Professor Retires After 56 Years
Professor James Gross was teaching at the College of the Holy Cross when he learned that the ILR School valued teaching as much as big-time research.
“It was exactly what I was looking for.”
In July 1966, he arrived at Cornell. Fifty-six years later, he is retiring as the tenured faculty member with the longest run in ILR history.
Worker rights as human rights became Gross’s research focus. In class and in his books and research papers, Gross stood up for common people and called out their oppressors.
“If I’m talking about race or discrimination in general or safety and health or any other human rights, my position has always been that human rights are nonnegotiable,” he said in an interview this summer.
Gross’s book “A Shameful Business” summarizes his sense of values around race discrimination, collective action, and safety and health. “If you want to know what my work is all about, it’s in that book.” A Shameful Business, published in 2011, is one of Gross’s eight books, including one that won him a Philip Taft Labor History Book Award.
“Students have been influenced by ideas that appear in the books and they’ve gone out and put human rights into their work as arbitrators, professors, lawyers, union reps and human resources professionals,” he said.
Alex Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, the ILR School’s Kenneth F. Kahn '69 Dean and the Martin F. Scheinman '75, MS '76, Professor of Conflict Resolution, said, “Professor Gross’ scholarship over his long and distinguished career has been of deep substance and impact. Generations of scholars across the nation have turned to his books for their insights on labor relations.”
“I remember using his definitive three-volume history of the national labor relations board in my own research as a doctoral student and finding that they explained key points in the development of our system of labor relations that no other scholar had addressed. Many others have had similar experiences that speak to the breadth and depth of influence Professor Gross has had as a scholar in our field.”
In the classroom, Gross poked holes in the bluster of the privileged and powerful as he sought to instill a sense of responsibility for those who are not privileged and powerful. “Do something worthwhile,” he urged students.
Gross remembers his immigrant Irish aunt Catherine Sheridan saying, “If you can have a positive influence on other people, that’s pretty phenomenal. At the end of your life, if you have made the life of one other person better, that’s better than being president of General Motors.”
“Being a professor is an opportunity to do that,” Gross said, recalling a particularly shy and self-doubting student.
“I singled him out as having done a great job in a mock arbitration. After the class, he came and said it was the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said about him and now he understood he can do this stuff,” Gross said. “That’s the greatest thing about teaching, having someone say that to you.”
The son of a talented piano player and a waitress, Gross put aside dreams of a baseball career to pursue his academic interests. In a radio interview, he described his journey from a Philadelphia boyhood – no car, sometimes no hot water, often no phone, roaches and an occasional rat, and a caring, yet dysfunctional, family – to a life of “trying to create moral outrage” through teaching and research about the state of unprivileged people and of worker rights.
As news of Gross’s retirement spreads, colleagues and former students are talking about his impact on their lives.
“Professor Gross challenged us to approach every human being with an open heart, an open mind, with empathy and understanding, said Kizzy Maitland Vassall, MILR ’03, who took Gross’s “Values, Rights, and Justice in Economics, Law, and Industrial Relations” course.
“He stressed the importance of the whole person. He reminded us to consider the totality of an individual’s life experiences,” she said. “His warmth, authenticity and teachings had a profound impact on me. I consider his mentorship, and ultimately his friendship, to be one of the most valuable aspects of my Cornell experience,” Vassall said.
Jeffrey Hilgert, Ph.D. ’11, now a professor in the School of Industrial Relations at the University of Montreal, said, “Jim’s work recognizes that most people are vulnerable to economic insecurity and arbitrary decisions at their workplace. How society protects collective labor rights largely determines if people have dignity at work, so his studies about the role of government are studies about the protection of human dignity.”
Colin Benedict ’21 said, “I have never met someone who valued student opinion and discussion as much as he did. Every course I took with him was centered around student input and dialogue as knowledge production.”
“Professor Gross served as a mentor and an adviser throughout my undergraduate career. He was very gracious and was always willing to support my professional development in any capacity. I owe several internships and scholarship opportunities to him.”
“His dedication to human rights and equity for all people cannot be understated,” Benedict said. “Cornell is losing an esteemed academic powerhouse and an excellent teacher. I take comfort in knowing that the values that he fought and stood for will continue to be defended and expanded in the future through the generations of students he instructed.”
Professor Risa Lieberwitz said, “Over my 40 years at ILR, Jim Gross has been a valued friend and colleague. He is always available to talk and to help on teaching, research, labor issues or just to chat, including the many times I interrupted him in his office as he was eating lunch and reading The New York Times.”
“He’s been a generous colleague in all ways, celebrating my achievements and being there for the hard times, too,” Lieberwitz said. “During his illustrious career, Jim has never wavered from his deeply held principles and his commitment to the rights of working people. Through his teaching and scholarship, he has carried out the public mission of ILR with dedication and care – and we are all the better for it.”
Gross has arbitrated many labor-management conflicts in numerous industries, including professional sports, according to Robert Jossen,’69, now an arbitrator and mediator who learned his craft in Gross’s popular labor arbitration course.
“Jim’s teaching is in the back of my mind – do parties feel like they’ve been heard, have they received a just decision? Would you want to be in the workplace the day after your decision was announced?”
Jossen has remained friends with Gross for 50 years. “When he asks you a question, he genuinely cares what your answer is. That’s a great quality to have as a teacher, it makes him very approachable to students. When I think of Cornell, the first person I think of is Jim Gross. Jim epitomizes what you want in a professor at a sophisticated, intellectual university.”
Rhonda Clouse, an administrative lead at ILR, said Gross’s challenging childhood has been a catalyst for his life’s work. “Jim uses his scholarship and teaching as a platform to raise awareness of unfair systems, to question these systems and advocate for those adversely impacted by them, to foster a sense of curiosity and inquiry, especially in his students, about the concepts of justice, workers' rights, human rights and what it truly means to live a fully human life.”
Barb Stoyell-Mulholland, M.S. ’89, an educator and author, said, “The impact Professor James Gross has had on my life reverberates over the 30-plus years since I walked the halls of ILR and continues to inform me today. He provided me with the best example of excellence in teaching and research, but the full weight of his influence extended well beyond the classroom. He has encouraged me at every step of my career choices.”
For more than a decade, a sheet of paper with a typewritten saying of the late ILR Professor Clete Daniel has been taped to Gross’s office door. “Smart is good, kind is better,” it declares. Many at ILR, including custodian Charlene Finch, say Gross lives the mantra.
“He was always so welcoming whenever I went in his office. I would always tell him to let me know if he needs anything. He would always say, ‘let me know if you need anything.’”
Although retired from ILR as of June 1, Gross is continuing, through writing, his life’s work of advocating for everyone to have the rights to live a fully human life.
View more content on ILR School research, teaching and outreach on workplace health and safety: https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/#safety.