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“My mentor invested a lot of time and energy in helping me. He helped me become a better writer and sociologist, but most importantly, he helped me become more confident.” This was former student MaryBe MacMillan’s description of William Knox, longtime professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Knox was born in 1930 in New York City. His father died in 1933. Subsequently, during a time when few women pursued scientific careers, his mother attained a PhD in microbiology from Columbia, where she had a career as a virologist and immunologist.
Knox explored pre-medical and humanities studies at Princeton in 1948-49, but he left near the end of his freshman year. He began anew at Colgate University where he received great support from a sociologist, Raymond Ries, who suggested a career in academe. During his college years, when he struggled with direction, he found his passion in the study of sociology and writing. In 1955, Knox earned a BA degree magna cum laude from Colgate. He recalled that “sociology was a life saver.”
At Colgate, Knox was in the Air Force ROTC. A photo-radar intelligence officer (1960-1963), his duties included making air target charts for bombing practice and evaluating U-2 flight paths. As a social scientist and a human being, Knox believed that the “work went against his conscience.” His secondary duty as squadron historian, however, helped him hone his writing skills and explain complex technical concepts to general audiences. For years afterward this was to be useful in teaching and with his writing.
Gordon Streib, a preeminent gerontologist, advised Knox at Cornell University where he attained his doctorate degree in 1965. While Knox confessed that he felt “Filial Bonds: The Retired Father’s Relationship with His Adult Children” was a clumsy title for his dissertation, it offers a compelling contemporary critical analysis of our understanding of aging people and their familial intergenerational relations.
After earning his PhD, Knox joined the faculty at University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) in 1963, where he specialized in social psychology and the sociology of education. It was Robin Williams, Jr., former ASA President (1958), who recommended Knox for a teaching position at the school.
Knox took a leave of absence from UNCG to pursue a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study the George Junior Republic (GJR) in Freeville, NY. This was a private school for “troubled” 13–20 year olds of different race, gender, and class backgrounds. Based on his findings, he noticed questionable therapeutic methods, many indications of alienation, and an alarming number of students running away from campus. Knox concluded that the administration was neither addressing many of the problems of its “citizens” nor preparing them for participation in American society. GJR discontinued accepting girls in the early 1990s and is now The George Agency, a treatment center for young males.
Knox and a UNCG colleague, Paul Lindsay, received a Spencer Foundation grant to study long-term effects of college on students. They followed the high school class of 1972 and in a longitudinal study that continued through the early 1980s with up to 20,000 cases. Presenting their paper, “Does College Make a Difference?,” at the 1986 American Educational Research Association meeting placed the findings in the public domain. A book with the same paper title was published by Knox and Lindsay in 1994. Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini cited the research frequently in How College Affects Students, their prize-winning update of Theodore Newcomb’s synthesis of the effects of higher education.
Teaching at Greensboro for more than four decades, Knox chaired UNCG’s Sociology Department from 1990-94. He enjoyed the challenge of administration and loved advising students: “This has always been a department serious about professional activities, and it has always been a good teaching department,” said Knox. Painfully shy when he was younger, Knox eventually blossomed into a confident and gregarious teacher. From the 1970s onward, he spearheaded computer use in teaching-and writing-intensive instruction.
Knox left a positive mark on many of his students. Brian Fogarty, a former graduate student and professor at St. Catherine’s College said, “He fueled my interest in social psychology; but more importantly, he gave me permission, in an age of specialization, to think about connections between sociology and other areas of thought.”
Following his retirement in 1994, Knox has written many op-ed pieces and participates in the American Civil Liberties Union, environmental organizations, and fundraising for UNCG. An avid photographer, he has exhibited in juried and museum shows. He currently works intermittently on a memoir. He and his wife, Diana, a special education teacher, have been happily married for 58 years. The result of their marriage was three children and seven grandchildren.