Michael Ira Sovern (born December 1, 1931) was the 17th president of Columbia University. He is currently the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. He is a noted legal scholar of Labor Law and an expert in employment discrimination.
Sovern was born in the Bronx, three blocks from Yankee Stadium to a dress businessman father and bookkeeper mother. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1949, summa cum laude from Columbia College in 1953, and Columbia Law School in 1955, receiving the prestigious John Ordronaux prize for having the highest academic average in his graduating class. Immediately after graduation, he joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School and taught there until 1957.
He returned to Columbia as a visiting professor in 1957 and then joined the permanent faculty, becoming the youngest full professor in the University in 1960. He has mediated for New York City in transit worker contract negotiations, as well as fireman and police disputes. From 1962 to 1966, he was the Research Director concerning Legal Restraints on Racial Discrimination in Employment for the Twentieth Century Fund. He was a law consultant for Time Magazine for fifteen years (1965-1980). Sovern served as Special Counsel to Governor Brendan Thomas Byrne of New Jersey from 1974 to 1977. He was the co-chairman of the Second Circuit commission on Reduction of Burdens and Costs in Civil Litigation from 1977 to 1980, chairman of the New York City Charter Revision Commission from 1982 to 1983 and chairman of the State-City Commission on Integrity in Government in 1986.
During the 1968 strife on Columbia's campus, he served as chairman of the faculty executive committee which was credited with easing tensions. Sovern became Dean of the Law School in 1970 and was named Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost in 1979. He became President of Columbia University in 1980. While President, he quadrupled Columbia's endowment, recruited many prominent faculty and presided over the opening of the University's main undergraduate division, Columbia College, to women students. Perhaps most importantly, he greatly improved the university's financial health by balancing its budget and introducing strict budgetary controls. He stepped down as president in 1993 and returned to the faculty at Columbia Law School.
He has received honorary doctorates from Tel Aviv University, the University of Southern California and Columbia. A professorship in his name has been endowed at Columbia Law School, and the American Academy in Rome has established a fellowship in his honor.
Outside of law and academia, Sovern is Chairman of Sotheby's Holdings, Inc., president of the Shubert Foundation and sits on numerous boards, including Comcast Communications, the Shubert Organization and the Asian Cultural Council. He has served as Chairman of: the American Academy of Rome, the Japan Society, and the National Advisory Council for the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. He has been a member of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Pulitzer Prizes.
He is a member of the: American Bar Association, Council on Foreign Relations, Bar Association of the City of New York, American Philosophical Society, American Law Institute, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He was also a founding member of the board of directors of Mobilization for Youth's Legal Services Unit; the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund; the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Helsinki Watch.
Sovern married four times: First to Lenore Sanders, to the former Eleanor Leen in 1963, to the former Joan Rosenthal Wit in 1974, and finally to Dr. Patricia Margaret Walsh in 1995. His first and second marriages ended in divorce, and the third when Joan Sovern died of cancer in 1993. Sovern is the father of two daughters, Elizabeth and Julie, and two sons, Jeff and Doug. Jeff Sovern is a professor of law at St. John's University and a graduate of Columbia University and Columbia Law School. Doug Sovern is a news reporter for KCBS (AM) Radio in San Francisco and maintains the sovernnation political blog. Elizabeth Sovern teaches middle school in Westchester, New York and Julie Sovern, also a graduate of Columbia Law School, is an Assistant General Counsel at Wells Fargo & Company, in Charlotte, NC.
Sovern has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Commendatore Order of Merit from the government of Italy and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star from Japan. He was a recipient of the Alexander Hamilton medal from Columbia College in 1993. That year, he also won the Citizens Union Civil Leadership award. He has also received the Town Hall Friend of the Arts Award.
William J. McGill
of Columbia University
1980 – 1993
George Erik Rupp