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.