During his 13-year term as Columbia’s president (1980–93), Sovern opened the College to women; appointed the first female deans at the Journalism School, GSAS and the Law School; made housing available to all undergraduates; and brought about divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.
Sovern was born on December 1, 1931, in the Bronx to Julius and Lillian (née Arnstein) Sovern. His father was a partner in a women’s clothing company and died when Sovern was 12. His mother became a bookkeeper after her husband’s death.
Sovern graduated from Bronx Science. After his junior year at the College, he started classes at the Law School under the “professional option,” earning a bachelor’s summa cum laude and two years later a J.D., graduating first in his class and serving as articles editor of the Columbia Law Review. In 1957, he joined the Law School faculty, becoming a full professor three years later. At 28, he was then the youngest tenured faculty member at the University. Sovern accepted a job teaching at the University of Minnesota Law School and stayed for two years before returning to the Law School in 1962.
In Spring 1968, when campus protests erupted and students occupied the president’s office and other campus buildings for a week, Sovern decried what he called the “offensive notion” that faculty and students should confront each other as warring camps. “I cannot regard my students as adversaries; if they ever come to see me in that role, I shall leave teaching,” he wrote in 1969.
Sovern was appointed chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty, and his deft handling of the crisis was widely lauded. In the following months, he proposed the creation of a University Senate, a policymaking body formed in 1969 composed of faculty members, students, alumni and staff.
Sovern’s involvement in the University Senate whetted his appetite for administration, and in 1970 he was named the eighth dean of the Law School, serving until 1979 and remaining an active full-time faculty member until his death.
While helming the Law School, Sovern recruited Ruth Bader Ginsburg LAW’59 as its first woman law professor and Kellis E. Parker as its first black law professor. He also established the Center for Law and Economic Studies, expanded the school’s clinical law programs and helped establish a number of scholarships. In 1998, an anonymous donor established the Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law chair, awarded to those who demonstrate outstanding promise in their teaching and writing.
Sovern was University provost and executive VP for academic affairs 1979–80, when he was named the University’s 17th president, replacing William J. McGill. He faced challenges immediately: Columbia was not considered well managed, buildings were in disrepair and new faculty had to be recruited. “We were broke,” Sovern said in a 2014 interview at Hunter College. But endowment soared during Sovern’s tenure, growing from $525 million to $1.7 billion, and he oversaw the $400-million sale of 11.7 acres of University-owned land beneath Rockefeller Center in 1985 to the Rockefeller Group, which had been paying the University rent since the 1930s.
Sovern announced he was stepping down from the presidency when his wife, Joan R. Sovern, a sculptor, was undergoing treatment for cancer. She died in 1993.
After leaving the presidency, Sovern chaired the Japan Society and the American Academy in Rome, and was president of the Shubert Foundation. In 2000, he was named to succeed the chair of Sotheby’s. But his time at Columbia remained the focus of his pride: “No savvy gambler would have bet that a fatherless adolescent from the South Bronx, the first in his family to graduate from high school,” he wrote in his autobiography, “would grow up to become president of one of the world’s great universities.”
Sovern was presented with numerous honors, including an honorary LL.D. from Columbia, the College’s Alexander Hamilton Medal, the GS Owl Award, the Law School’s Medal for Excellence and its Lawrence A. Wien Prize for Social Responsibility, the Citizens Union Civic Leadership Award and two honorary doctorates.
In addition to his wife, Patricia Walsh Sovern, whom he married in 1995, Sovern is survived by his daughters, Julie LAW’93 and Elizabeth; sons, Jeffrey ’77, LAW’80 and Douglas; stepson, David Wit; 10 grandchildren; and sister, Denise Canner. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.
In announcing Sovern’s death, President Lee C. Bollinger said, “Mike loved Columbia, and did all he could to support and further its greatness — always, it should be added, with a smile, a clever quip and a good laugh. And there is so much more good he did in the world, beyond Columbia. Mike was one of the great university presidents of his generation.”
Michael I. Sovern ’53, LAW’55 reflects on his “improbable life” in a short video.
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