By Rebecca S. Rivas, Special to the NNPA from The St. Louis American –
Dr. Henry Givens Jr. is the longest serving president of any university in Missouri – leading Harris-Stowe State University for 32 years in May.
Last week, Givens told a room of longtime supporters – including elected officials, business leaders, and staff – that the time has come to retire. Givens will stay on board until the university’s national search produces a new president.
Under his leadership, the university has nearly tripled its student population. It has grown from one building with only one degree to what will be eight facilities in the fall and 14 degrees.
“He has overseen the renaissance of this institution over the past 32 years,” said Thelma V. Cook, chairperson of the Board of Regents. “His unwavering dedication and passion for the students at Harris-Stowe, as well as his commitment to providing them with affordable, accessible higher education option is heroic.”
The list of his achievements is exhausting, but Givens said every bit of it has always been for the students. “Without the students we serve, there is absolutely no reason for Harris-Stowe State University to exists,” he told the audience.
What students most love about Givens is his open-door mentality, said Derek Collins, student representative of Board of Regents. In most universities, it would be frowned upon for students to try to cut around the staff and go directly to Givens, he said.
“And, it probably is here as well, but students catch him going to his car or in the hall,” he said. “And, no matter what the issue is that they bring to him, he jumps right on it. He has his ultimate interest in the success of his students and I’ve seen it time and time again. No matter how large or small the issue is, they are able to go to him directly.”
Givens keeps books in his office, just in case students can’t afford them and need to get them on loan. He admits it’s a little selfish, but he loves the students coming to the office.
“When they come, I can hear them outside my door. I pick up the phone and ask, ‘Are there students out there? Let them in,’” he said. “That’s what I love about Harris Stowe. It’s small enough that you can get your arms around them. Rarely are there students that don’t know I’m the president. I keep in touch with them.”
Givens would have never dreamed as a student at Lincoln University in the 1950s that he would become a university president. "It wasn’t my dream because I didn’t think that you could ever do that,” he said.
Yet the impression of then-university president Dr. Sherman Scruggs stuck with him. Givens said Scruggs was sharp, wore a nice hat and knew all of his students. “I thought, ‘Boy I’d love to be just like that,’” he said. “But, it never dawned on me that I would.”
Once he started taking education courses, he didn’t turn back – receiving his master’s at University of Illinois, his Ph.D. from Saint Louis University, and his post-doctoral studies in higher education administration at Harvard University.
His career started a teacher at Webster Groves School District, and then he became a principal at the first prototype of a magnet school in the nation. He became the first African-American assistant commissioner of education in Missouri, where he served for five years. In 1979 he became president of what would become Harris-Stowe State College some years later and a university in 2005.
“He has been a pioneer for our state’s work in education,” said Gov. Jay Nixon.
Selecting education as his career path has been one of his proudest achievement, he said. It comes second to “meeting the right young lady to marry, to raise our family, and to educate our children.”
Belma Evans Givens received two standing ovations at the press conference.
“I want him to be happy,” Belma said in an interview after the conference. “I hope there will be somebody who will have that commitment, who will have that passion that he has had for Harris-Stowe because it has been his life.”
Belma said one of the highlights of their career at Harris-Stowe was in 1987, when their daughter graduated from Harris-Stowe. That same year, the governor asked Givens to serve as the interim president at Lincoln University during its financial crisis.
“I told him that it was okay, but I wanted him to go and get a complete check-up before you go and try to take over two institutions,” she said. “He came out okay, but it was really tough.”
Givens read a long list – which encapsulated everyone in the room – and thanked them for being the “village” that has raised the university’s children.
U.S. Rep. William. Lacy Clay, Jr. has known Givens for most of his life, he said. In 1994 as a state senator, Clay championed the bill to expand Harris-Stowe’s mission by adding more baccalaureate programs.
“Listening to Dr. Givens remarks today, you can tell that his parents at an early age stressed the importance of education, and Henry followed through on their advice by first getting an education and then providing an education for thousands of others,” he said. “This community should be grateful for the service that he’s given.”
His grandson Jarrett Woolfolk, a junior at Harris-Stowe, said he once had a friend who was not sure college was for him, but he wanted to give it a try.
“My grandfather gave him a full opportunity to come to school and get the books,” he said. “And, that’s one of those stories that’s pretty meaningful to me – giving people chances who don’t have it.”
Givens has a knack for reeling in students on the fringe. About 90 percent of the student population are first-generation college students.
“So, once we get them, we work with them,” he said. One of the biggest ways he does that is through scholarships. Last year, he headed the most successful fundraising campaign in the university’s 152-year history, reaching $45 million.
When the Anheuser-Busch School of Business was established, Givens helped to create the African-American Business Leadership Council for business leaders interested in providing support for the school. David Steward, founder of World Wide Technology, Inc, said Givens urged him to chair the council.
“I view him as much as an entrepreneur as an educator can possibly be,” Steward said. “I know what it takes as an entrepreneur myself. I have such admiration for him.”
By example, Givens inspires community leaders to push forward and never give up on their visions, said Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, who represents the university’s Ward.
“He has created the vision and legacy to educate, empower and inspire new brainpower for our region,” she said.
In January, Givens stepped down as the chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Statewide Celebration Commission, a position he held since its inception in 1986. It’s now the second largest statewide celebration in the nation.
“That is the cause of Dr. Givens’ commitment to the process,” said St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
Dooley also applauds Givens for transforming what was once a one building teaching college on the verge of failing in the 1970s to a full university campus with residence halls, a business school , and early childhood development/parenting education center.
“It’s a great place to be,” Dooley said. “It makes you feel that someone is doing something right. It doesn’t get done by itself. He has been a contributed to the quality of life in the St. Louis area.”
Givens endured and overcame many challenges, particularly in keeping higher education affordable. Historically, Harris Teachers College prepared White elementary school teachers for the City’s public schools and Stowe prepared the Black public school teachers. The two schools merged in 1954, and Givens took his position when the college had become the newest member to the public higher education system.
It takes someone with unique qualities to build such a great institution from a modest base, said Donald M. Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American newspaper.
“His leadership has been indispensable in bringing to fruition the dreams he had for Harris Stowe three decades ago,” Suggs said. “He has been tireless and totally focused.”
Lea Sutherlin, executive secretary to the president and secretary to the board, remembers five years ago when Dr. John E. Moore, Jr. retired as president of Drury University. Moore sent Givens a card with a bear on it that said being a university president is somewhat like dancing with a bear.
“In the beginning you have the exhilaration that you’re dancing with a bear,” she said. “The problem is when you want to sit down; the bear still wants to dance.”
Every since he got that card five years ago, Givens would come into Sutherlin’s office and say “the bear is doing the watusi today or the bear is doing the twist and I don’t feel like twisting,” she said. “So when it was time for him to retire,” she said, “he looked at me and said, “the dance is over.’”
Dr. Henry Givens, Jr. shares his plans to retire as president of the Harris-Stowe State University on Tuesday, as Board of Regent member Wayman Smith stands in support. The announcement came at a mid-morning press conference in the university's Bank of America Theatre.