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Palaima: For the sake of our future, preserve the past

Austin American-Statesman Thursday, May 15, 2008

At the University of Texas, commencement is here. Soon-to-be graduates have been focused on finishing up their degree requirements, but the word "commencement" paradoxically looks ahead to what they will now begin to be.

The future is unknown. We cannot see it. The past lies in front of us, visible. We can study it, and, if we are wise, use it to guide us in the unforeseeable future.

In May 1999, William S. Livingston, revered emeritus professor of government and British studies, addressed the last commencement ceremony of the old millennium. Among his many pieces of advice was this: "People will tell you it is not what you know that counts, it's who you know. Well, I can tell you here and now that that is wrong. It's not who you know, it's whom you know." Like the Roman poet Horace, he spoke the truth smiling and precisely.

UT students spend four or more years in a community of scholars. It is inspiring teachers whom graduates know. A good example is Austin Gleeson, who last week received the annual Texas Exes Holloway award for teaching excellence. Since arriving at UT in 1969, Gleeson has taught physics innovatively, including a renowned course for scientifically challenged honors students. Two early Holloway recipients, Jim Vick (mathematics, 1976) and Steve Monti (chemistry, 1972) have infused their strong values into student affairs and administration. Betty Sue Flowers (English, 1983) now directs the LBJ Presidential Library. Other Holloway winners, including myself (2004), stay with teaching and research. Howard Miller (history, 2002) won this year's Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship for his religious studies courses.

UT graduates also get to know the ideas of great minds, past and present, beyond the Forty Acres. Our libraries preserve and disseminate this knowledge in printed or electronic form. They are central to our academic and cultural mission. But, as Michael Winship, chairman of the UT Libraries Committee, and Fred Heath, vice provost for libraries, explained recently, UT libraries are in serious trouble.

We have long been living off our past preeminence. Expenditures for research materials have gone from sixth to 16th in the past two decades. UT libraries are $62 million in expenditures behind the top 10 university research libraries. We were ahead of them in 1987.

This is not a catastrophe in the making. It is a catastrophe already. But it is easy to ignore when prominent library units, like the Harry Ransom Center, are thriving, and when we soon will have spent, since 1998, nearly $300 million expanding our colossal football-only stadium for the entertainment, on a few autumn weekends, of our state's economic elite.

On Wednesday, the University Co-op and Graduate School presented their annual graduate awards. The nominees for best doctoral dissertation are extraordinary. Their research shows a deep concern for human beings who are marginalized, politically repressed or targets of prejudice. These dissertators brought hard-won theoretical, technical and language skills to bear on their interdisciplinary topics.

For example, Tatiana Nikolova-Houston in Information Sciences reconstructed history from the marginal notations made in manuscripts by scribes over five centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule in Bulgaria, the only place where the publicly silenced critical voices of Bulgarian Christians could be expressed and preserved. Heath, who is also a Russian and Slavic history expert, was one of her advisers.

History scholar Karl Brown studied Hungarian archives for evidence of everyday forms of resistance to Soviet domination, including listening and dancing to American jazz music, at the outset of the Cold War. And Zachary Dorsey in Theatre and Dance examined acts of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender/transsexual people and how theatrical violence has been and can be used in response to such hatred.

The explorations of the past by these young scholars have serious lessons for the present. Their work depends on archives and texts, on libraries. It depends on committed tenured faculty, "devoted people" who, in the words of President Bill Powers at the UT Remembers ceremony on May 2, "give the best part of themselves to their work and their study."

Our libraries and our dedicated faculty leave their mark on the many graduates who yearly commence to make our society what it will be.

Regular contributor Tom Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

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