In good counsel

After serving 14 years as the general counsel of the University of Missouri System, Steve Owens is set to leave his position on March 1.

Steve Owens portrait

Steve Owens is leaving the University of Missouri System on March 1 after serving 14 years as general counsel.

Feb. 28, 2022
Contact: Sara Diedrich, 573-882-3243,

Steve Owens wasn’t sure he wanted to be general counsel for the University of Missouri System when first approached about applying for the job in 2007.

After all, he was a successful attorney at a large law firm in Kansas City, Missouri, a community where he enjoyed living with his wife, Cindy, and their children. They had set down roots. Why give up a good thing?

But Owens is a third-generation Mizzou alumnus. Black and gold pump through his veins. Plus, the job offered an opportunity to do something different from the work he’d been doing for the previous 26 years. Above all else, Owens was intrigued with the idea of serving what he calls “a noble client.”

In 2008, when the job of general counsel officially opened, Owens applied. This time, he accepted and has been commuting weekly to Columbia ever since.

“I’ve always believed that after faith, education is the great equalizer in the world,” he said. “The opportunity to work in higher education — and at my alma mater, in particular — was too great an opportunity to pass up. After 14 years, I still feel the same way.”

On March 1, Owens is leaving the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and returning to live full-time with his family in Kansas City where he will continue to practice law with the Husch Blackwell firm. As general counsel for the university, Owens reported directly to the Board of Curators and was charged with providing legal counsel and service to the board and the university.

Over the years, Owens has raised the bar in the OGC. He also served as interim UM System president and interim MU chancellor during different points of his tenure, becoming the only individual in the history of the university to hold all three positions.

“Steve has provided excellent counsel during difficult and demanding times,” said Darryl Chatman, chair of the Board of Curators. “Personally, Steve has been a mentor of mine while serving on the board. He’s a friend, and he’s also a very good lawyer. He will be sorely missed.”

black and white photo of Steve Owens playing tennis

Owens’ decision in the mid-1970s to attend MU was sweetened by an athletic scholarship to play tennis, in which he lettered three out of the four years at Mizzou.

Tiger tradition

Owens was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the oldest of three children. When he was 13, he moved with his family to Springfield, Missouri, where he was active in school and sports, especially tennis. Growing up, Owens was quiet by nature.

When it came time for college, Owens considered many options but ultimately followed family tradition and chose Mizzou. His grandfather and both parents had attended the university, and, years later, Owens’ own children would become Tigers, too.

In the mid-1970s, Owens’ decision to attend MU was sweetened by an athletic scholarship to play tennis, in which he lettered three out of his four years at Mizzou. During his undergraduate tenure, the tennis team won the Big 8 conference and was ranked among the top 15 teams in the nation one year.

After graduating from MU with a degree in public administration in 1977, Owens attended Wake Forest University School of Law. He always liked to problem solve, and a degree in law seemed like an education that would open doors.

“I wanted to be Atticus Finch,” Owens said somewhat facetiously about the fictional character in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Ironically, years later, co-workers in the OGC often describe Owens as unflappable; kind, yet discerning; and wise — qualities often attributed to Finch.

After earning his law degree, Owens served as a federal court law clerk. In 1981, he launched a near quarter-of-a-century stint at the large Kansas City-based law firm Stinson LLP, where he chaired the litigation department and oversaw a staff of more than 100 attorneys and paraprofessionals.

That’s where Owens was when the university came knocking.

Raising the bar

When Owens first arrived in the general counsel’s office in 2008, he had a staff of eight attorneys, including himself. Today, the office is more diverse and has grown to include 15 attorneys and support staff, many with impressive accolades and proven track records, such as lawyers who hold multiple degrees; have been awarded Rhodes Scholarships; and completed law clerkships with the U.S. Court of Appeals, the U.S. District Courts and the Missouri Supreme Court.

“Whoever follows me will inherit a really, really good group of lawyers who will be very supportive of them,” Owens said.

During his tenure, Owens prioritized the importance of customer service and increased productivity through office reorganization and greater use of technology. He spearheaded action to streamline the grievance process, working closely with the intercampus faculty counsel. Additionally, he expanded the financial fraud hotline to include all misconduct.

Owens also has led by example.

Steve Owens with his wife and son at graduation

Owens, a third-generation Mizzou alumnus, and his wife, Cindy, also a Mizzou alumnus, celebrate the graduation of their son, David, who carried on the family Tiger tradition in 2015.

“Steve’s calm and professional demeanor has set a good example for all the attorneys working for him,” said Phil Hoskins, who was already working in the OGC when Owens arrived in 2008. “He has shown us by example that you don’t let your ego get in the way of issues that need to be solved.”

Owens’ service as general counsel was interrupted in Jan. 2011 when he served a 13-month stint as interim UM System president, during which time he helped negotiate MU’s joining of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). He also served as interim MU chancellor from Nov. 2013 to Jan. 2014. Both experiences allowed Owens to see the OGC from a different point of view.

“I think serving in those positions made me a better attorney because I got to experience interacting with the general counsel’s office as a client for a year,” he said.

Steve Graham, former senior associate vice president for Academic Affairs at the UM System, said Owens has transformed the general counsel’s office with his leadership and high expectations.

“Steve has a good moral compass that always points north, Graham said. “He has had an important and powerful impact on the office and set the bar high for the next general counsel.”

Mun Choi, president of the University of Missouri, echoed that sentiment and said Owens has provided steady leadership through challenging times while always remaining focused on the big picture.

“Steve has the ability to see how decisions affect the overall success of the university,” Choi said. “He doesn’t allow the minutiae to distract from making the best decision for the university.”

Wry sense of humor

Though Owens is a self-described introvert, he also has a wry sense of humor. And while his work for the UM System is serious, Owens said he has never taken himself too seriously.

For example, during his tenure as interim president, Owens had his picture taken in 1890s period clothes and secretly hung the framed portrait near his office among the other portraits of university presidents with the inscription: Ernest Temporaire – 1839-2011. The test: how long would it take anyone to notice the picture – and how long before someone told him? Not long after, Owens walked around the corner to discover Graham pointing at the picture and laughing with another individual.

“Look what someone did!” Graham called.

Months later, when Owens was back working at the OGC, he remembered the picture and darted back up the stairs at University Hall to retrieve it. The portrait will hang in his office until his departure.

“I think a sense of humor has been important and so has my love for the university,” Owens said. “It’s been the honor of my professional life to serve the university. It’s been a marvelous experience.”

Other highlights from Steve Owens’ university career

General counsel (2008 to present)

  • Identified and filled the university’s needs for specialty legal services such as intellectual property, health care, sophisticated transactions
  • Leader in 5,000-member National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA); currently serves on Board of Directors, four-person Executive Committee and as treasurer; former chair of Council on Diversity and Inclusion
  • Helped form the Tiger Institute and the UMKC Foundation

Interim UM System president (2011-12)

  • Provided employees with their first pay raises in three years while balancing a $2.7 billion budget, all despite an 8% decrease in state support
  • Stabilized and reformed the university’s 50-year-old pension program while protecting the rights of employees and retirees and exercising share governance
  • Promulgated an executive order protecting student expression in the classroom and reiterating commitment to academic freedom


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