Law Professor and President Emeritus Michael Sovern Reflects on ‘Improbable Life’

March 17, 2014Bookmark and Share

Michael Sovern (CC’53, LAW’55) has had a six-decade love affair with Columbia, from the moment he walked through its gates in 1949 through to the present as University president emeritus and Chancellor Kent Professor of Law.

With the exception of a two year stint as a law professor in Minnesota, Sovern has spent his entire adult life at Columbia, an illustrious career engagingly recounted in his new autobiography, An Improbable Life: My Sixty Years at Columbia and Other Adventures.

“I called [it] an ‘improbable life’ because no good bookmaker would have bet that a fatherless adolescent from the Bronx would wind up as president of Columbia University,” he said. A graduate of Bronx High School of Science, Sovern came to Columbia College on a $350 state scholarship and with $2,000 in pocket money he made working summers as a busboy. Tuition at the College was then $600 a year.

Vice President Mondale on a visit to Columbia. Photo by Manny WarmanAwarding an honorary degree to Joe DiMaggio. Photo by Joe PineiroThe author as the newly elected co-chairman of the Executive Committee of the Faculty. Photo by Manny WarmanSovern standing next to his current successor, Lee Bollinger, and accompanied by other Columbians. Author's collectionIt was during Sovern's tenure that the College went co-ed. Photo by Joe PineiroMichael Sovern with his mother. Author's collection

Click to view a slideshow of pictures from An Improbable Life

He had the highest grade point average in his law school class and spent two years teaching at the University of Minnesota, where Walter Mondale was his student, before joining the Columbia Law School faculty in 1957. He became dean of the law school in 1970, provost in 1979 and Columbia’s 17th president from 1980 to 1993.

Such a career trajectory might never have been possible had it not been for the student takeover of Columbia. “The year 1968 changed my life,” Sovern said. Through a variety of “accidents,” as he calls them, he found himself running a group charged by the University faculty to get Columbia back on its feet after the riots and shutdown of that year.

With his expertise in mediation and labor law, Sovern was able to get warring factions on campus speaking to each other again. He discovered that he had a knack for administration—and a taste for it—after one particularly grueling meeting that lasted 12 hours. Emerging from that meeting well into the night, one fellow professor gasped, “Wasn’t that awful?” “I have a confession to make,” Sovern replied. “I enjoyed it.”

A central part of Sovern’s legacy lay in his rebuilding Columbia after that tumultuous time. When he took over as president in 1980, the University’s endowment had been spent down, tuition increases were well below the inflation rate and Columbia was having trouble holding on to its best professors. He sold Columbia land in midtown Manhattan under Rockefeller Center for $400 million and set about repairing the balance sheet. Annual giving, endowed professorships and scholarships rose dramatically.

He boosted women’s leadership roles at the University, helping to recruit Ruth Bader Ginsberg as the first female faculty member when he was dean of the Law School. As president, Sovern appointed the first women deans of the School of Journalism, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and Law School. And it was during his tenure that the College went co-ed. “I hated the fact that the College was all male when I was a student,” he said.

Sovern also preserved need-blind admission. “I couldn’t have lived with the idea that I was running a university that would not have been accessible to someone just like me.”

“ good bookmaker would have bet that a fatherless adolescent from the Bronx would wind up as president of Columbia University”

Beyond Columbia, Sovern has served in a variety of high-profile legal, business, administrative and philanthropic roles. He was a mediator in negotiations between the New York Transit Authority and the Transport Workers Union, and even arbitrated a dispute between the Rolling Stones and a former manager.

As a founding member of the Puerto Rican and Mexican American legal defense funds, Sovern remains a fierce advocate for both needs-based admission and affirmative action in higher education. “Universities are the gateway to all kinds of success, and those successes ought to be open to people of all races and ethnic origins,” he said.

He also worries about the rising cost of college, even at public institutions. “The numbers can’t keep on going up the way they have, which means that there will be some economic pressure on all sectors of higher education,” he said.

As he looks back over his long career, he can recall many high points, including founding The Record to serve as a reliable source of internal communications for the Columbia community, and teaching current University President Lee C. Bollinger (LAW’71). “I wish I could take credit for his visionary leadership of the University, but I played a smaller role in his education than I like to claim.” He also writes about the enduring pleasures of teaching law, which he started at age 23, and he returned to the Columbia Law faculty after stepping down as president.

“When I started teaching, I taught 100 percent of what I knew,” he said, “and as the years went by the proportion went down a bit.”

—Story by Gary Shapiro
—Video by Columbia News Video Team

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