers, big-pocket donors and the tax-paying public. Just don't expect the former Tiger tennis player and 1977 MU graduate to sing his own praises.

"He is a humble guy," said good friend Bob Thompson, managing partner of the Bryan Cave law firm's Kansas City office. "He's very measured and approaches things in a pretty studious way."

That humility has been on display from the outset of Owens' unexpected ascension into the spotlight. Lured away from a 26-year career in private practice in 2008 to oversee the university's legal office as general counsel, Owens was named interim president after Gary Forsee resigned two weeks ago to care for his ill wife.

Owens, who earned his law degree at Wake Forest University, immediately said he wasn't interested in making the top job at University Hall permanent. He declined an Associated Press interview request, citing the need to prepare for next week's Board of Curators meeting in Columbia, his first in charge.

And, when the university issued statements this week in response to Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget, the response was attributed to unidentified university officials, not Owens.

In an indirect way, Owens can thank former Missouri men's basketball coach Norm Stewart for his move to Columbia.

When the Missouri basketball program faced an NCAA investigation in 1990 over alleged recruiting violations, Stewart turned to Owens as his personal representative. The school received two years of probation, and Stewart emerged with only one substantiated charge of not adequately monitoring some aspects of the program, while avoiding the more serious accusation of unethical conduct.

A decade later, Owens represented former Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Bill Bayno after his firing amid an NCAA investigation and reports that Bayno had cavorted with Las Vegas strippers. By then, Owens had helped launch a sports law division at his firm, which also counted Quin Snyder, Stewart's coaching successor, among its clients.

Owens also worked as an outside counsel for the university before he was hired to return to his alma mater.

Tiger pride runs deep in the Owens family. His father and grandfather attended Mizzou, and one of his three sons is a senior in Columbia. His family has donated money for several scholarships, including one at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources in honor of his father-in-law, a Monett cattle farmer.

"Steve was the logical choice for the board," said curator John Carnahan. "We were so blessed to have him available."

If recent history is an example, Owens can expect to spend most of the year in his caretaker role. The search process that culminated in Forsee's hiring took about 10 months. Gordon Lamb, another experienced university leader, was interim president during that stretch.

Carnahan credited Forsee with assembling a strong leadership team, making the absence of a permanent president less disruptive.

University administrators can expect Owens to spend much of his time listening and preparing before he acts — a technique honed in both the courtroom and the Sunday school classroom of Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.

"He's not someone who jumps to the front," Thompson said. "He listens to the debate first."

And with Missouri bona fides to rival the most loyal Tiger supporter, Owens has what both Thompson and Carnahan said is the job's most important requirement: a true commitment to the University of Missouri.

"He's always been a huge supporter and believer in the university," said Thompson, who is also a Missouri graduate. "We can feel confident that the place is going to be well cared for."

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