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Michael I. Sovern Honored For His 50 Years At Columbia

Michael I. Sovern

Michael I. Sovern, president emeritus of Columbia, was honored for his 50 years of service to the University and its Law School during a dinner on Thursday, Dec. 9, 1999 at the Plaza Hotel. Sovern, who served as the 17th president of Columbia University, also served as dean of the Law School and University provost. The current president of the Shubert Foundation, Sovern is Columbia's Chancellor Kent Professor of Law.

When Michael Sovern arrived at Columbia College in 1949 as an undergraduate, his freshman class was greeted by then University President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1952, Eisenhower left to run for president of the United States, and Sovern enrolled at Columbia Law School, receiving his law degree in 1955. He joined the Law School faculty in 1957 and in 1960, at the age of 28, Sovern became the youngest full professor in the modern history of Columbia University.

In 1968, while Sovern was a professor at the Law School, riots rocked the Columbia campus. An expert in the field of labor relations and conflict resolution, he soon was made chairman of the Executive Committee of the Faculty, which was formed to end the conflict, respond to grievances, and repair relations with alumni, faculty, and the New York community. Sovern's successful handling of the crisis garnered him much praise.

In 1970, he became the seventh dean of the Law School and built a unique legacy, expanding clinical law programs, pushing for smaller classes, increasing the number of endowed professorships, and finding ways to attract more women and minority students.

In 1979 he was named executive vice president for academic affairs and provost of the University. He assumed the role of University president in 1980.

Sovern is credited with many landmark achievements during his 13-year presidency, including the inauguration of Columbia's intellectual property policy, which grew to bring in $100 million in revenue each year; opening Columbia College's doors to co-education, while still ensuring the future of Barnard; dramatically increasing student scholarships and expanding minority student enrollment; bringing Columbia's endowment first past the $1 billion mark, then past $2 billion; and negotiating the sale of Columbia's land under Rockefeller Center to the Rockefeller family for $400 million, allowing the University to increase faculty salaries and improve facilities.

Upon retiring from the presidency in 1993, Sovern returned to the classroom at Columbia Law School.

In 1998, an anonymous donor committed the first $1 million of the $2 million needed to establish the Michael Sovern Professorship in the Law School, to be held by law professors who demonstrate outstanding promise in their teaching and writing. While named professorships are traditionally awarded to faculty members who are already established leaders in their fields, the Michael Sovern Professorship will be awarded to those who are believed to be the intellectual leaders of tomorrow.

Among his public service activities, Sovern was chairman of the New York State-New York City Commission on Integrity in Government and of the New York City Charter Commission. In addition to serving as president of the Shubert Foundation, Sovern is currently chairman of the Japan Society and of the American Academy in Rome, and a member of, among other boards, the Asian Cultural Council, WNET/13, and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The dinner was hosted Robert MacNeil and was chaired by Stephen Friedman, chairman, Columbia University Board of Trustees.

Published: Dec 10, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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