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President Emeritus Sovern discusses new book

  • Tianyue Sun / Senior Staff Photographer
    sovern nation | Former University President Michael Sovern, who still teaches at the Columbia Law School, speaks in Low Library Tuesday night about his new book.
  • Tianyue Sun / Senior Staff Photographer
    presidential | University President Lee Bollinger, left, speaks with President Emeritus Michael Sovern, CC ’55, Law ’58, at a Tuesday night event in Low Library celebrating the recent release of Sovern’s new book, “An Improbable Life: My Sixty Years at Columbia and Other Adventures.”

Few people have dedicated their lives to Columbia like Michael Sovern has. Sovern, CC ’53, Law ’55, was president of Columbia from 1980 to 1993, and he currently serves as the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law at the Columbia Law School. Under his tenure, he grew the University’s endowment and brought Columbia back to the forefront, following turbulent times in 1968 and the years that followed. His new book, “An Improbable Life: My Sixty Years at Columbia and Other Adventures,” was released on Feb. 18, and an event in Low Library Tuesday featured a book reading and reception to celebrate the book’s release. Spectator spoke to Sovern about his time as president, his teaching, and helping a community remember Malcolm X. 

David Salazar: You presided over the University at a time when things weren’t going too well for Columbia initially, but really brought it back. What was the biggest challenge in doing that?
Michael Sovern: Well, when I started, the biggest challenge was straightening out the finances so we could pay for everything we needed to pay for. We wanted very much to preserve need-blind [admission], we needed to hold onto and recruit diverse faculty, and obviously that all costs money.

DS: Why do you think it’s important for need-blind admission to be preserved?
MS: Well, part of it is simple conviction that I believe that an institution that doesn’t open its doors to all who merit a quality education is a failed institution. But I had a personal reason. I was a poor kid, and the idea that I might be presiding over an institution that wouldn’t have room for me was just unthinkable.

DS: You were integral in helping the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, be preserved as a memorial and educational site. Can you speak about how you worked to remember Malcolm X with the Audubon Ballroom?
MS: Well it’s really quite remarkable, isn’t it—that at that moment, there were roughly five acres of undeveloped land opposite the medical school, and it was land owned by the city. So it was a wonderful opportunity to develop new facilities, provided we could work through all the problems, and we did. We anticipated that because Malcolm X had been murdered on that site, that there might be problems about developing it. So we set out to be sure there wouldn’t be problems, including providing for a Malcolm X scholarship at the medical school, getting Malcolm X’s widow to support us, getting our local politicians on board. We wanted to be sure that nobody threw any monkey wrench into the process.

DS: After you left the presidency, you got involved in philanthropy and then started teaching. How do you view the importance of the president having a hand in students’ lives and in the classroom?
MS: It’s easy after because I’ve always enjoyed teaching, so I’m still doing it. And I love it. The way I put it in the book is that I’ll keep on teaching as long as I can lurch to the lectern. As president it’s harder. I commend his [current University President Lee Bollinger’s] effort because there’s so much going on in your life at that point. I spent time with students, but I didn’t do any formal teaching while I was president—not because I couldn’t find time to be in the classroom, but I couldn’t find time to keep up with my discipline, and I’m serious enough about teaching that I didn’t want to go into the classroom and fake it.

DS: What should the University continue to look like?
MS: For roughly a quarter of a millennium, Columbia has focused on critical disciplines, teaching, basic research, and I see no reason to change that mission. Obviously within the boundaries of that there will be shifts in which disciplines are the most important, but the fundamental mission of teaching, research, and service—those continue to be our lodestars.

DS: Do you think we strike the right balance between research and the undergraduate population?
MS: Well I think, as I say in the book, the challenge of rewarding great teaching as well as great researchers is very difficult. What happens is, if you’re a great researcher, you get the offers from other institutions. The great teachers are not usually known beyond your boundaries. It’s a constant challenge for the University to maintain a balance between those two, and I do report in the book about how I actually secured an endowment—I think it was for 20 professorships whose incumbents would be people committed to undergraduate teaching.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. | @davidj_salazar


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Uptown posted on

This is it? This was on its way to being a first rate interview. What happened to the rest?

Anonymous posted on

This article appears to inaccurately characterize the role that Sovern and the Columbia University administration played historically in relation to preserving the Audubon Ballroom. As the Columbia Daily Spectator reported in its April 30, 1990 issue:

"Students protest CU's Audubon plans
By Jessica Shaw
About 30 people rallied on Low Plaza Friday to protest Columbia's plans to raze the Audubon Ballroom, the Harlem site where Malcolm X was assasinated, to build a biomedical research plant. The protestors, who competed with the crowd attracted by the warm weather, stated that Columbia is ignoring the needs of the community surrounding the ballroom. "What about basic health care? What about public good and public safety?" asked Rachel Kobin, BC '92. She said that the drug companies which will work in the biomedical research plant will be left to monitor their own safety since the Environmental Protection Agency is under staffed. "Columbia has not indicated there will be any guarantee to the community of safety," she said. Anouk Shambrook, CC '92, said that-95 percent of the communtiy is against Columbia's plans. The community really does care about this. Columbia would have you believe differently," she said. Columbia students must realize that they can not ignore the needs of the community, she said. "How can an institution like Columbia University walk in and take over public property without consulting the neighborhood and without consulting the people?" asked James Kanter, CC '90. The Audubon, which is located on 165 th Street and Broadway, is currently owned by New York City. Last week, Community Board 12 voted to endorse Columbia's proposal. As part of New York City's Universal Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the proposal must now go before the City Planning Commission, and then to the Board of Estimate for final approval. If approved, the Audubon site would be leased to Columbia for 99 years. The building, which is 78 years old, contains a ballroom and theater, and is renowned for its architecture and history. The facade of the building is an intricate terra cotta. David Dinkins and Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, have endorsed Columbia's plans. Kanter said that the municipal Arts Society, which is conducting an independent investigation to establish the feasibility of salvaging the decaying building, and the Theater History Society are against razing the Audubon. "The height of civil irresponsibility is to destroy the Audubon ballroom," Kanter said, quoting the Municipal Arts Society. The Audubon is an important cultural landmark for blacks because Malcolm X was shot there, Kanter said. "It is very important to question the readiness of the City of New York and Columbia University to destroy the landmark building," he said. Columbia students must protest Columbia's attempt to "desecrate Harlem," said Natasha Russell, a member of the Black Consciousness Movement, who also spoke at the rally. "Oppressed poor people are being exploited every day by the state and by big institutions like Columbia University, like your great Alma Mater," she said. "Being a student at Columbia means you're a student at a for-profit institution exploiting African-Americans. They're priming you to become members of a society which exploits black and Latino people, which exploits poor people." Maurice Coleman, CC '91, said that Columbia is a racist and undemocratic institution. "You and I don't have a voice in Columbia. The Board of Trustees has a voice, Michael Sovern and his puppets have a voice. This is not democracy," he said. Columbia is teaching harmful lessons by razing the Audubon, Coleman said. If Columbia really cared about the community, he said, it would build a multicultural center, he added. If Columbia proceeds with its plans to destroy the Audubon, there will be a revolution, Coleman said. "We're talking liberty or death. If Columbia is not aware of what it's getting involved in, when the bulldozers come, there will be a revolution. There will be liberty or death. Even the police can't stop this. When the sun goes down and it's dark, that's when the action will take place. Then all the weapons police use to hurt blacks won't matter," he said. A decision will be reached by May 3 as to whether the Audubon will be classified as a national landmark, which would sidetiack Columbia's plans, according to Kobin (end of article)

And, not surprisingly, on December 14, 1992 over 50 Columbia and Barnard students subsequently took over Hamilton Hall for a day to protest Sovern and Columbia's planned destruction of the Audubon Ballroom; and in early 1993 the Columbia administration initiated disciplinary proceedings against 7 of the protesting students, who became known around campus as the "Audubon 7."

Rachel Kobin, BC 1990 posted on

The anomyous comment is correct, the entire story of Audubon Hall isn't covered in the interview. The part of history chosen in his/her comment is also incomplete. In its initial approach to the future of Audubon Hall, the Sovern administration followed a long-standing Columbia University tradition of ignoring the needs of the local community to gentrify Morningside Heights.
As a student and founding member of the Progessive Union of Columbia Students (PUCS), I was privileged to have the time to devote to being a bit of a rabblerouser. Born on April 23, 1968, I thought of myself as a carrier of the flame in the great tradition of Columbia University student protests. As my mother says, "Life is a humbling experience." Now I know how easy it is to criticize leaders, administrators, and policy-makers while still expecting them to keep us in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. I wonder what factors President Sovern had to consider as he supported the plan to demolish Audubon Hall, a plan that long pre-dated his ascendancy to President of the University. As Chairman of the faculty executive committee in 1968 "...which was credited with easing tensions." (Wikipedia-Barnard history department, forgive me!) Perhaps the answer to my question is in the book. If not, perhaps that book, or at least a Spectator article, needs to be written.
I affectionately pronounced PUCS as "pukes," and we had very few members; about nine if memory serves me correctly. We split up into even smaller groups to address mostly international issues like El Salvador, but a few of us took on the local issue of Audubon Hall. The university had recently installed a digital phone system for students. I remember how much easier it was to get the word out that a meeting or demonstration was being held because I could simply record one voicemail message and punch in the four-digit extensions of CC and BC students.
I hoped the tiny movement we started as the Progressive Union of Columbia Students (PUCS) students would inspire a greater number of students to take up the cause and would inspire leaders in Morningside Heights to demand the preservation of Audubon Hall or would at least negotiate a compromise allowing for the continued access to the community center located there.
The self-righteousness of youth is vital to ensuring that leaders and policy are challenged. For both sincere and ego-driven reasons, It is very heartening to know that students and the community continued the work we started. In the end the University and the community did reach an agreement. In 2005 the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center opened in the ballroom of the building. In fact, in the About section of the museum's website at, Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm and Betty Shabbazz's daughter, calls it a "collaboration" with Columbia University. With the advantage of distance and age, I'm willing to give President Sovern the benefit of the doubt. So consumed by his efforts to keep the school afloat by balancing the university's budget, he may have needed prodding to consider other equally important issues.
It saddened me that the writer of the comment wouldn't identify himself or herself. If students aren't identifying themselves for simply having an opinion, how can they take the kinds of risks necessary to stand behind their beliefs? I was thrilled to have a digital answering system. I can't imagine how easy it would be to bring students and community together via social media. After graduating so much of one's time is consumed by surviving. While still within the protective walls of the University, I truly hope students are taking advantage of their situation by protesting injustice. To me, the greatest outcome of this story is that it proves on a local level the famous quotation of Margaret Mead, BC '23, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."