As a child, James Parente regularly spoke Italian with his parents. Now, the College of Liberal Arts dean can read in nine other languages, including Old Icelandic, Danish and French.
Parente, who said he was interested in foreign languages as a child, is returning to teaching in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch after serving in collegiate administration for 13 years.
Parente was appointed to his current position during a tumultuous time — the 2008 financial recession — but co-workers said he was both supportive and creative.
“It’s one thing when you have a surplus and are able to hand out goodies to everyone, but when you have to run a major institution during budget shortfalls and cuts, that’s a major challenge to stick through,” said sociology professor Joachim Savelsberg. “I think that’s something we ought to acknowledge and give him credit for.
“There was a certain imaginativeness and vision and thinking out of the box when it came to Parente,” Savelsberg said.
Parente received his doctorate from Yale University in Germanic languages and literatures in 1979. He held both teaching and administrative positions at Princeton University and the University of Illinois at Chicago before coming to the University of Minnesota in 1990 as a visiting associate professor.
Parente said he was drawn to German history and literature after learning about World War II.
“My family, which was very strongly Italian-American, always said, ‘Oh, German, you don’t want to learn that. It’s too difficult,’” Parente said. “I wanted to learn something difficult.”
Former graduate student James Pasternak said Parente acted as a mentor and father figure to him.
“Even when his schedule as CLA dean was at its busiest, he could find time to talk with me and other graduate students in his office about our work,” Pasternak said in an email.
He said he and some of his peers used to meet with Parente in his office for a seminar on medieval literature.
“Our sessions were always interesting, lively and challenging,” he said. “Between readings in medieval German and Dutch, professor Parente made us cups of espresso to sip during our translation sessions.”
Parente always sought consensus among CLA departments, said psychology professor Gordan Legge, “which is a challenge in CLA because it’s a huge college.”
Political science professor John Freeman said Parente was always genuinely interested in people’s opinions.
“Many people ask us for our opinions, and you wonder if they’re really sincere,” Freeman said. “He was always very sincere about wanting to know what you thought about things.”
Looking back, Parente said one of the most exciting things about serving as dean is that not a single day was ordinary.
“Having been in administration for over a decade, it’s been a real education of a very special kind in the liberal arts that I’ve been privileged to have.”
Parente will return to teaching but not before he takes a sabbatical — his first since 1993.
Although he taught graduate courses in his department while serving as dean, fall 2014 will be his first time teaching undergraduates since 2006.
“I’m looking forward to thinking about creative ways of teaching,” he said, “and also looking to develop new material and topics for classes.”