UNI Department of Philosophy and World Religions celebrates 50 years


The UNI Department of Philosophy and World Religions is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. COVID-19 social distancing measures have impacted the department’s planned anniversary celebrations and events, including a reunion, lectures and tours that have been rescheduled for the fall. Specific dates for these events will be announced at a later time. 

Despite the cancellations, Dr. Susan Hill, professor of religion and Philosophy and World Religions department head, is still celebrating the anniversary and remains optimistic.

“I think it’s going to be a great event when it happens,” Hill said.

The department formed in 1969 after various humanities professors wanted to start a new department: Philosophy and Religion. The first graduating class walked in 1973 and according to Hill, the department has flourished since.

The fiftieth anniversary has sparked conversations with UNI alumni that Hill has taught throughout her 25 years at UNI. 

“It’s been really wonderful to hear from former students,“ Hill said. She said that she has enjoyed how the anniversary has allowed her to reflect on her time at the university and think about these students. 

“I think for UNI in general, and just in terms of the department itself, I think it’s an opportunity to reflect on the importance of our areas of study and the department’s persistence and resilience for the last 50 years,” Hill said. She explained that philosophy, religion and ethics are academic subjects that aren’t as commonly studied. 

According to Hill, the department of Philosophy and World Religions does a considerable amount of outreach to students. She explained what it means to study these subjects and why they matter.

“In our department, we know that one of the most important things that a college education can do is to help give people the knowledge and skills to live the lives that we want to live,” Hill said. “A rich and meaningful life is about more than just a job; it’s about understanding how what we do in the world matters, how we can contribute to the world around us, how we can participate in the world as thoughtful and engaged citizens.”

The department of Philosophy and World Religions strives to teach students such skills and encourage them to think, write and argue effectively.

“One of the things that makes us unique is that we inspire students to ask questions they haven’t ever thought about asking before and to think in ways that they haven’t thought about before,” Hill said. A few examples of Hill’s philosophical questions include: what does it mean to live a good life? What is right and wrong? What is fair? What is religion?

The fiftieth anniversary is also a significant event for adjunct instructor of philosophy and humanities Michael Prahl, one of the eight students from the department’s first class that graduated in 1973. He recalled instructors in the department being “extraordinarily honest.” Dr. Thomas H. Thompson, who taught History of Philosophy: Early Modern, was one of those instructors for Prahl.

“At the end of the course, he wrote a review of every student’s work during the semester, and his review of me was that I had done the best work thus far and the best work of students he had seen at UNI, but that in the future I might want to actually read the material and not rely on mother wit,” Prahl said.

Prahl said that he is glad that the department of Philosophy and World Religions is still thriving at UNI. He explained that at many colleges, there are few combined departments of philosophy and religion due to lack of institutional support. 

“It really means something to the institution to continue to support it,” Prahl said. “I think that in the university, the faculty of the department, over the years, that I’ve been here anyways, have definitely provided as much of, and in many cases, more of, a conscience for the university in faculty meetings.” 

Prahl commends the department members who push consistently for Liberal Arts Core (LAC) requirements not being eased. The department teaches a significant amount of humanities courses, including “Religions of the World” and “Philosophy: The Art of Thinking.” Prahl describes these courses as being important parts of a “core body of knowledge” for graduating students.

To Prahl, philosophy is a foundation for other subjects and teaches people how to think. He said that philosophy is the original discipline in which people looked at the world and tried to figure out what was happening in it. One by one, other disciplines, such as mathematics and psychology, broke off of philosophy.

“You can’t do anything without thinking about it,” he said.

 The camaraderie is another aspect of his department that Prahl is proud of.

“As a student, all I could see was some interactions of the faculty outside of class — not a great deal, but it seemed very congenial, very friendly,” Prahl said. “Faculty members did seem to enjoy each other’s company.”

Prahl says that he still sees that friendliness and camaraderie within the department now. Although department members may dispute over ideas, he said that they never dispute over people. Prahl hopes the department of Philosophy and World Religions continues to be a voice of morality for UNI and that the department will grow and remain strong into the next 50 years and beyond.