On April 23, 2014, Jonathan sat down with President Emeritus of Columbia University, Michael I. Sovern, to discuss his life and the 60 years he spent at Columbia. Below are Jonathan’s opening remarks. Video of the event can be viewed here. The conversation lasts 50 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience.
Michael I. Sovern
April 23, 2014
Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening. Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Jeffery Sachs’ To Move the World or to hear global leaders like UNDP head Helen Clark. Or attend major conferences like “John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream,” a fresh look at lessons from his time as Mayor.
But tonight is different. For a long time I wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally. Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Judy Collins, and most recently, Joseph Califano and Elizabeth McCormack.
Tonight my guest is Michael Sovern, who was President of Columbia when I was president of the New School. I sought him out when I came to the New School because Columbia was the old school from which the founders of the New School, mainly Columbia professors, split in 1919 in protest of Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler, who would brook no opposition to America’s entry into World War I. I wanted to understand the institution that gave the New School its reason for being. Mike and I hit it off right away. I liked his clear and strategic thinking, admired his political astuteness and found his vision for Columbia and private higher education compelling.
We made common cause in Albany advocating for New York State support for private universities. And I turned to him for advice on challenges at the New School, how to handle labor disputes, explore alternatives to tenure, and how to reduce budgets while moving the university forward. His most valuable advice came in the Spring of 1997 when there was a season of student discontent at the New School: sit ins, hostage taking, and a hunger strike.
He had seen it all at Columbia and our frequent conversations were a source of comfort, perspective, and practical wisdom. I will never forget his comments on the hunger strike, “The students will cheat and you will know it, but don’t expose them because the challenge might encourage high strung students to put themselves at risk.” Well that difficult Spring came to an end with no terrible consequence and campus life returned to normal in the Fall with no scars because I had kept my cool with Mike’s help.
Mike Sovern is Columbia through and through earning his BA and Law degrees and teaching there ever since with only one interruption when he started his teaching career at the University of Minnesota Law School for 2 years. When he returned to the Law Faculty, he taught Evidence and Administrative Law, and published his research in several books among them Legal Restraints on Racial Discrimination in Employment, Cases and Materials on Law and Poverty, and Of Boundless Domains.
Turning our attention to his leadership abilities, we look to the quarter century Mike spent in a leadership position at Columbia. In the turbulent late 60’s he chaired the Executive Committee of the Columbia faculty, which led the University’s efforts to ease tensions between protesting students and President Grayson Kirk’s embattled administration. Appointed Dean of the Law School in 1970, he became Provost in 1978 and then president of Columbia two years later, a post he held until 1992.
As president he quadrupled Columbia’s endowment, recruited many outstanding faculty, opened Columbia College to women, and put Columbia on a firm financial footing.
His success at bringing peace to a contentious campus drew on his experiences in arbitrating disputes, for example, mediating between the Transit Authority and the Transport Workers Union, and later mediating between the city and the police and firefighters. He also chaired The New York City Charter Revision Commission and The State-City Commission on Integrity in Government.
He has had an active civic life, helping start and serving on the board of organizations, like Mobilization for Youth Legal Services, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Asian Cultural Council, Channel 13, the American Academy in Rome. All have benefitted from his wisdom, as have the Shubert Foundation and Sotheby’s of which he was chair.
Bridging the public, not for profit and private sectors is a specialty of Mike’s given his service on the ATT, Pfizer, Chase, and Comcast Boards.
So Michael Sovern has seen a lot and has just published a memoir, An Improbable Life. Let’s get to it. He and I will have a conversation for about 50 minutes, and then open to your questions, and be done by 7:20. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Michael Sovern.