May you grow up strong and lovely
with a mind that seeks the truth
and a heart that knows compassion
and a dream that pulls you through.
Assistant to the Chancellor Steven J. Givens wrote that years ago as part of “A Dream That Pulls You Through,” a lullaby for his then-infant daughter, Jenny.
“I was spending quite a few late nights rocking her to sleep,” Givens says. “The song is about what I want for her, what I can give her and what I can’t.
“I’d like to think there’s a ring of truth to it in regard to all the young men and women that make their way through Washington University.”
Givens is quick to point out that he’s not an academic or a researcher.
“My job gives me the chance to work at a place that makes a huge impact both on the lives of the young people who come through here and on the state of knowledge in the world,” he says. “And I’m not contributing to that knowledge, but I’m doing my part to run the University that supports it.”
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says Givens possesses all the basic qualities vital to any university chief executive officer’s assistant: great dedication, a high degree of integrity, a willingness to deal with complicated issues and a willingness to get involved. But there’s so much more to Givens.
“Steve’s enthusiasm for advancing the mission of the University is outstanding,” Wrighton says. “He’s a person who inspires trust in people. They feel comfortable talking with him and that he is responsive, a good listener.
“It’s probably the case that Steve is involved in more interactions with me than most people, and he provides reassurance in doing his job so effectively. I count him among my best friends.”
It’s no accident that Givens has worked in education nearly his entire professional career.
“I’m the kind of person who needs to feel like I’m spending my time doing something worthwhile,” Givens says. “I don’t think I could be the assistant to the president of a company that makes lug nuts.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with lug nuts,” he adds with a laugh, “but that wouldn’t be significant enough for me.”
Chief of staff
Givens first joined the University in 1992 as editor of Washington University in St. Louis Magazine, the quarterly periodical. But he and his family moved to England in 1994, when his wife, Sue, accepted a job transfer there.
Upon their return to native St. Louis in 1997, Givens rejoined the University, this time in the Office of the Chancellor.
“My job is all about serving the University and serving the chancellor — making his job as easy and as fluid as possible,” Givens says. “All the things we in this office do for him, we do so that he doesn’t have to think twice about those things.”
As Wrighton’s chief of staff, Givens is involved in just about everything. He stays abreast of matters the chancellor is addressing. He knows the chancellor’s schedule. He solves problems. He plans special events. He completes special projects.
He sits on or chairs dozens of committees and is an ex officio member of the University Council. He keeps Wrighton informed of situations and makes recommendations on courses of action.
“I can’t think of even one thing that Steve has done that made me think, ‘Boy, that was upsetting. I wish he hadn’t done that,'” Wrighton chuckles. “In many cases, he basically says, ‘Here’s what you ought to say. I’ve already paved the way, and this will go well.'”
Cool under fire
Givens is a master at handling complaints. In fact, he wrote the book on it.
“Well, a chapter, anyway,” Givens says with a modest smile. He belongs to the National Association of Presidential Assistants in Higher Education, which is publishing a handbook for its members. Givens authored the chapter on how to manage complaints.
“Many times, people just want someone to listen and to take them seriously,” he says. “It’s not the chancellor’s office’s job — or right, even — to swoop down and solve every problem. So frequently I spend a lot of time just getting the right people together on a problem.
“And then often there comes the time to back out and say, ‘OK, you all take care of it now.'”
Givens’ ability to diffuse tense situations is known and respected throughout the University.
“Steve and I have worked on several challenging situations with students and their parents,” says Jeff Pike, dean of the School of Art. “These can present sensitive or difficult issues. Steve has always responded in a patient, calm and thoughtful manner, while assisting in the development of a pragmatic course of action.”
Staying on an even keel when everything (and perhaps everyone) around him is going crazy is a Steve Givens specialty.
“He gets better under stress,” says Jill Carnaghi, assistant vice chancellor for students and director of campus life. “There are times when he’s clearly got his hands full, with many people coming at him, all simultaneously needing something.
“He uses his sense of humor and just rolls with it. When things are in a state of crisis, with Steve, you’d never know it.”
One such challenging time was the presidential debate that the University hosted in 2000. Givens chaired the steering committee that oversaw preparations for the event.
“That was an intense time,” he says. “But being a part of that was a thrill. It really felt like you were a part of history for a little while.”
Wrighton says, “Steve’s contribution to the debate partially has to be seen as a multitude of catastrophes that didn’t happen because he dealt with and worked through them.
“For me to be able to walk into the debate venue to welcome everyone as if this happens every day — that was a hugely significant achievement.”
Now, Givens is the University coordinator and a steering committee member of the Sesquicentennial Commission. His planning numerous events, contributing to various projects and supervising the campus celebration of the University’s 150th anniversary has been very rewarding and educational, he says.
“I had just a cursory understanding of the history of the University before we started this process a couple of years ago,” he says. “But all the things we’re doing have given me an even greater appreciation for its history and for the people who have built it over the last 150 years.”
Givens is careful to not waste people’s time.
“Steve doesn’t hold meetings just to hold meetings,” Carnaghi says. “If he can accomplish something in five minutes instead of 50, he’ll do it. He’s succinct and to the point — but his follow-up is always there.”
He also doesn’t waste his own time. He can’t afford to.
Steven J. Givens
Degrees: Bachelor of arts, 1985; master of education, 1992; both from the University of Missouri-St. Louis
Family: Wife, Sue, his high-school sweetheart; married in 1980; she operates a small accounting firm. Son, Jon, 16; daughter, Jenny, 12.
Band: Nathanael’s Creed
Besides his roles at the University, Givens is a husband and a father. He and wife Sue are heavily involved in church activities and direct a parish school of religion program. He is the lead singer and guitarist in a band, Nathanael’s Creed.
And he writes. A lot.
His byline has appeared on children’s books. Booklets. Songs. Essays. Articles. Reviews. Reports. Commentaries. He has also contributed to documentary films and books for adults.
“I’d like to think that anybody can leave a mark after they’re gone, and writing for me is one way to do it,” Givens says. “Writing allows me to bring the things in my life that are most important together. So I tend to write about children and childhood, about music and about faith and religion.”
The reason Givens makes time to do all these things is the same reason he doesn’t work for the president of a lug-nut company.
“All the other things that I do are worthwhile,” he says. “And that’s not being judgmental about anybody else or the things that they do. It’s just for me, my core beliefs — about education, about family, about faith, about whatever — are part and parcel of everything that I do.”
Carnaghi sees evidence of that.
“Steve’s values and ethics are so consistent,” she says. “They’re always present, whether at one particular moment he’s playing the role of father, husband or assistant to the chancellor. He doesn’t put on airs.
“His values come through in the way he lives his life every day.”