Rutgers University was founded in 1766. However, it would be another 185 years before sociology, as a discipline, took firm root in Rutgers soil. Sociology courses were taught from time to time in the 1920s and 30s – especially at the then independent New Jersey College for Women. But all would change at the end of World War II when Rutgers took on a new identity. Re-named “Rutgers the State University of New Jersey,” the institution braced itself, both for a huge influx of GI Bill students and for the massive change that rapid growth demands.
Rutgers' new arrangement with the New Jersey State Legislature, along with tuition funds paid for by the GI Bill allowed for a major expansion of academic departments. A sociology department was founded, and in 1950, renowned scholars Jack and Matilda Riley were hired to lead it. A promising young Harvard Ph.D. named Jackson Toby also joined the faculty, becoming a mainstay at Rutgers for the next 51 years. Reflecting the interests of these scholars, the sociological research of this period emphasized aging, stratification, and criminology. In 1957, Robert Gutman joined the department, adding expertise in the sociology of architecture and the built environment.
In the 1950s, undergraduate departments and curricula were developed separately for Rutgers College (the men’s college) and Douglass College (the former New Jersey College for Women). Rutgers College emphasized quantitative research and training, and Douglass College emphasized a qualitative and humanistic direction. By 1958, these departments were sufficiently strong to jointly launch the first Ph.D. program in sociology. Professors Rileys, Toby, Gutman, and Harry Bredemeier (a new young theorist) initiated the program; they were later joined by Irving Louis Horowitz, and Peter Berger among others. These nationally renowned faculty drew around them circles of graduate students. Despite few resources, the Department began producing a steady stream of M.A.s and Ph.D.s.
Rutgers University added two additional undergraduate Colleges, Livingston College in 1969, and Cook College (an expansion of the School of Agriculture and Environmental Science), in 1971. Livingston College had a Department of Sociology, and it added specializations in political sociology and economic development to the Graduate program. Cook College’s Department of Human Ecology included sociologists who taught graduate courses in demography.
By the late 1970s, it became increasingly clear that Rutgers could not develop into a distinguished modern research university as long as it remained organized as a consortium of small semi-independent colleges. Distinguished sociologist David Mechanic, who had recently arrived at Rutgers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, became the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). This new division merged the various undergraduate and graduate liberal arts departments into unified University-wide departments. The transition represented a major logistical undertaking involving the simultaneous reorganization of over forty liberal arts disciplines in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.
The newly unified sociology department was centralized on the Livingston campus. After several years, the department developed a coherent plan for growth that was enthusiastically embraced and supported by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The plan involved articulating and strengthening four areas of specialization: Health, Population and the Life Course; Culture and Cognition; Gender, Difference and Inequality; and Political and Economic Sociology. The department sought and hired the best and most energetic of the period’s new and recent Ph.D.s. This hiring program was quite successful and has brought an entire new generation of sociologists into the department, some of who have occupied important leadership positions.
Throughout the 1980s the graduate program began to realize its potential in many ways. The University, for the first time, supplied funding for computing services, grant-getting, and grant-management services. In the 1990s, the department succeeded in obtaining graduate fellowships, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships. These resources allowed the department to compete for the best new graduate students and provide them for support during their first three to five years in the program. A curriculum shift away from an emphasis on comprehensive exams and toward an emphasis on the writing of (potentially publishable) qualifying papers led to an increased ability of the department’s Ph.D.s to compete for academic jobs.
The undergraduate program thrived during this period as well. The undergraduate curricula of the various colleges were fully integrated into a single unified sociology department. At this time, the sociology faculty revised the undergraduate curriculum, improving the Introduction to Sociology experience, revising the required theory, methods, and statistics courses, and adding a required 400-level (senior) seminar. The department established a new Honors Program as well, enabling senior majors to carry out research projects under the guidance of a faculty specialist.
The future of the department looks exceedingly bright. In recent years, the department has developed several additional, rapidly growing areas of intellectual concentration: a sociological approach to criminal justice that emphasizes family, community, education, and the relationship of these factors to crime; an environmental sociology program grounded in research on development, disaster, risk, and social policy; and a focus on social networks, particularly emphasizing the cultural, historical and institutional dynamics of social relations. The department has expanded its colloquia series and added new intellectual workshops and cultural series to its activities. Rutgers sociologists hold leadership positions with major sociological journals and sections of the American Sociological Association. The work of faculty and students is frequently featured in leading scholarly journals as well as the popular press. Sociologists also regularly interact with other social scientists at Rutgers, especially since the department moved in 2010 to the Douglass campus, where the departments of Political Science, Anthropology, American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies are located.