A Brief History of the Department of Philosophy & Religion Studies @ UNT
By Dr. Pete. A.Y. Gunter
In March, 1969 Professor Richard Owsley urged me to apply for the position of chairman of the soon to be formed Philosophy Department at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). Previously, philosophy at UNT had consisted of a small group of professors lacking any collective identity, shuffled from one department to another (English to Sociology to History; Tinkers to Evers to Chance). In June of that year the university offered me the chairman/founder position. I accepted and arrived from Knoxville, Tennessee, in August, 1969 via exclusive U-Haul Transport.
Like other humanities departments, philosophy was then regarded by the university as a service program whose task was to teach introductory courses and crank out massive numbers of student contact hours. Realistically, then, our primary goal as a department had to be to maintain our professor / course / student hour ratios. We were allowed, however, to develop our curriculum, and we used this freedom to create a minor and then a major in philosophy. It was a difficult balancing act--keeping productive numbers and expanding our reach into upper level courses. But, while remaining a small department, we managed to create an increasingly complete program, gradually adding courses and becoming competitive on the undergraduate level.
Although we slowly grew by accretion, adding a sizable list of minors and majors and occasional new faculty, the pickings were sparse. Every spring we would run out of stationary or postage and have to beg the Dean of Arts and Sciences for additional funds to purchase them. Occasional grant monies would allow us to bring in speakers, the best known of whom was Willard Van Orman Quine.
In the mid-1970's the Dean of the Graduate School told us that the legislature would allow us to award a master's degree in philosophy. We would have accepted, but we were told that the university would give us no more than one hundred dollars to support the new program. This would pay part of the cost for a brochure advertising the degree. We declined, while urging the dean to increase this largess by coming up with money for letterhead and postage.
It was not until Max Oelschaeger joined us from the University of Texas at Arlington that we again seriously considered pursuing an M.A. program. Max had just published The Environmental Imperative (1977). At the same time I had been working to establish a Big Thicket National Biological Preserve in Southeast Texas. Our many discussions resulted in the goal of gaining a master's degree in a field that had never existed as such: environmental ethics. The program, created in 1992, was for a time shared with the University of Texas at Arlington.
In 1990, we were able to bring Eugene Hargrove, founder and editor of Environmental Ethics, to the department. In 1995, we were joined by Baird Callicott, author of numerous books on the land ethic and an international expert on the philosophy of its author, Aldo Leopold. In 2004 Robert Frodeman was hired as chair, and was asked to complete the work of Hargrove and others in persuading the State of Texas to allow the Department to award the PhD. This goal was achieved in 2005, with the explicit understanding that we would have a distinctively practical orientation where we would work with scientists, engineers, and policy makers. We were now established--on the map, as it were--as a major center of environmental and philosophical thought. Quite an achievement, we thought, for a program which originally could not afford a graduate degree and had to scrounge for money simply to stay open.
The preceding account of the fortunes of philosophy at North Texas leaves out an important development. In the summer of 1984 the UNT campus was flooded by enthusiastic young Christians promising that their appearance would be followed in the next semester by a tsunami of faith. The tsunami did not materialize, but the sudden plethora convinced us that we should do more to make it possible for students to know about the history of their own and other religions, as well as the existence of theologies (ways of discussing belief) and antitheologies. The result--not easily achieved through state government--was permission to create a Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies (1989). Why religion studies rather than religious studies? Because the state legislature, terrified of transgressing the boundary between Church and State, opined that while students can not be said to study religiously, it is all right if they study religion. By 2015 this distinction had become pointless, and so the Department changed its name to the simple designation of Philosophy and Religion.
One can then look back on over forty years of philosophy at North Texas with a sense of satisfaction. What began as a straggling collection of professors passing from place to place has developed into a robust, thriving department, internationally known and able to pursue a many-level course of instruction from classical philosophical thought through religion through environmental ethics. In connection with these, there is a proliferation of centers and projects, which draw on the department's strengths and apply them. Among these are the Center for Environmental Ethics (Prof. Eugene Hargrove), the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program (Prof. Ricardo Rozzi) and the Philosophy of Water Project (Prof. Irene Klaver). To these one must add the interdisciplinary program which connects and interrelates environmental sciences and environmental philosophy. This arrangement involves a speakers program as well as the taking of philosophy courses by environmental sciences students and the taking of environmental sciences courses by philosophy students.
In conclusion, there are those who believe that philosophy is strictly an ivory-tower enterprise. The philosophy program at North Texas finds no reason to deny that the various stands of philosophy can pursue pure analysis of abstract speculative thought. But it all has, we believe, to eventually be brought down to earth. To borrow Plato's insight, philosophers may wish to bask in enlightenment, but they also need to be urged to return the "cave" of the "real" world to engage those who live there. The Philosophy program developed at the University of North Texas does exactly this.
~ Professor Pete A.Y. Gunter, December 2010
~ Professor Robert Frodeman, May 2017