Michael I. Sovern, who led Columbia in eventful era

Michael Sovern, president of Columbia University, walked with students on campus in 1985.
Michael Sovern, president of Columbia University, walked with students on campus in 1985.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

NEW YORK — Michael Sovern, an ebullient law professor who as president of Columbia University during the 1980s and 1990s shored up the school’s finances, brought about divestment from companies doing business in South Africa, and opened Columbia College to women, died Monday in New York. He was 88.

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

When Sovern replaced William McGill as president in 1980, he faced numerous challenges. Columbia was not considered well-managed; an internal study faulted the university for the erosion of standards in some departments, a loss of preeminence 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.

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.

By the time Sovern stepped down as president in 1993, he had opened the college to women (Barnard was the university’s women’s college); broadened the curriculum; increased scholarships and fellowships; made housing available to all undergraduates; 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 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 Dec. 1, 1931, in the Bronx to Julius Sovern and Lillian (Arnstein) Sovern. His father, a partner in a women’s clothing company, died when Michael was 12. His mother became a bookkeeper 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 Sovern graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and entered Columbia in 1949. After his junior year, he started classes at Columbia Law 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 Mondale, the future Democratic senator from Minnesota and vice president; they developed a friendship that led Mondale, when he was running for the White House against President Ronald Reagan in 1984, to ask Sovern to play Reagan in mock debates.

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 policy-making 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,” 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. He recruited Ruth Bader Ginsburg as its first female law professor and Kellis Parker as its first black law professor.

Sovern was named 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 been criticized by arts and science faculty for his handling of budget problems and strategic planning.

In addition to his wife, Sovern is survived by his daughters, Julie and Elizabeth Sovern; his sons, Jeffrey and Douglas Sovern; his stepson, David Wit; 10 grandchildren; and his sister, Denise Canner.