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.
Michael I. Sovern has served as a director since November 2002. Prior to November 2002, he served as a director of AT&T Corp. for more than five years. Mr. Sovern is Chairman of Sotheby's. He is President Emeritus and Chancellor Kent Professor of Law at Columbia University where he served as President for more than five years. He is President and a director of The Shubert Foundation and a director of The Shubert Organization. He is currently a director of Sotheby's.
A Columbia University graduate, former faculty member, dean and provost, Michael I. Sovern was Columbia’s first Jewish president.
An effective fundraiser for the Law School, as president, Sovern was charged with the task of providing a more secure financial foundation for the University thereby restoring institutional confidence. As president, Sovern explored funding in areas no one had bothered to look before. One of these areas was the patents on intellectual property created by Columbia faculty. Sovern’s Columbia was among the first universities to establish internal policies taking advantage of federal regulations allowing universities to patent discoveries made by faculty whose research was supported by federal grants. This, in conjunction with the sale of land under Rockefeller Center in 1985 and additional sources, allowed Sovern to quadruple the University’s endowment.
In addition to fundraising, Sovern oversaw the admission of women to Columbia College for the first time in 1983 and successfully resolved the most explosive issue since the 1968 protests: South African divestment. The issue of South African divestment, which pitted the trustees against the students and the community, was carefully negotiated by Sovern who went “slow enough to provide time to bring along hesitant trustees but fast enough not to exhaust the patience of the senate or provide an excuse for student-led disruptions” (Stand Columbia, p. 545). In 1990, Sovern gained community approval for the development of property adjacent to the Health Sciences Campus, including Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated.
Sovern resigned from the presidency in 1993, returning to the Law School as a faculty member. He would resigned 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.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Sovern, who lived in Manhattan and died in a hospital there, 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.more » « less