From Confessions of a Spoilsport, Chapter Five:


The man who most clearly enunciated this ideal of democratic education at Rutgers was Mason Gross, the president who had guided Rutgers' transition from private to public status in the 1950s. A philosopher who studied with Alfred North Whitehead at Jesus College, Cambridge, he came from a patrician family. He'd been educated at a series of private institutions—the Taft School, Jesus College, Harvard. Against the clamor for open admissions during the 1960s, Gross firmly maintained that only high academic and intellectual standards were consistent with a true ideal of democratic education. For all his patrician background, however, Gross struck people as having been born for the new world of ethnic and educational diversity that emerged during the Sixties. He came out of that contentious period, when the struggle over civil rights and the Vietnam War turned American campuses into battlegrounds, as one of the most popular figures in the state. As I'd hear again and again when talking to alumni who knew him personally, his popularity was due to moral character.

All through the campus demonstrations of the Sixties, for instance, Gross made clear that his sympathies were solidly with the students who were going South to break down the system of racial segregation, and later with those who were opposing the Vietnam War. Yet he did so without alienating New Jersey citizens whose views on these issues opposed his own. When Gross took a stand, people sensed that, whether or not they agreed with him, his conclusions were the honest product of deep moral reflection. Throughout his years as president of Rutgers, he taught at least one undergraduate class a term. Stories abounded about important visitors being kept waiting for Gross the president while Gross the philosopher finished debating a point in Plato or Spinoza with one of his students. When he stepped down from the Rutgers presidency, the New Jersey Democratic party begged him to run as a candidate for governor. Polls indicated he would have won by a mile.

Nonetheless, in reading the speeches given by Mason Gross during his presidency, one sees that the transition from private to public university had begun to put a severe strain on his ideal of democratic education. President Gross was clearly and uncomfortably aware of a mounting pressure to move Rutgers in the direction of big-time college athletics. Nor was the pressure coming mainly from alumni athletics boosters. As alumni who attended Rutgers in the Gross era would later tell me, much of the pressure was coming from New Jersey politicians and local businessmen. When I thought back to my UNM years, this made perfect sense. In Albuquerque, the Lobo boosters club had been dominated by local beer distributors and building contractors and car dealers. Many of these men had not graduated from UNM. A good percentage of them had never gone to college. But all of them got a sense of enhanced personal importance from having a connection to Norm Ellenberger's Lobo basketball program. In New Jersey, the pressure for big-time athletics was coming from the same types, except here they worked for companies like Prudential Life instead of Coors Beer. One group of Prudential employees would later emerge as prominent members of "Scarlet R," the Rutgers athletics booster club.

The best expression of Mason Gross's response to outside pressure is an address on college athletics policy included in his collected speeches. At its center is an ideal of participatory athletics that seems today to have come from another world. For Gross himself had been a college athlete, a member of the Jesus College crew all during his undergraduate career. "I rowed throughout my four years," he told his audience, "in singles, pairs, fours, and eights, six days a week the year round, in intercollegiate competition and at regattas all over England. It was for me a tremendously exciting and important part of those undergraduate years." It's true, Gross admits, that Cambridge athletics had none of the elaborate machinery that had come to dominate Div IA sports in America even by the time he was delivering this speech in 1960. The English universities were without professional coaches, recruiting, or athletic scholarships. Still, he and his classmates had found competition supremely worthwhile. In later life, Gross remained steadfastly loyal to this ideal of a broad-based and genuinely participatory college athletics. Throughout his years at Rutgers, he would donate his public speaking fees to the underfunded Rutgers crew.

In stressing genuinely amateur athletics for his students, Gross was leading from Rutgers' strength as an old university. For though sports had long been part of its institutional life—the first college football game in America was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869—its traditional opponents over the next hundred years would be the schools that today make up the Ivy and Patriot Leagues: Columbia, Colgate, Princeton, Lafayette, Bucknell, Lehigh, Yale, and Brown, along with the military academies at West Point and Annapolis. All were schools that did not give out athletic scholarships, and so had been able to resist the degradations of commercialized sports in the late twentieth century. In this sense, Gross's address on athletics policy reads like a gentle but firm reminder that Rutgers had belonged to a world where college sports were played by real students at the college—undergraduates who went out for the football or basketball team in the same spirit as others of their classmates went out for the Targum, the student newspaper, or the Glee Club or orchestra or a college production of Othello or A Midsummer Night's Dream.

W.C. Dowling, Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University (Penn State UP, 2005).