Past professors warrant historical mention

It is a common complaint that ours is an impersonal campus, and indeed the campus is large. There are many students and faculty on it, and unless one is very sociable, one can spend years taking classes or teaching them and meet only one’s closest colleagues. Not much can be done to remedy this situation. But what is equally disturbing is that no one seems to care about recognizing our colleagues from the past and recording the highlights in the history of the University.
I came to Minnesota in 1975 straight from Russia. At that time, I knew nothing about the University. I only remembered the title of an excellent collection of articles dedicated to Friedrich Klaeber. The book was published in Minneapolis by the University of Minnesota Press in 1929. In St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) the names Minneapolis and Minnesota sounded rather exotic. It is not only out of loyalty for my new home that I can now say that the University of Minnesota is a first-rate institution. I have had ample chance to teach its students, work with its faculty and staff and use its libraries. I also learned that over the years many outstanding people taught here. And now I am coming to the point.
I believe that it is our duty to write an encyclopedia of the greatest scholars who have been active at this University since it opened its doors to the students of Minnesota and later to the students of the whole world.
Klaeber is a case in point. A native German, he came to Minnesota some time around 1894 as an instructor in Old English. Although I teach approximately the same subjects he taught, I know very little about his life. Those who, in the seventies, named a new language building after him (Klaeber Court) hardly knew more. With time, Klaeber became one of the greatest experts in his field, and generations of students have used his incomparable edition of “Beowulf,” a heroic poem written in Old English about a thousand years ago. In the area of languages and literature, Klaeber was certainly not the only one to have reflected credit on Minnesota.
Konstantin Reichardt may not be known outside the rather narrow circle of philologists — for linguists are not rock stars, and the general public is not supposed to keep track of developments in such areas as Old Scandinavian poetry. And, yet, Reichardt, who worked here for a while before he moved to Yale, is a scholar of international fame. Authors fare better than linguists. Saul Bellow and John Berryman need no introduction; both were associated with the University.
My colleagues in physics or agriculture have naturally never heard about Klaeber and Reichardt, and I know nothing about those who once graced their departments. Institutional memory is short, and, unless the past is preserved, it is speedily forgotten. A community without history can have no self-respect.
Some people keep repeating that this is a provincial land grant university, so one cannot expect too much from it (great centers of learning are elsewhere by definition). Others promise to turn the University of Minnesota into the Harvard of the Midwest (an operation that will presumably relegate Harvard’s status to that of being the Minnesota of the East Coast), and everyone wants to improve our ranking. But, if I am allowed to borrow from a popular Russian book, there is no need to fight for hygiene: The thing to do is to take a broom and sweep the floor. Before hitching our wagon to a star, we should look for paths around us. Perhaps we are closer to where we want to be than we realize.
So here is my proposal. I hope that my appeal will not fall on deaf ears and that people from various departments will agree to form a steering committee. This committee will meet and decide what to do next. To begin with, a list of names eligible for inclusion should be drawn up.
Every department will be asked to delve into its history to some extent and nominate those who were big enough to merit inclusion. It will probably be safer to include only those who are dead, or at the very least retired. No one wants a beauty contest or a vanity fair, with ambitious scholars scrambling for a place on the pedestal. It is with encyclopedias as it is with martyrdom: first a glorious end, then fame everlasting.
Once a tentative list has been drawn up, individual entries will have to be written. The committee will decide how to recruit the authors, what the format of the articles should be and so forth. Apparently, the group will need a place where it can meet, a computer and the services of several graduate assistants who will function as liaisons between the committee and the departments and do some preliminary research.
I cannot imagine that local foundations, the Office of the Vice President for Academic Research, the Graduate School and the deans will refuse to support such a venture. If the final product turns out to be informative, interesting to read and pleasing to look at, the University of Minnesota Press will probably agree to publish it and will have no trouble selling it. For advertising purposes, such a book will be invaluable. The hall of fame is wide open. I hope it will not remain empty.

Anatoly Liberman is a professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch. He can be reached at [email protected]