Yavitz was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union, and raised in Tel Aviv. He earned his bachelors degree at the University of Cambridge in England, and served in the Royal Navy. After moving to the United States at 23, Yavitz earned two graduate degrees (in engineering and business) from Columbia and, after starting and managing his own development company, eventually became the dean of the Business School in 1975.
According to the New York Times, "a popular professor since 1964, specializing in business strategy, he was appointed to the dean’s position by the university president, William McGill, who had been asked by the business faculty members to name one of their own to lead them. They had become frustrated and divided by a series of unsuccessful deans who had been appointed from outside the academic world."
Yavitz's leadership revamped the school, returning both its spirit and its prestige; after retiring from the position, he remained a beloved professor.
He died of prostate cancer in 2009, aged 85.