A distinguished expert on labor relations and employment discrimination, Mr. Sovern was widely viewed as a master conciliator, with a courteous manner and good humor that he brought to the classroom as well as the courtroom. He mediated a wide variety of cases, including disputes between New York City and its transit workers, and the Rolling Stones and their former manager.
“His great skill was as a problem solver,” said Lance Liebman, a fellow employment law scholar whom Mr. Sovern hired as Columbia Law School dean in 1991. “That’s how he became dean, provost and president at Columbia — and those were tough years at the university. Columbia was a mess, and he helped them through.”
Before becoming Columbia University’s president in 1980, Mr. Sovern brought his expertise as a mediator to a firefighter strike and to student uprisings that jolted Columbia’s campus in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. He later led a government integrity commission after municipal scandals in 1986 and chaired the auction house Sotheby’s after a price-fixing scandal rocked the art world in 2000.
Mr. Sovern was also a civil rights stalwart who helped establish the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, worked closely with the NAACP and provided legal support to victims of the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which federal researchers used black patients as unwitting guinea pigs. Some of his friends and former colleagues became U.S. Supreme Court justices, and Mr. Sovern appeared before the court while representing the state of New Jersey in a 1976 case involving the Port Authority.
Eight years later, he helped a former student prepare for the national debate stage, playing the role of President Ronald Reagan for Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale in 1984. “He was better informed than Reagan,” Mondale later wrote, “and several times he even managed to get under my skin.”
For all his extracurriculars, Mr. Sovern insisted that he was a teacher above all else. He entered academia almost immediately out of law school, joining his alma mater Columbia Law in 1957 and becoming a full professor three years later at age 28. He was dean for nine years beginning in 1970 and hired the law school’s first African American faculty member, Kellis E. Parker, and first female tenured professor, future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But he was best known as Columbia University’s 17th president, taking over the institution at a time when its finances were in disarray, morale was low and the campus was crumbling, resulting in the death of a student in 1979 when masonry fell from a Columbia building.
By the time he left office in 1993 to care for his ailing wife, the university had been utterly transformed, with new dorms, younger faculty and the most successful fundraising drive in school history. “If any one person is responsible for Columbia’s recovery it is surely Michael Sovern,” the New York Times wrote in 1988.
Under his watch, the school’s endowment more than tripled to nearly $1.7 billion, in part through selling land it owned under Rockefeller Center for $400 million. Mr. Sovern also enhanced financial aid programs and spearheaded the divestment of university funds from companies doing business in South Africa, where he had once traveled — to the ire of the country’s white-minority government — to bestow an honorary doctorate on the human rights activist Desmond Tutu.
Crucially, he oversaw the opening of Columbia College to women, following an agreement that maintained Barnard College as a women-only sister school and in 1983 made Columbia the last Ivy League college to admit female undergraduates, more than two centuries after its founding. Mr. Sovern also appointed the first women to serve as deans of the journalism school, law school and graduate school of arts and sciences.
His tenure as president was not without detractors, notably members of the arts and sciences faculty who “openly criticized his handling of the university’s budget problems and strategic planning,” according to a 1992 Times report. Administrative positions had been cut and enrollment increased to fill a $50 million shortfall, and the university’s renowned library science school was closed amid budget concerns.
“Mike was a great president of the ’80s, but the ’90s pose a different challenge,” English and comparative literature department chairman David Kastan told the Times. Many on Columbia’s board of trustees disagreed. “I was somewhat disenchanted with the university in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said trustee Jerry I. Speyer, a real estate developer. “But when Mike became provost and then president it brought me back.”
Michael Ira Sovern was born in the Bronx on Dec. 1, 1931. His father was a clothing salesman who died when Michael was 12, and his mother found work as a bookkeeper. He went on to study at the Bronx High School of Science before enrolling at Columbia, becoming the first in his family to finish high school.
Mr. Sovern received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 and two years later graduated first in his class from Columbia Law. Decades later, he told stories of “going to these old New York firms and having doors slammed in his face because he was Jewish,” his son Doug said by phone. “That may have fueled his interest in employment discrimination.”
Mr. Sovern taught at the University of Minnesota Law School (where Mondale was a student) before joining the Columbia faculty. His leadership after the 1968 upheaval launched him on a path to become the institution’s president.
The campus erupted into protests over the Vietnam War and a proposal to expand into a nearby park, amid complaints of racism from black residents. Students occupied buildings before being violently removed by police, who stormed the campus with nightsticks and made more than 700 arrests. Mr. Sovern was credited with helping to heal the university, chairing a faculty executive committee that created a school senate, which remains a Columbia fixture.
“I cannot regard my students as adversaries; if they ever come to see me in that role, I shall leave teaching,” he wrote in a 1969 letter. The next year he became the first Jewish dean of the law school, followed by university provost in 1979. He stepped down as president as his wife — the former Joan Rosenthal Wit, a sculptor — was battling cancer. She died in 1993, and two years later he married Patricia M. Walsh.
His first two marriages, to Lenore Goodman and Eleanor Leen, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, of Manhattan, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Elizabeth Sovern of Mount Kisco, N.Y., Jeff Sovern of Queens, and Doug Sovern of Oakland, Calif.; a daughter from his second marriage, Julie Sovern of Charlotte; a stepson, David Wit of Larchmont, N.Y.; a sister; and 11 grandchildren.
Mr. Sovern was president of the Shubert Foundation, a performing arts organization, and a board member of companies including AT&T. Yet his years at Columbia remained his signature triumph. His chief accomplishment, he told the Times, had been “the restoration of an esprit, a sense of worth, to an institution that had been seriously demoralized.”
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