An Improbable Life


An Improbable Life



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 the New 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.



Publication Date



Columbia University Press


New York, NY


“Columbians – and all readers – will love and be moved by Mike's inspiring and personal story and his remarkable contributions to a great university during turbulent – and not so turbulent – times. The range of adventures extends to many notables – from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Salman Rushdie to Joe DiMaggio, Harry Belafonte, and the Rolling Stones. The most notable, of course, is Michael Sovern: student, professor, dean, provost, president, and celebrated intellectual.”
David Stern, Commissioner, National Basketball Association, and Chair Emeritus, Columbia University Board of Trustees

“There really is nothing 'improbable' at all about the life of Michael Sovern, one of the finest leaders of higher education this country has produced. His brilliance and principled character are apparent on every page of this wonderful memoir.”
Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

“Although the peak of his career was as president of Columbia University, Michael Sovern was first and foremost a teacher. His memoir certainly demonstrates this fact. All readers, whether Columbians or not, will find something to learn from his remarkable life story. From his childhood in the South Bronx to becoming the youngest full professor in Columbia's history to almost becoming a Supreme Court nominee, Mike's life story is riveting, illuminating, and educational.”
Bill Campbell, Chair, Columbia University Board of Trustees, and Chair of the Board, Intuit, Inc.


Also available as an eBook through the Columbia University Libraries.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Education | Education Law | History | Law | Social and Behavioral Sciences

An Improbable Life

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