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In Memory of Michael I. Sovern

Resource type: News

Photo: Columbia University

Atlantic mourns the loss of Michael I. Sovern, who passed away on Monday, January 20, 2020. Sovern served as a Director from 1995 until 2012, and was a long-term Chairman of the Audit and Budget Committee.

Sovern was a President Emeritus of Columbia University, and the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law. He served as President of Columbia from 1980 to 1993 where he quadrupled the endowment, balanced the budget by installing tough restraints, and presided over the opening of the University’s main undergraduate division, Columbia College, to women students. He was Dean of the Faculty of Law from 1970 to 1979. He notably recruited Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Columbia’s first female law professor, and Kellis E. Parker as the first black law professor.

An expert in employment discrimination and labour law, Sovern mediated for New York City in transit worker contract negotiations, and fire and police departments’ labour disputes. In the 1960s, he was the Research Director concerning Legal Restraints on Racial Discrimination in Employment for the Twentieth Century Fund. He was a law consultant for Time Magazine, and served as Special Counsel to Governor Brendan Thomas Byrne of New Jersey in the 1970s. Mr. Sovern chaired the New York City Charter Revision Commission and the State-City Commission on Integrity in Government in the 1980s. He  authored three books.

Sovern was the Chairman of Sotheby’s Holdings, Inc., President of the Shubert Foundation, and a Director of the Shubert Organization and Comcast Corporation.  He also served as Chairman of the American Academy in Rome, the Japan Society and the National Advisory Council for the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.  Sovern was a member of the boards of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes, AT&T, Pfizer, Inc. and Warner-Lambert Co., among others. Sovern was also a founding member of the boards of directors of Mobilization for Youth’s Legal Services Unit, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Helsinki Watch and AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. He also served as a Trustee of President Clinton’s Legal Defense Fund.

His numerous awards and distinctions include the Commendatore Order of Merit from the Government of Italy and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star from the Government of Japan. He was a recipient of the Alexander Hamilton Medal from Columbia and the Citizens Union Civic Leadership Award. Columbia Law School has an endowed chair in his name and the American Academy in Rome has established a fellowship in his honour. He had also received honorary doctorates from Tel Aviv University, the University of Southern California and Columbia.

Our hearts go out to his family, friends, and colleagues.

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