Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004

By Robert A. McCaughey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
Columbia Recovered

We are now in a position to plan our future with confidence.

Michael I. Sovern, 1984

When something happens, someone is bound to ask, “Is this another ′68?” All
students and administrators use it as a benchmark for measuring failure and
progress.

Robert E. Pollack, dean of Columbia College

The presidency is indeed a “bully pulpit,” [but] it is a pulpit without intimacy,
without the sustained dialogue of the nourishing teacher-pupil relationship.

Michael I. Sovern, 1997


“Soul Food at Last”

FOR all the credit due the McGill administration, its decade-long struggle to bring the university into financial equilibrium left much undone. It was not accompanied by a general uplift of spirits. Extended belt-tightening budgetary battles seldom are. But moreover McGill did not see tending to the psychological well-being of the university as his job. Life's tough. In handing his presidency over in 1980, he offered his somber assessment that it was going to take three presidencies to make Columbia right.1

On July 1, 1980, Michael I. Sovern became Columbia's seventeenth president. In many ways, his election represented a return to insider Columbia presidents. Like Butler, he was a graduate of Columbia College and had spent virtually all his professional life at Columbia. He was also a native New Yorker. In other ways, however, he marked a significant departure. He had grown up not in Knickerbocker Manhattan but in the Bronx, where he was born in 1931 and where he went to the Bronx High School of Science. His parents, neither of whom attended high school, were descended from East European Jews. He was also the first president to come from one of the university's professional schools.2

That these last two characteristics—his Jewish ancestry and his professionalschool antecedents—did not block Sovern's way to the presidency speaks to changes at Columbia during his years there. When the seventeen-year-old Sovern arrived at Columbia College in 1949, remnants of the university's earlier

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