Visionary of education and women’s rights passes away

Betty Miller Unterberger was a game-changer from the moment she began teaching. Not only was she the first female full professor hired at Texas A&M University, Unterberger was an inspiration to many of her students, igniting their passion for learning and guiding them to success in the classroom.

On Tuesday, May 15, Unterberger passed away at the age of 89. A memorial service for Unterberger was held Sunday, May 20 in All Faiths ChapelA Facebook page has also been set up for those who knew Unterberger to share their memories and photos.

Unterberger spent her life championing freedom of discussion and inspiring curiosity. Born in Scotland in 1922 and raised in the United States, Unterberger received a Bachelor of Arts from Syracuse University in 1943, a Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1946, and earned a Ph.D. from Duke University in 1950. She initially began college on a forensics scholarship, but a citizenship course with Syracuse University’s only female professor at the time incited Unterberger’s true passion.  

In 1968, when her husband received an offer to teach in the Department of Geophysics at Texas A&M, Unterberger was at first reluctant to make the move. A meeting with the vice president for academic affairs, Horace R. Byers, and then-President General Earl Rudder changed her mind.  Byers offered her a position as a full professor and asked her to help internationalize the history department and build a graduate program. Unterberger accepted, becoming the first female in a full professorship at a formerly all-male college.

While at Texas A&M, Unterberger mentored many students. Don Curtis, the Assistant Dean for High Impact Programs in the College of Liberal Arts, was the last Ph.D. student to whom Unterberger served as an advisor.

“Betty Unterberger had the gift of being able to see more in a person than they could see in themselves,” said Curtis. “I realize in looking back on my career that the things that Betty Unterberger taught me – hard work, diligence, careful preparation, a love of what you do, and holding oneself and those around you accountable for your actions – are the things that have helped me every single day in my career, and in my life outside of Texas A&M.”

Patti Urbina, one of Unterberger’s students in 1982-1983 and longtime friend, remembers her classroom fondly.

“She was such a wonderful influence on my undergraduate career and life.  She engaged us in ways that would make our heads spin.  She made us think and dig deeper to understand why and how we form our opinions,” said Urbina.

Unterberger pioneered high impact learning in her classroom by employing such techniques as class discussions, debates, individual guidance and research. 

“In all my classes I stress the objective of helping each student to become his or her own historian, and this can best be done by immersing them in the research and writing process with careful individual guidance. Here one joins in partnership with the students and guides them very practically because of one’s own continued involvement in the research process and one’s first-hand knowledge of the availability of resources and the latest techniques in historical research and methodology,” Unterberger wrote in her application for her HUR Teacher/Scholar Award in 1997.

She engaged the students in her classrooms in a level of education far beyond their expectations. Unterberger not only forced students to flesh out their opinions in class, but did so in a way that left students proud of their contributions.

“I was very timid when I took her courses, but she had a way of making you feel valued and comfortable speaking in her class.  She made us feel very important with her positive presence in the classroom,” said Urbina.

Urbina remembers one particular class when Unterberger walked in, calmly, 15 minutes late.  “She said she was so sorry but an interview with Pakistan Radio had run a little late.  Her interview was played on Pakistan’s Independence Day, we were in awe of her,” said Urbina.

While Unterberger was successful in the classroom, she also made strides for women educators.  “You can’t underestimate what she did and at the time she did it.  She was the only female educator amongst many males.  People would often question her presence at academic conference, but her colleagues always supported her,” said Urbina.

Unterberger had a passion for Honors courses and students.  She valued the small classroom atmosphere and the one-on-one learning that Honors courses provide. She channeled her experience into the content of many of her Honors classes. 

“Since the content of honors courses requires a broad and comprehensive knowledge of the world in which we live, my own personal experiences, both in archival research, in oral interviews and travel within the various countries which I must teach about, has given me a personal knowledge of events and personalities that is important to the understanding of American foreign relations, American history, Soviet-American relations, and, also, international developments. Many years after their class participation, students have written me about their remembrance of my interviews with Prime Minister Zulifikar Bhutto who explained Pakistan’s role in the Cold War and its relationship with China and the Soviet Union, or my experiences as a member of the American diplomatic mission to Russia in 1984, headed by George Kennan, the father of the containment policy, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American official recognition of the Soviet Union; or the many discussions with Chinese students at Peking University in the semester prior to the Tianamen Square massacre; or the discussions with key Czech and Slovak leaders over the breakup of Czechoslovakia into separate states,” wrote Unterberger.

Unterberger retired from Texas A&M in 2004 at the age of 81. She was the recipient of numerous awards throughout her life, including the Distinguished Teacher Scholar Award from HUR 1997.  She was also the inspiration and inaugural recipient of HUR’s Betty M. Unterberger Award.  This award is given to faculty members that exemplify a commitment to the overall success of Honors education. 

Unterberger was also a leading voice for the Freedom of Information Act and served on the CIA Advisory Committee for Access to Documents and Open Information. Following her retirement from Texas A&M, Unterberger received a personal letter of appreciation for her service from Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA. In his letter, Panetta thanked Unterberger for helping them to see that access to information is vital to a democracy.  HUR celebrates Unterberger’s passion for freedom of information, which is critical to all she held dear: the functioning of our nation and the education and scholarly goals of Texas A&M.

Memorial donations may be made to the Texas A&M Foundation for the Betty Miller Unterberger Memorial Account, 401 George Bush Drive, College Station, Texas 77840.   

Contact: Monika Blackwell,, 979.845.6061, Click for full Liberal Arts Story



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