Michael I. Sovern, Who Led Columbia U. in Eventful Era, Dies at 88


Michael I. Sovern, an ebullient law professor who as president of Columbia University during the 1980s and ’90s shored up the school’s finances, brought about divestment from companies doing business in South Africa and opened Columbia College to women, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 88.

His wife, Patricia Sovern, said the cause was amyloid cardiomyopathy, in which clumps of protein build up in the heart tissue.

When Mr. Sovern was named to replace William J. McGill as Columbia’s president in 1980, he faced numerous challenges. Columbia was not considered well-managed; an internal study by distinguished professors faulted the university for the erosion of standards in some departments, a loss of pre-eminence in social sciences and a growing paucity of elite faculty talent.

Buildings were in disrepair. New faculty had to be recruited.

“The predicate for everything was the financial condition: We were broke,” he said in a 2014 interview before an audience at Roosevelt House, the public police institute at Hunter College in Manhattan.

He achieved many of his goals. Most important, Columbia’s endowment soared during his tenure to $1.7 billion, from $525 million in 1980.

One of his signature achievements was the $400-million sale of 11.7 acres beneath Rockefeller Center in 1985 to the Rockefeller Group, which had been paying the university rent since building the complex in the 1930s. The university had owned the land since 1814.

“As David Rockefeller was saying, this brings to a happy end 52 years of negotiation,” Mr. Sovern told The New York Times when the sale was announced.

By the time he stepped down as president in 1993, he had opened the college to women (Barnard was the university’s women’s college); broadened the university’s curriculum; increased scholarships and fellowships; made housing available to all undergraduates who wanted it; and severed ties to companies doing business in South Africa under its apartheid regime.

“Columbia is strong again,” he wrote in a letter in 1992 announcing that he would resign the next year to spend more time with his wife, Joan Sovern, a sculptor, who was undergoing treatment for cancer. She died in September 1993. By then he had returned to Columbia Law School, where he had taught since 1957. He married Patricia Walsh in 1995.

Michael Ira Sovern was born on Dec. 1, 1931, in the Bronx to Julius and Lillian (Arnstein) Sovern. His father was a partner in a women’s clothing and died when Michael was 12. His mother became a bookkeeper for an extermination company after her husband’s death and scraped by, augmenting her $25 weekly salary (about $380 in today’s dollars) with $18 a month in a Social Security widow’s benefit.

Michael graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and entered Columbia in the fall of 1949. After his junior year, he started classes at Columbia Law School under a program called “professional option,” earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953 and a law degree in 1955. He then accepted a job teaching at the University of Minnesota Law School.

One of his students there was Walter F. Mondale, the future Democratic senator from Minnesota and vice president; they developed a friendship that led Mr. Mondale, when he was running for president against President Ronald Reagan in 1984, to ask Mr. Sovern to play Reagan in mock debates.

Mr. Sovern stayed in Minnesota for two years before returning to New York as a professor at Columbia Law. He was teaching there when student protests erupted in 1968, set off by Columbia’s involvement in weapons research during the Vietnam War and the university’s plan, opposed by many Harlem residents, to build a gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park. Soon, activists occupied five buildings, including the president’s office, and shut the campus down. Police arrested and removed the protesters in a violent melee.

In the following months, he headed a faculty committee that helped the school recover from the turmoil and proposed the creation of a University Senate, a policymaking body composed of faculty members, students, alumni and staff. It was formed in 1969 and still exists.

“We learned in 1968 how fragile an enterprise a university is,” Mr. Sovern wrote in his autobiography, “An Improbable Life: My Sixty Years at Columbia and Other Adventures” (2014). The senate allowed for “a representative forum where all issues could be fairly heard,” he said, adding: “There was no tinder waiting to be ignited.”

His involvement in the University Senate whetted his appetite for administration, and in 1970 he was elected dean of the law school. While there, he recruited Ruth Bader Ginsburg as its first female law professor, and Kellis E. Parker as its first black law professor.

Mr. Sovern was named the university’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs in 1979. He became president a year later. But after a dozen years he decided it was time to leave. Not only was his wife ill, but he had also been criticized by arts and science faculty members for his handling of budget problems and strategic planning.

“Mike was a great president of the ’80s, but the ’90s pose a different challenge,” one critic of his, David S. Kastan, who was chairman of Columbia’s department of English and comparative literature, told The Times when Mr. Sovern stepped down. (Professor Kastan is now at Yale.)

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sovern, who died in a Manhattan hospital, is survived by his daughters, Julie and Elizabeth Sovern; his sons, Jeffrey and Douglas; his stepson, David Wit; 10 grandchildren; and his sister, Denise Canner. His first two marriages, to Lenore Goodman and Eleanor Leen, ended in divorce.

During his time at Columbia, Mr. Sovern, drawing on his expertise in labor law and conflict resolution, mediated contract negotiations in the 1970s between New York City’s transit workers union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and arbitrated a dispute between the Rolling Stones and their manager, Allen Klein.

After leaving the Columbia presidency, he served as the chairman of the Japan Society and the American Academy in Rome and as the president of the Shubert Foundation.

In 2000, he was named to succeed the chairman of Sotheby’s, who resigned after the auction house was accused of price-fixing with its fellow auction house Christie’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.”

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