Department History

Montclair State's Philosophy and Religion Department: A brief history of the work ever in-progress, by Stephen Johnson

In the late 1960s, when Montclair State grew from Teachers College to full-service College under the leadership of President Thomas Richardson, Dean Phillip Cohen sponsored Dr. George Brantl's founding of the Department of Philosophy and Religion — the only such joint department in New Jersey. Their bold vision was farsighted, and their timing perfect, as academic studies of religion (totally different from seminary-related curricula) were coming into their own. Montclair State students would not graduate without critical exposure to the riches of the world's religious and philosophical traditions, and to their roles and powers in world cultures and history. So the founder, a compassionate man beloved campus-wide in a day when faculty of all departments knew each other well, began. Before finishing, through a process of trial-and-error, this mentor of high and honest standards whose first priority was the students, built a full-time faculty of twelve scholars with distinguished doctorates, full of devoted classroom energies. 

Institutionally part of Dean Bernard Fleischmann's School of Humanities, Dr. Brantl began his long-term building in 1969 by hiring young Heideggarian philosopher Tom Bridges, who would succeed him as chair nine years later; 19th-century-theology specialist Robert Streetman, who would serve as deputy chair until his death twenty years later; and Ralph Carson, a blind and memorable African-American Scripture Studies professor who would be replaced four years later. The following year he added social-political philosopher David Scott, who would be replaced three years later. In 1971 the dynamic trinity of Brantl, Bridges, and Streetman hired Chris Hill, an analytic philosopher who would leave two years later, and Steve Johnson, a specialist in H. Richard Niebuhr, who proved a keeper. In 1972 the young department grew by three members, all of whom would stay: Larry Stanton, a brilliant young philosopher with the soul of an Irish mystic and revolutionary; Eva Fleischner, a Catholic studies specialist who was already becoming an authority in Holocaust studies; and Mat Lipman, a senior scholar and visionary hired for the purpose of founding something he called the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children. 

A senior source from those earliest days says there was more directive wisdom in Brantl's department-building than his new faculty realized, that he deliberately balanced more than academic specialties by complementing Bridges with Streetman with Johnson, and Stanton with Fleischner. They followed their founder's example in 1973, when they brought the department to full size — and programmatic possibilities — by adding four tenure-track professors, all of whom would make their career at Montclair State. Each wonderfully talented and deliciously different from the other, these were David Benfield, a logician and analytic philosopher already becoming a specialist in philosophy of law; Michael Kogan, a specialist in Jewish studies and Scripture scholarship; Adele McCollum, a myth-and-ritual scholar of world religions and pioneer of women's studies; and Ken Aman, hired to serve both the philosophy majors with his social-and-political scholarship, and the religion studies majors with his growing Latin American and popular culture specialties.

By the time of his death in the late 70s, just a decade after he began, this faculty and department—George Brantl' s legacy to Montclair State—were already legendary and beloved for traits that would continue as their local hallmarks: warm and generously individualized teaching; skilled collegial service of many kinds; and always being among the most productive departments in per-faculty ssh. Fully staffed, both of the Department's major programs, philosophy and religion studies, were nationally recognized as academically first-rate in quality and curricular comprehensiveness. Two of the faculty were already having international impact, Eva Fleischner in Holocaust studies and Judaeo-Christian relations, and Mat Lipman through his creation of the Philosophy for Children program. The Department had birthed Lipman's Institute, with great help from Drs. Aman and Johnson. Now the Department proudly "let it go" into autonomy, though that meant losing Dr. Lipman from the departmental faculty and program. Sadly, after the death of Dr. Brantl, their founding father, the young faculty lost also the first of their peers, Larry Stanton, to a shockingly premature death.

All too briefly filling Stanton's faculty "line" were three ethicists, each successively lured away by bigger offers they could not refuse: Bill Lawson, who ended up filling an endowed chair at Michigan State; Diana Meyers, who went on to teach ethics and women's studies at the University of Connecticut; and Kathryn Jackson, who moved to a non-academic career in Belgium. Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s, the Department's ranks were supplemented, and its students served, by an impressive roster of non-tenured but full-time scholars and outstanding classroom teachers: philosophers Winona Kemp-Pritchard, Marjorie Ellison, Jacqueline Sipos, Joseph Catalano, Cathy Bao-Bean; and religionists Patricia Boni, Kathleen Ramsland (who went on to fame as a literary critic), Todd Young (who went on to found the Asian Studies program at Holy Cross University), and Mtumbo Ndoro. Returning to the classroom after a lifetime as successful administrator, the same president who had presided over the Montclair State's (and the department's) remarkable growth, Tom Richardson, now taught its Introduction to Philosophy. Dr. Richardson loved teaching introductory courses and students, and did so with second-career zest, happily hanging pictures of ancient philosophers around his classroom. Later, Roland Garrett also joined the department after an administrative career, one that had brought him to Montclair State as vice-president of academic affairs. Dr. Garrett's becoming a permanent member of the department was a distinguished return to his doctoral specialties and academic first loves of aesthetics and American philosophy.

By the late 80s, though the deceased Dr. Streetman's line was replaced by hiring Ghanan scholar Frank Kokuma (returning to academia after a career in the business world), replacement of other retiring lines was not authorized, so the number of tenured and full-time faculty notably decreased. The Department's student and collegial service remained campuswide treasures; and its regional, national, and international impact continued to grow as surviving members reached their prime. Through his two books and pan-hemispheric professional activities, Dr. Aman had become a major contributor to South American liberation theology, social-political philosophy, and popular religion studies. At the national level, Dr. McCollum had gained great individual impact in numerous key areas of the American Academy of Religion, particularly those impacting women in the profession. The regional AAR owed its re-birth to Dr. Johnson's heroic efforts of the mid-80s, and the regional American Philosophical Association had long known Dr. Benfield as its mid-wife and nurturer. Nationally through writings and professional activity, and statewide/locally through high-energy and high-profile citizen contributions, the Department enjoyed influence, repute, and presence all out of proportion to its numbers.

The Department also brought in private monies for enhancement of MSC—and then MSU—programs. The annual Brantl memorial lectures had from their 1979 origins enjoyed private funding to bring to campus such nationally prominent speakers in philosophy and religion as Alvin Plantagina, Tom Driver, Nancy Macagney, Peter Klein, Michael Walzer, Cynthia Eller, Michael Sandel, Cornel West, and Daniel Dennett. Now, under Dr. Kogan's leadership, numerous annual scholarships were similarly funded by the Brand Foundation, who also greatly supported the Department's leadership in raising monies for endowing and equipping the George Brantl Lecture Hall and the Phillip Cohen Lounge. Meanwhile, Dr. Bridges won New Jersey state-challenge grants, thus bringing to campus two other lecture series of such outstanding speakers as Stephen Toulmin, George Kennedy, Arthur Danto, Robert Darnton, Robert Bellah, Robert Sternberg, Geoffrey Hartman, and Edward Said.

By the late 90s, Dr. Kogan had further magnified the Department's international intellectual impact. His pioneering work in Judaeo-Christian theology excited scholarly colleagues through conference presentations and articles, translated into several languages. Preceding him in national attention was Dr. Bridges, whose critical philosophical study from SUNY, The Culture of Citizenship, remains important. From the background and disciplines of religion studies, Dr. Johnson responded to Bridges with a series of creative articles in civic and other cultural areas of faith, ritual, and community. Dr. Garrett quietly continued producing a distinguished series of diverse and well-placed philosophical articles, ranging from metaphysical study of time in baseball to aesthetic study of characters in James Joyce. Dr. McCollum added leadership of the regional AAR to her continuing national roles in the American Academy of Religion and local leadership in women's studies.

Drs. Bridges and Benfield had for years played lead roles in Montclair State's computerization, and Benfield continued devoted involvement with work-study programs. Where he had once provoked a decade of scholarly discussion with his philosophical examination of "a priori," so he now moved from early studies of cyberspace to provocative issues of fictional identity. Ever a specialist in general education, Dr. Johnson transformed elective courses (Religion and Psychology and North American Religion) and general education courses (Religion and Culture and Religion and Social Change) with richly customized coursebooks. Ever on the technological cutting-edge, Dr. Bridges established both personal and course web-sites and the important civsoc.com site for scholarly discussion of civic issues. With his scholarly articles now appearing in distinguished book-length collections, Dr. Kogan's ground-breaking scholarship on A Jewish Theolegy of Christianity neared publication by Oxford. He also continued his record-breaking tenure as Chair (longer than Brantl and Bridges combined), thanks to the superb support given by Dr. Benfield's serving as super-deputy (all-present, all-alert, all the time).

Though retired, Dr. F1eischner continued to serve both ecclesiastical and scholarly worlds in important ways, including being called in 1999 as one of only six scholars to begin the definitive review of Vatican records on the dealings of Pius XII's papacy with and in relation to the Third Reich. Dr. Arnan' s voice and impact, alas, had been stilled prematurely, a severe loss to North and South American philosophers and theologians of liberation and popular culture scholarship, just as his work was reaching full scope. Dr. Kokuma's death, too, was a loss, coming as he began significant contribution to scholarly work in tribal and African religion. At decade's end the department was left to hope for authorization someday to replace his work with a faculty line in traditional and tribal religions, perhaps combined with Caribbean and African-American specialties.

In the final years of the twentieth century, the department realized they were in the midst of long-term personnel turn-over. Though the lines lost with the retirement of Kathryn Jackson and Eva Fleischner were not replaced, those lost in the premature deaths of Bob Streetman, Frank Kolmma, and Ken Aman were filled, in successive years, by Lisa Vail and Chris Herrera. Dr. Vail joined the faculty in 1998 as their first expert in South Asian religions and cultures. Author of a book and articles on the relationship of Indian asceticism and society, Dr. Vail edits and translates 10th and 11th-century Sanskrit texts. Delighting the students, she has already created new courses in Hinduism, in Buddhism, in Taoism, and in mysticism. Dr. Herrera joined the department in 1999 as a specialist in applied ethics. Known especially for his articles and work in medical and scientific research ethics, Dr. Herrera began exploring issues in the philosophy of sport and ethical problems in boxing. Responding to student interests and curricular need, he has also undertaken course development of philosophical issues in Death and Dying.

Upon Dr. McCollum's early-retirement in AY 1999-2000, the Department was able to recruit Cynthia Eller, most recently with Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion. Dr. Eller will be joining the department as a nationally recognized scholar, especially in areas of women and religion. Her first book was a critically praised addition to academic studies of war and peace; her Living in the Lap of the Goddess is an authoritative study of feminist spirituality and practices; and her forthcoming book is eagerly awaited by scholarly peers in the American Academy of Religion, on whose Annual Program Committee she also serves. Departmental faculty happily anticipate her deepening MSU's programmatic offerings in women's studies, American religion, and all areas of women in religion.

As in times past, so in recent years the Department and its students have long been blessed with truly devoted service by a remarkable part-time staff of the very highest skills and qualitications. One among these younger specialists has been Dr. Arleen Salles, who has restored the Department's abilities and presence in South American philosophy and culture with her noted bi-national teaching and bi-lingual publications. As Dr. Robert Sutton had for so many years done, so Dr. Steve Young has enriched an impressively wide variety of both philosophy and religion offerings with great authority, energy, and high spirits. Dr. Peter Savestano, a child of Newark and beloved alumnus of this department before his graduate studies at Drew University, teaches faculty and students much about Afro-Caribbean religious practices. As he has for years, Dr. Craig Stark continues to grace his ethics and introductory classes with traditional elegance and personal generosity; and Dr. Dorothy Rogers has added to the philosophy faculty and courses her specialized knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth-century American women philosophers. To these and the very many other part-timers and adjuncts who so well have served through the years, the Department owes more than can ever be repaid.

As it was in the beginning. so always has it been that the greatest gratitude and admiration of all the department faculty, its hundreds of student majors, and thousands of general education students are owed to the most remarkable Secretaries by whom they have been blessed. With her utter devotion, hard work, and good spirits, Rose Ferri functioned from the beginning as the Department's founding Mother. From the days of Selectric typewriters, carbon-copies, and purple-print mimeographing, she supported and sustained everyone through the burdens and confusions of all the Department's early growth—even while having to share her so-called "office" (one 4th-floor Partridge Hall cubicle!) with all departmental files and Dr. Johnson's desk and files. Following Mrs. Ferri's retirement, now enjoying its own "suite" of third-floor Partridge Hall classrooms remodeled into office cubicles, the Department was blessed in tum by the devoted services of Peggy de Giulio, Betty Murphy, and Becky Redington. Ms. de Guilio, treasured for her high energy and big laughter, eased the department's transition from the Bridges to the brave new world of Kogan administration. Ms. Murphy, remembered for the impeccable professionalism brought from her previous service in the president's office, served the department with consummate discretion and enabled its hosting of the American Academy of Religion's most important ever annual meeting. One course at a time, Ms. Redington finished her own undergraduate degree as a departmental major during her long tenure as departmental secretary. After helping the momentous move from Partridge to Dickson Hall, her enthusiasm and dedication brought departmental files and functions up to cyber-speed and process.

Finally, in the mid-nineties, with enormous grace and generosity, Kim Harrison inherited all this tradition—along with notably aging faculty, diverse new faculty, and more adjuncts than ever! Ever since, to their great benefit, Ms. Harrison's good nature and skilled devotion, her quick response and sure handling, have continued to nurture, empower, and calm the department's faculty and students. They are deeply grateful.

This first draft of their history submitted to departmental colleagues and graduates May, 2000,
by Steve Johnson