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An Improbable Life

An Improbable Life: My Sixty Years at Columbia and Other Adventures

Michael I. Sovern
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    An Improbable Life
    Book Description:

    Columbia University began the second half of the twentieth century in decline, bottoming out with the student riots of 1968. Yet by the close of the century, the institution had regained its stature as one of the greatest universities in the world.

    According to theNew York Times, "If any one person is responsible for Columbia's recovery, it is surely Michael Sovern." In this memoir, Sovern, who served as the university's president from 1980 to 1993, recounts his sixty-year involvement with the institution after growing up in the South Bronx. He addresses key issues in academia, such as affordability, affirmative action, the relative rewards of teaching and research, lifetime tenure, and the role of government funding. Sovern also reports on his many off-campus adventures, including helping the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, stepping into the chairmanship of Sotheby's, responding to a strike by New York City's firemen, a police riot and threats to shut down the city's transit system, playing a role in the theater world as president of the Shubert Foundation, and chairing the Commission on Integrity in Government.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53705-6
    Subjects: History, Education, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    When I ran for president in 1984, I was opposing one of the most popular chief executives in American history. Long before his election, Ronald Reagan, “The Great Communicator,” had been a Sunday-night fixture in millions of homes as the television spokesman for General Electric and host of the GE Theater, the springboard to his winning the governorship of California. And Reagan had established his comfort with the Hollywood camera and his ability to win audience sympathy through memorable portrayals of such tragic characters as the epileptic John Galen in Philip Wylie’sNight Unto Night, Drake McHugh inKings Row...

    (pp. xvii-xx)

    If you assume a world in which merit is recognized and rewarded, then there is nothing in the least bit improbable about the incredible array of roles, involvements, special assignments, and remarkable successes and achievements of Mike Sovern, which he recounts with such verve in this remarkable personal memoir. Mike’s truly extraordinary talents and capacities were abundantly evident from his early years to virtually everyone (he became the youngest tenured member of the Columbia faculty at age twenty-eight), so it was indeed probable that over the course of his life he would be drawn into just about every part of...

    (pp. 1-4)

    Why do I call my life improbable? No savvy gambler would have bet that a fatherless adolescent from the South Bronx, the first in his family to graduate from high school, would grow up to become president of one of the world’s great universities.

    My story is also a story about that university. I arrived at Columbia more than sixty years ago, and I am still here. Columbia and I have been together for almost a quarter of her 259 years. We have shared the best of times and the worst of times.

    One cannot lead a university without encountering...

  7. 2 RIOT
    (pp. 5-17)

    In the spring of 1968, at Columbia young men’s fancies were not turning to thoughts of love. Anger was in the air. For almost two years, the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society had been trying to rally students against the war in Vietnam, the draft, and a cluster of related targets. More recently, protesting what they characterized as the university’s racism, they had sought black student support. In March, SDS led more than one hundred students in a noisy, disruptive demonstration through the halls of Low Library, Columbia’s central administration building. The university responded by putting Mark...

    (pp. 18-38)

    The administration had won the buildings, but at an enormous price. Some of the most radical leaders of the uprising had looked forward to this day from the beginning. The radicals’ ideology was humbug, but their tactics drew on a brilliant perception: confront authority in such a way as to force it to give in or repress. If it gives in, you’ve won your substantive demands. If it represses, it alienates—in the jargon of the radicals, it radicalizes—those whose support the radicals seek. It took sensitivity and skills—skills the administration lacked—to duck this dilemma.

    But that...

    (pp. 39-42)

    The year 1968 was wonderfully satisfying for me. I had helped accomplish something important, and I didn’t mind that my contribution was appreciated by my fellow Columbians. I had learned a great deal—about the university, to be sure, but also about myself. I discovered skills in dealing with people that I didn’t know I had. I remember with pleasure the Executive Committee meeting at which Bill Leuchtenburg, agreeing with an argument I had made, said that I was the most persuasive person he had ever met. And, of course, I discovered my taste for administration.

    The year also left...

    (pp. 43-46)

    Shortly before assuming my decanal responsibilities, I flew to Japan for the first of what would prove to be many visits. I accompanied my friend Al Rubin, the head of Rogosin Laboratory at the Cornell Medical School and a distinguished clinician and researcher. Al and I had become friends atTime: he as medical advisor and I as legal advisor would usually come in late on Thursday afternoon to review what had been written in our respective fields. We would often dine together, along with Dick Seamon, one ofTime’s top editors.

    Al’s interest in kidney transplants had led him...

    (pp. 47-59)

    I accepted the deanship knowing full well that I could not expect financial help from the university, but I also knew that the law school was in reasonably good shape. Bill Warren had succeeded in raising the funds for the new building we had moved into ten years before. We had a great library, though its budget was under stress, and, while the faculty salary and student financial aid budgets could also stand improvement, they were nearly adequate. Bill had also strengthened the alumni organization and built a development capacity that had never existed before. When I saw that the...

    (pp. 60-69)

    The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment ranks among America’s most cruel and inhuman cases of racial exploitation since the abolition of slavery. Its leading perpetrator was the U.S. government through its Public Health Service.

    Following up on a Norwegian study, the U.S. Public Health Service wanted to learn more about how syphilis affected men who were not treated for it. To seek that knowledge, the PHS collaborated with the Tuskegee Institute and Alabama physicians to deny treatment for syphilis to black men in Macon County, Alabama. Physicians in Macon and neighboring counties who were not involved in the study were provided with...

  13. 8 PROVOST
    (pp. 70-80)

    Shortly before the law school’s faculty took the vote that led to my selection as the new dean, we resolved that a dean should serve no more than ten years. Toward the end of a six-year term, he could be elected for four more years.

    At the beginning of my ninth year, Hans Smit, one of the original supporters of the ten-year rule, called upon me to say that my colleagues would be happy to waive the limit if I wished to stay longer. I thanked Hans, told him how pleased I was by the offer, but demurred. The faculty’s...

    (pp. 81-85)

    It is one of the oddities of academic life that university presidents are typically inaugurated some months after starting work. Maybe this is because their terms usually begin on July 1, and nobody wants a ceremonial installation in the middle of summer.

    I was inaugurated on a beautiful day in late September, with about 4,400 guests in attendance. I remember with pleasure the spontaneous applause of students as I appeared, capping an academic procession composed of Columbians and representatives of 160 academic institutions from all over the world appearing in the order in which they had been founded.

    I had...

    (pp. 86-94)

    Many events during my presidency triggered memories of my long journey from the boy in the Bronx to the man I had become. Welcoming the College’s entering class would stir recollections of my own first days at Columbia. Meeting the parent of a first-generation graduate on Commencement Day would evoke my mother’s joy at my graduation. But I recall most vividly chatting with Joe DiMaggio at a dinner in honor of the guests upon whom we would confer honorary degrees the following day. DiMaggio was one of those guests.

    He was telling me about the negotiations that brought him to...

    (pp. 95-102)

    The image is tempting: I emerged from the dark of the subway at 116th and Broadway to enter the light of a beautiful September day on the Columbia campus. But my pre-Columbian life had certainly not been dark—though shaded by large zones of ignorance—and my Columbia days were certainly not all bright.

    College alumni often appreciate their education in direct proportion to the years that have passed since they experienced it, but I was an appreciative student almost from day one. Day one itself, however, was intimidating. There were choices to be made, meetings to attend, and forms...

    (pp. 103-115)

    Unlike my first day at the College, where I was awash in a sea of strangers, day one at law school was a happy reunion. Not only was I in the company of college classmates, but a number of friends from high school also turned up.

    Today, when I tell my students that anyone with a B average at a respectable college could walk into law school back then, I put my credibility at risk. But it was true: the intense competition that attends law school admission today was unheard of in the fifties.

    That had two relevant consequences. First,...

  18. 13 MINNESOTA
    (pp. 116-122)

    Three days after the bar exam Lenni and I left for Minnesota with everything we owned packed into a 1949 Chevrolet sedan purchased for $350. Earlier that year I had learned to drive again: this time my instructor was my sister Denise, and I passed the road test without any illicit help.

    With a six-year old car, membership in the AAA with its excellent road service was a must. When I visited AAA headquarters in Manhattan to transfer my membership from New York to Minneapolis, I was told at first that they weren’t sure the Minneapolis branch accepted Jews. This...

  19. 14 COMING HOME
    (pp. 123-128)

    In August Columbia arranged a two-bedroom apartment for us on 120th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a four-block walk to the law school. We shipped our piano and television set, Lenni and our eight-month-old son Jeff flew home, and I set forth, accompanied by our remaining belongings, in our aging Chevrolet.

    Most of the Columbia faculty were old enough to be my father, some old enough to be my grandfather, but collegiality, here as in Minnesota, was the order of the day. We were all on a first-name basis, strained as that sometimes felt when I was addressing a former teacher....

    (pp. 129-139)

    The years following my promotion were productive, yielding articles on the tension between the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board and the courts to enforce collective bargaining agreements (Harvard Law Review), on labor and the antitrust laws (Labor Law Journal), and on the National Labor Relations Act and racial discrimination (Columbia Law Review).¹

    Monrad was helpful yet again. He and his wife, Elsa, had become friends with Adolf and Beatrice Berle. Beatrice was a fascinating and accomplished woman, and Adolf was a brilliant scholar and statesman. He wrote the classic work on the modern corporation with Gardiner Means,² served...

    (pp. 140-150)

    When I accepted the presidency, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into, but the state of the university’s finances was daunting. The accumulated deferred maintenance looked as though it would cost close to a billion dollars to fix. Columbia’s total endowment was only $360 million, but that number had little to do with reality. Columbia included in its endowment the real estate it owned near campus—a treasure trove of approximately six thousand apartments. But those apartments were needed to house faculty, staff, and students at below-market rates. While the asset was invaluable, it yielded...

    (pp. 151-157)

    A university president’s life sometimes seems an unending series of ceremonial events. They can be unique—for example, introducing the Dalai Lama or Boris Yeltsin to a university audience. Or they can be traditional—the induction into Phi Beta Kappa of the handful of students who made it on the basis of three years of work, a ceremony I never missed in happy memory of my own induction; Commencement, which at Columbia is a colorful, multifaceted pageant; the annual Commemoration gathering, at which we remembered each of the students, faculty, and staff who had died during the year; the Alexander...

  23. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  24. 18 DOING THE RIGHT THING: Coeducation, Charter Revision, and Columbia Football
    (pp. 158-163)

    The year 1983 was a big one for Columbia College: it was the year we admitted women. In one respect it was an easy decision. Admitting only males was hurting the College badly. Not only did it deny access to half of the brightest high-school seniors; in addition, many young men were not interested in a school without women. At this time the College was not seeing the surfeit of applicants it would later come to enjoy. In fact, it was admitting close to half of those who applied, a worrisome state of affairs. I suggested jokingly that the following...

    (pp. 164-168)

    One of my favorite annual events was the meeting of the Pulitzer Prize Board. The prizes were created by a gift to Columbia from Joseph Pulitzer in 1917 and have been awarded by Columbia ever since.

    Until the 1970s, the Columbia trustees actually voted on the awards, but their discomfort over effectively rubber-stamping the Pulitzer Prize Board’s choices whether they agreed with them or not finally led them to give up this role and make the board’s vote final. Columbia’s president continued to be a voting member of the board, and the dean of the journalism school served as a...

    (pp. 169-172)

    In 1984, Walter F. Mondale (Fritz, as he was widely known) was challenging President Ronald Reagan in his bid for reelection. As in every election since 1960, the candidates were scheduled to debate each other before a mammoth television audience. This year there would be two debates, one devoted to domestic issues, the other to foreign policy and defense.

    The consensus was that the best way to prepare was to engage in simulated debates with someone performing the role of your opponent. I was to be that someone for Fritz Mondale. I never asked Fritz why he picked me, but...

  27. 21 DISAPPOINTING MY PEERS: Divestiture and Earmarks
    (pp. 173-178)

    As the events of 1968 so dramatically demonstrated, university campuses are far from immune to controversies agitating the larger world. The point was driven home again in the 1980s when the abomination of apartheid in South Africa prompted protests at countless colleges and universities. The cry: Divest!

    It was not that universities had themselves invested in South Africa; it was, rather, that they invested in companies that did business in South Africa. University trustees resisted the divestiture movement on two grounds.

    Those who were candid would admit that they were moved in part by finances. Many successful corporations were doing...

    (pp. 179-183)

    I was awaiting Senator Moynihan in his Washington office when Governor Mario Cuomo reached me. He and Mayor Koch would appreciate it if I would head a commission on corruption in government. The request was prompted by a bribery scandal that generated banner headlines when it led to the suicide of the Queens borough president.

    After I learned what the governor and mayor had in mind, I asked for an adequate budget, a say in the choice of the commission members, and a deadline allowing enough time to do the job right. I also suggested that we call our new...

    (pp. 184-190)

    In the fall of 1987, I took a sabbatical leave. The unspoken fear of a chief executive who dares to take a leave is that no one will even notice he’s gone. I claimed that I had the place running so smoothly that it could run without me for four months but not a moment longer. I knew that I wouldn’t get a full sabbatical—I didn’t even leave the Northeast—but I would get relief from countless meetings and ceremonial occasions and wind up with about half time off. The biggest benefit of that sabbatical was my summer break:...

    (pp. 191-195)

    As densely populated as it is, the island of Manhattan still contained at least one five-acre tract on which nobody lived and where little of commercial value was going on. It happened to be across the street from our medical center. Eager to expand our own space and believing the location was a natural for biomedical startup companies, we thought the City of New York, the owner of the land, might let us have it on favorable terms. Though the negotiations with the city were lengthy and complex—we started in the administration of Mayor Koch, and I concluded the...

    (pp. 196-201)

    Boris Yeltsin was not yet Russia’s president when I introduced him to an overflow crowd in Low. When his microphone failed, he joked, “They do that to me at home too.”

    We conferred an honorary degree on President Cossiga of Italy, a leader I had come to know and respect as we worked toward the creation of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia.

    On Washington’s birthday, 1990, we awarded an honorary degree to Vaclav Havel, a man with extraordinary appeal for us. A revered intellectual and playwright, he had survived imprisonment by Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime and had since...

    (pp. 202-203)

    Once, driving in India, I found myself fascinated by how many other means of transport shared the street. I saw an elephant, a horse, a bicycle, and a man carrying a bundle of sticks on his head. Even after the advent of the automobile, beasts of burden, including man, were still in use in India. I said, “It’s just like a university. Things may be added, but nothing is eliminated.”

    I turned out to be wrong in at least one instance. Even as we were planning the creation of the Italian Academy, we were planning to close Columbia’s School of...

    (pp. 204-207)

    Joan Konner, the dean of the journalism school, called me with surprising news. Salman Rushdie was willing to come and speak at Columbia at a time when he was still living under armed guard to protect him from assassination. His novelThe Satanic Verseshad prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa, condemning Rushdie to death and calling on all zealous Muslims to execute him.

    The journalism school had the perfect occasion for Rushdie—a dinner celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the First Amendment. But Dean Konner was quite properly consulting me to be sure the university had no...

    (pp. 208-214)

    Bill McGill had retired after ten years as Columbia’s president and had advised me to do the same, but I was still going strong at the ten-year mark and ignored his advice.

    Our balanced budget had grown an average of more than 10 percent a year for ten years, fueling a strengthening of financial aid and a doubling of faculty salaries even as we increased the size of the faculty. And that doesn’t count the hundreds of millions we were pouring into the restoration and expansion of our physical plant. At the same time we increased the value of our...

  35. 29 THE LAST YEAR
    (pp. 215-219)

    Greg Fusco would refer to the 1992–1993 academic year as my victory lap, but it was anything but relaxed.

    In September we dedicated the Morris A. Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research. The building was named for the very same donor who had given us the residence hall that completed our drive to make housing available to all Columbia College students. Fundraisers take heed: treat your donors well, and they will keep on giving.

    A few days later I left to visit alumni in the Far East. We started in Taipei, where I made a new friend...

    (pp. 220-222)

    A common refrain of departing executives is that it’s time for me to go because I have accomplished what I set out to do. No retiring university president can honestly say that unless his or her goals were insufficiently ambitious. There will always be needs unfulfilled, challenges unmet, more to be done.

    As I remember with pleasure the moment we admitted women to Columbia College, I must also remember that the women we were admitting would be taught by an overwhelmingly male faculty. And despite my earnest efforts that was still largely true when I left office.

    Until World War...

    (pp. 223-228)

    Three months after I left the presidency, my wife, Joan, died. I needed to keep busy. My experience suggests that a successful university president who looks as though he has a few good years left in him can expect a welter of invitations. I accepted several.

    I joined the board of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which does outstanding work in the health policy field and has become the gold standard for reliable data in health policy debates. I was attracted by the quality of its board, the vision of its president, the importance of its work, and the fact that...

    (pp. 229-238)

    Bernard Jacobs was a graduate of the Columbia Law School, which turned out to be lucky for me. Until his death in 1996, Bernie was the president of both the Shubert Organization and the Shubert Foundation. We met at a reunion of his law school class, where he invited me to be his guest at a performance of the Broadway megahitA Chorus Line. Joan and I happily accepted. More invitations followed, and we became good friends with Bernie and his wife, Betty.

    Bernie had probably never been prepossessing in appearance. By the time I met him, his most prominent...

    (pp. 239-241)

    When the counsel to the president of the United States calls and asks you to join him for breakfast, you oblige. Th e call came in the spring of 1994 while I was in Washington helping celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Congress’s grant of a charter to the American Academy in Rome, the organization I had recently agreed to chair.

    Lloyd Cutler, a very wise Washington lawyer, had taken leave of his law firm, Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering, to serve as President Clinton’s counsel. We were old friends, our paths crossing both professionally and socially over the years. We came...

  40. 34 SOTHEBY’S
    (pp. 242-261)

    I was working in my study on a winter’s day in February 2000 when the call came: Would I be interested in becoming chairman of Sotheby’s? Another improbability.

    Sotheby’s and Christie’s dominated the worldwide auction scene. Sotheby’s had over ninety offices in thirty-six countries and held roughly 750 auctions a year. Over the centuries it had sold countless masterpieces, Napoleon’s library, the collections of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, property from the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the Declaration of Independence—not to mention Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil.

    But now Sotheby’s was in serious trouble. Its chairman,...

    (pp. 262-268)

    I could retire as Columbia’s president, but I cannot help continuing to care about the fate of higher education. Its value is inestimable. Its central role in America is undeniable. Its future is at risk. To allow this irreplaceable asset—still the best in the world—to continue to deteriorate would be a shame.

    The generations that preceded us appreciated the importance of universities. At different times and different places they recognized them as engines of upward mobility, generators of scientific advances and technological breakthroughs, sources of greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us, proving grounds for the...

  42. 36 WHAT NEXT?
    (pp. 269-270)

    Of the eight survivors who returned for the sixtieth reunion of the Columbia Law School Class of 1918, which I attended as dean, seven seemed to be in terrific shape. Though they would never see eighty again, they were still engaged in the practice of law and seemed to be enjoying life. The eighth alum was doddering: he had retired. Yes, I know the difference between causality and concomitance. His retirement may have had nothing to do with his deterioration. Still, I like the possibility.

    But I do not need that lesson to keep retirement at bay. As much as...

    (pp. 271-272)
  44. NOTES
    (pp. 273-276)
  45. INDEX
    (pp. 277-288)