COLUMBIA — The president of the University of Missouri System is the face of four universities.
For now, Steve Owens is that face.
What is your favorite book?
I can't narrow it down to one. I like to read. I like to read fiction as well as nonfiction. I probably enjoy nonfiction more than most people do. I greatly enjoyed a book by Arthur Ashe years ago called "Days of Grace." Arthur Ashe was an African-American tennis player — a real intellect with a real social conscience. He contracted AIDS, probably in his late 40s or early 50s through a blood transfusion. And he was in the middle of writing his memoir and actually died before he could finish it, but it was a real compelling book.
What is your favorite movie?
Oh, boy. I kind of like the oldies. Stuff like "Casablanca." I like older movies because they rely on a story line and people, as opposed to, you know, special effects.
When did you have your very first cup of coffee?
I had my first cup of coffee, I believe, in church because I could use it as an excuse to skip Sunday School. (Laughs) They had a kitchen with a coffee pot down there, and they had the Sunday School hour before worship service and a number of people, instead of going to adult Sunday School, would gather for coffee. I can't remember how old I was, but that's how I got started drinking coffee. It had a lot of milk in it, I remember that much. It had a tint of brown to it.
Do you drink it black now?
No. I like a little bit of cream and a little bit of sugar.
Do you have any pets?
I don't right now. We've always had a dog until about a year ago — our family dog died. But we've had great dogs. Our last dog's name was Kramer, named after the character on "Seinfeld" because of the way Kramer would enter the room. He was a great dog. A mutt, actually. Black, but white chest and white paws. He was part Lab, part border collie, allegedly. And a lot of other things in there. Before that, we had Tatu. T-A-T-U. We named him after the character on "Fantasy Island," but apparently he didn't spell his name that way. But we thought he did.
Where's your favorite place to vacation?
I don't know that I have a single place. We have a farm in southwest Missouri that we enjoy, a family farm. There's a stream that goes through it, and you can canoe it and fish it.
You've represented Norm Stewart. What was it like?
Well, I'll tell you how I got the representation. I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business — in 1990, approximately. The phone rang and there was (former MU basketball coach) Norm Stewart, or a voice that said it was Norm Stewart at the other end, and he needed some legal help. So we arranged to meet down here in Columbia — I was working in Kansas City at the time — two days later. About halfway down, I got this horrible thought that this was a great big practical joke being played on me by one of my friends, so I fretted the rest of the way down. What most people probably don't know about Norm is that he is a very warm and gracious person.
Is there a moment in your legal career that you're particularly proud of?
Well, I'll give you two categories. One is kind of when you feel like you've been part of justice. You've done something right and done something good. And another is when you have prepared really well and persuaded someone of something, whether it's the judge or the jury.
As interim UM president, his tenure won't be long, but he says he's happy to help out.
"I love this place," said Owens, the UM general counsel who was asked to serve after President Gary Forsee took temporary leave in December.
"I'm a third-generation Mizzou grad, and my son will be the fourth," he said. "And I am just very much invested in making sure that the University of Missouri continues to be a top-notch institution."
When Forsee told the Board of Curators on Jan. 7 that he was resigning to care for his wife, who was recovering from cancer surgery, Owens was appointed interim president.
Although he says he has no intention of staying on permanently, Owens, 55, inherited a set of challenges facing the university the day he stepped into his new office.
With his quiet smile and soft-spoken voice, he offers an air of humility, but he is not without confidence. For an interview, he sits at the head of the table in his office, leans back with a foot on his knee and responds to questions in a measured, straightforward manner.
"Not out of the woods enough yet"
He exhibited the same candor Wednesday in his testimony before the Missouri House Appropriations Committee on Education to make a case for more state support. His arguments included the importance of research conducted by faculty and economic benefits the state receives from the university.
The system faces a $42 million funding deficit for fiscal year 2012, and Owens said it is important to identify certain values and principles to protect while still trying to close the gap. He called it the most challenging issue he might face as president.
"I think we'll probably in all likelihood have to defer some maintenance and needed repairs again, and we may have to take some personnel actions, such as continuing not to fill currently open positions," he said.
As the conversation turned to the hiring freeze, he leaned forward and paused thoughtfully.
"We're just not out of the woods enough yet to lift it," Owens said. "We're going to have to continue to be very cost-conscious in our hiring."
Owens said the hiring freeze would continue in some fashion, as the current freeze, a soft freeze or a "thawing freeze." He also said the system will likely extend the belt-tightening measures that cut $61.5 million in operating costs last year.
"We don't look at the money angle first. We look at the needs first," the president said. "Then having identified those needs, we'll put a cost to them and try to prioritize them and see what is feasible."
During these tough economic times, the university also imposed a salary freeze for faculty and staff. For the fiscal year 2012 budget, the UM administration is considering a 2 percent merit-based average salary increase.
"Do I see that happening? Yes. I will fight very hard for that because it's extremely important to our faculty and staff," Owens said. "First, because they deserve it. And secondly, it's just a good management tool. You need to start building in some small increases to base salaries."
The UM System needs to maintain the quality of its faculty and staff, he said, "so it's an extremely important aspect of the overall budget to me."
UM administrators have also addressed the retirement benefits for its employees, seeking revisions that are both cost-effective and fair.
"The first and foremost thing that I will look at in terms of any new plan for new employees is that it is adequately protective of the existing plan for existing employees and existing retirees," the president said.
"They've either paid their dues or are in the process of paying their dues, and they are entitled to, I believe, the benefits that they've anticipated."
He added that any plan would need to be able to attract and retain employees, which is especially important with growing student enrollment.
UM has added 17,000 students in the last 10 years, he said, and there is a limit to how large it can grow because of funding issues. He said Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla can handle the least amount of growth, while the University of Missouri-Kansas City has a little more room.
"I think we're approaching (our enrollment limit) at different rates on different campuses," he said. "A key question for us is, at what point do we become concerned that decreased funding and increased enrollment will start to decrease the quality of education?"
He said, with a smile, that the new president will need a sense of humor, as well as leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and an understanding of Missouri and Missourians.
"I don't know that prior association with the state of Missouri or the University of Missouri is a requirement, but it would be a good asset if they have that," he said.
He also said a president should engage in "merit-based decision-making."
"You create a structure in an environment where you weigh all the alternatives," Owens said.
"You hash them out with the people who have some input — people who will be affected by the decisions. And you head down a path toward the right result based on the merits of the idea as opposed to, maybe, strong personalities or other types of influences."
Owens said he tries to engage in this kind of decision-making.
"He's very deliberate," said John Carnahan, an outgoing UM curator who has known Owens for almost 40 years. "If you notice, he carries around a legal pad, and he will use it to outline his thoughts."
Mark Foster, Owens' former law partner at Stinson Morrison Hecker in Kansas City, said Owens is multifaceted.
"He can be very intense," he said. "He's a very hard worker, but he has a great sense of humor, which is sometimes dry."
Carnahan said Owens has a very even temper, which helps him facilitate compromise.
"I've never seen him get outraged, harsh, or mad at anybody," Carnahan said. "He will speak his piece — he stands up for what he believes in — but the goal is to get you to agree and resolve."
Carnahan laughed and said he didn't want "to paint Steve as an angel."
"When he was playing competitive tennis, he would never, ever quit," he said. "I'll just leave it at that. If you played tennis with him, it wasn't social tennis."
The road to the UM System
Carnahan and Owens are both from Springfield, where they attended Glendale High School. Owens was student body president and played football and tennis. He went on to play tennis at MU.
Owens is still a fan of MU sports, and said he predicts the men's basketball team will "go all the way" in this year's NCAA Tournament.
"I guess I'm an optimist," he said. "It's an exciting time of year."
He also expressed confidence that the football team will perform well even without quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who chose to enter the NFL draft instead of returning for a final year. Owens frequently attends games as an alumnus.
After graduating from MU, Owens attended law school at Wake Forest University. In his first job, he clerked for federal Judge William Collinson in 1980. His future wife, Cindy Arnaud, also worked in Springfield.
"We actually ended up renting apartments in the same complex," he said.
The two married in 1982 and have three sons together, one of them an MU student.
In 1981, Owens went to Kansas City to work for Stinson, Mag, & Fizzell, now known as Stinson Morrison Hecker. Throughout his legal career, he has focused mainly on business-oriented litigation, in addition to environmental and sports law.
Foster, who hired Owens, said his former partner had come highly recommended by Judge Collinson. The two worked together until Owens left to work as general counsel for the UM System.
"It was a very difficult decision because I really loved the law firm that I was with. I'd been there 26 years at that point. I liked the people — they were great lawyers and great people. I loved my clients. I loved my practice," Owens said.
"But this opportunity came along and I've always felt that, after faith, education is the great equalizer in the world. So the opportunity to work in higher education in general — and my alma mater in particular — was just too good an opportunity to pass up."
Preparing for another transition
Now, after three years as general counsel, Owens has been thrust into the interim presidency, but he plans to stay only until a new president is selected. At that point, he will return to his previous job for the UM System.
He does not give the impression that he wants to stay in the spotlight for very long.
"I enjoy this job as president. It's interesting and it's challenging. I'm having fun with it," Owens said. "It's really just a matter of personal preference. I'm educated as a lawyer. I'm trained as a lawyer. And so my personal preference is to be general counsel as opposed to president."
He maintains a close relationship with Gary Forsee and said he thinks the former president was a "good role model" for leadership qualities and decision-making.
"He tried not to let extraneous influences affect the right decision," Owens said.
Carnahan was a curator when Owens was selected as Forsee's temporary replacement. He said Owens had a "long background" with the university; even before becoming general counsel, he had done legal work on its behalf, and that made him a good choice.
"He knew Gary Forsee extremely well — they'd been working together for close to three years — and he knew the game plan," Carnahan said. "So he could step right in and make sure things that were in process got completed ... He was just there at the right place and the right time."
Carnahan also said there was a high-level management team in place, which allowed for a smooth transition.
"We all miss President Forsee very, very much, but Steve has been able to step in and, as far as I know, everything is moving on exactly according to what Gary's plans were last year," Carnahan said.
Owens said he is going to be interim president for only a short time, so he won't be able to affect UM dramatically. But he said he would like to continue working on the major initiatives that are already underway.
"I'm just going to try to hand the university to the next president in the best shape that's possible," he said.
Carnahan said Owens is "as good as it gets."
"One of the reasons that we tried to encourage him to apply for general counsel is that everyone knew of the quality of his work," he said.
Foster, Owens' former law partner, agreed that the university is in good hands.
"He has all the skill sets you'll want," Foster said. "He's a person I have the utmost trust in, and I'm a loyal Missouri alum myself."