Writing a biography of his father was never on Thomas Gross’s bucket list—or any other of his lists, for that matter. He knew that his father, Mason Gross, who died in 1977, had been president of Rutgers University during some of its most turbulent days, from 1959 to 1971, and that he had been instrumental in transforming a local college into a major research university. But his father never spoke with his son about his professional life—or, as it happens, about anything else of import.
“Putting it mildly,” the younger Gross RWJMS’85 notes in his biography of his father, “Mason Gross and I never really got along.” One of the things that makes Free Spirit: A Biography of Mason Welch Gross (Rutgers University Press, 2021) so compelling is how it shows Thomas’s respect for his subject growing as he discovers what his father accomplished and who he was.
While Mason Gross is best known today as an administrator, he began his Rutgers career as an assistant philosophy professor. He remained, at his core, both a teacher and a philosopher throughout his life. Thomas Gross devotes an entire chapter to his father’s philosophy of education, which elevated the development of independent thinking over the passing along of facts. “His very strong point,” says Thomas, “was that unless we properly educate ourselves, then we are more likely to fall under the grip of demagogues.” It is one of many observations Thomas Gross makes in the biography that feel strikingly current.
Thomas might not have written the book at all had his siblings not included him in a nostalgic visit to the house where they grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey. He was too young when they lived there to remember the place and struck up a conversation with a neighbor on the sidewalk in front of the house.
The neighbor turned out to be Peter Mickulas, a senior editor at Rutgers University Press, with whom Thomas developed a friendship. Some months later, Mickulas GSNB’03 asked Gross if he knew any biographers who might take on the task of his father’s biography. He didn’t, but suddenly, for Thomas, a semi-retired emergency physician and author of an award-winning medical column, the idea of telling his father’s story seemed not just conceivable but also deeply intriguing. He wrote two sample chapters, and Mickulas gave him a contract.
Researching his father was revelatory and life altering. For instance, Thomas delved deeply into the philosophers who influenced his father—among them Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant—to better understand his subject. It became clear that Kant’s concept of the irreducible dignity of every human informed Mason’s actions throughout his life and presidency. He was resolutely antiracist, and when, in February 1969, members of the Black Organization of Students famously occupied Conklin Hall on the Rutgers University–Newark campus, he met personally with the protesters, rejecting suggestions by the university police that the students be evicted. Those choices made him unpopular with many in the press and the public, as had other stands—often controversial—in defense of academic freedom and freedom of speech.
Thomas hopes that readers take away from his father’s story the idea that “we all have to stand up for something that’s based upon fact and reason, and then follow it up with faith,” as his father did repeatedly throughout his life. Mason Gross was less interested in whether a person’s ideas hewed liberal or conservative than he was in that person’s grasp of the facts—another idea that should resonate with readers in an era that has seen the coinage of the phrase “alternative facts.”
A biography of Mason Gross would be incomplete without a description of the unprecedented expansion of the university under his tenure, including the establishment of medical and law schools, many new buildings and departments, and the founding of Livingston College. Mason long lobbied for a school of the arts, based on his belief, says Thomas, “that a public university was not just about engineering, physics, mathematics, and defense contracts but also about those subjects, such as music, art, history, philosophy, and literature, that can affect the human soul to a broader and richer understanding of what is worthwhile in this world.” The Mason Gross School of the Arts, appropriately named in his honor, was established in 1976.
Thomas wrote his father’s biography with the widest possible readership in mind. “It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, this is a biography of a white male philosophy professor who died 45 years ago—so what?’” he notes. His goal—and his achievement—was to relate the story of a life that, in the author’s words, “could tell us more about ourselves, and what we need to do, now.” As Mason himself once said, reading biographies can arouse one’s imagination to “a sense of one’s own spiritual growth and to a realization of one’s own potentialities.”
Free Spirit: A Biography of Mason Welch Gross is available from Rutgers University Press. Use promo code RFLR19 to get 30 percent off and free shipping.