The Passing of Columbia President Emeritus Michael Sovern

January 22, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

It is with great sadness that I write to share that Michael I. Sovern, President Emeritus of Columbia University and Chancellor Kent Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, passed away on Monday afternoon. Mike leaves a legacy of brilliance, humor, integrity, and deep generosity of self and spirit.

For more than seven decades Mike was an adored and respected Columbia fixture—first as a student, then teacher, Dean, Provost, and President who served for thirteen remarkable years. 

Mike first came to Columbia in 1949, as an undergraduate. He graduated first in his class from Columbia Law School, joined the Law School faculty shortly thereafter, and, at the age of 28, became the youngest tenured professor in Columbia’s modern history. During the student demonstrations of 1968, he led the Executive Committee of the Faculty, the group tasked with ending the conflict between the students and the administration. His successes revealed a taste and a talent for academic leadership. He went on to serve as Dean of the Law School, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Provost of the University, before being appointed Columbia’s 17th President.

The story of Mike’s tenure as President, from 1980 to 1993, is that of an institution forever changed by the singular person at its helm. He led the effort to overcome financial and institutional crises that had severely damaged the University’s fiscal stability. He made significant strides in increasing the University’s diversity by appointing the first women to serve as deans of the Journalism School, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Law School; welcoming women into the ranks of Columbia College; and markedly increasing enrollment of and financial support for minority students. And, he led with integrity. During his presidency, Columbia became the first University with a significant endowment to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. It also hosted the writer Salman Rushdie, who in 1991 gave a speech at an event celebrating the First Amendment, his first public appearance following the death order issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mike loved Columbia, and did all he could to support and further its greatness—always, it should be added, with a smile, a clever quip, and a good laugh. And there is so much more good he did in the world, beyond Columbia. Mike was one of the great university presidents of his generation.

Mike always said that he thought of himself as a teacher above all else. It was a calling that defined every twist and every turn of his extraordinary life. He was my teacher once, and he continued to be, right up until the very end. On behalf of the entire University, I offer my profound condolences to his wife, Pat, and to his family, friends, and loved ones.


Lee C. Bollinger