From Policeman to Professor: The Story of Sociologist Neil Gross

This year, Colby is welcoming Professor Neil Gross, who is joining as a professor and as the chair of the Sociology Department here. In a recent interview, he discussed his past experiences, interests, research, and what he hopes to achieve at Colby.

Originally hailing from the Bay Area, Professor Gross studied at UC Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in legal studies, which included history, philosophy and some sociology of law. He began his career as a police officer in the city of Berkeley, but after a short time realized it was not his true calling. He thought back to the courses he had taken in college and realized the sociology courses were some of the most interesting to him.

He was especially interested in the sociology of the police force. “How the police institution works, what it is that shapes police behavior, why there is sometimes this disconnect between what policies say the police should do and what police actually do, I wanted to understand all of that,” Gross said. Because of this interest, he enrolled in University of Wisconsin for graduate school to study sociology at a school that had a strong focus on research in this specific area.

Although he never ended up researching sociology of police, this interest led him to a long-term career in sociology. After receiving his PhD, Professor Gross worked at University of Southern California, Harvard, University of British Columbia, and Princeton before joining us at Colby.

When asked to describe why Colby, and liberal arts schools in general, appealed to him, he admitted that said that while he had never thought about attending or working at liberal arts schools growing up due to the lack of focus on them in California, he taught for a short time at Williams College before he finished his dissertation, and described that as an “amazing experience.” That stuck with him, and he especially remembered the appeal of the “combination of teaching and research” that a liberal arts professor job offers.

Gross said he is also very excited to be working at Colby specifically because our Department of Sociology is going through a time of transition. “We are going to be hiring a number of new people starting next year, and we’re hoping to steer the curriculum toward big topical courses,” Gross said. “I’m hoping that moving forward we’ll be able to offer a lot more courses that aren’t ‘The Sociology of X’ but are instead topic-based courses on big important issues in American society.” He is very excited to be chairing the department here during this “institution-building phase.”

Professor Gross has conducted research on a wide variety of topics, mainly sociological theory, sociology of intellectuals, sociology of higher education and political sociology, and is currently working on two books. One is a biography of Seymour Martin Lipset, a political sociologist, and another is a book about, as he puts it, “the nature of causality in the social world, what it means to say that one social thing causes another.”

When asked what he most likes to see in his students here, he stated simply “I like it when students study.” He explained that studies have shown college students in general are studying less and less, and that students are not studying enough individually, as that has been shown to help students’ critical thinking skills. Despite this slight pessimism about college work ethic in general, Professor Gross said that he has been “very impressed with Colby students so far.”

If he had not been a sociologist, Professor Gross said that he could have imagined himself continuing to work in law enforcement or in law in general, but said that he loves the career he chose. “It’s great to find answers to puzzles about how the social world works,” he said.

When not working on sociology, Gross spends time with his wife and seven-year-old son. As a newly-arrived Waterville resident who is a California native, he is slightly worried about the harsh winters here, but said with slight reassurance to himself “I don’t think they’ll be worse than Wisconsin winters.”

Professor Gross is clearly very knowledgeable and passionate about his field and is someone Colby is very lucky to have. As liberal arts students, we are lucky to have the chance to actually get to know many great professors who can pass on their knowledge, passion and critical thinking abilities that have given them their own success. Neil Gross is a great example of one of these professors.

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