Historian and first female full professor at Texas A&M passes away
Betty Miller Unterberger never strayed from a challenge. Not only was she the first female full professor hired at Texas A&M University, Unterberger went against the grain by teaching about Russian foreign policy and Communist China during the Cold War.
On Tuesday, May 15, Unterberger passed away at the age of 89.
A memorial service for Unterberger has been scheduled for Sunday, May 20 at 2 p.m. in All Faiths Chapel. A 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.
Prior to teaching at Texas A&M, Unterberger was a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton and a faculty member at Whittier College. While at Whittier, the president informed Unterberger that the board was uneasy about her use of the Communist Manifesto in class. Unterberger met with one of the board members and explained her views on the importance of discussion in a free society.
“Well, this gentleman enrolled in one of my classes, and then he took another course,” Unterberger said in a 2004 interview. “He was a total convert. He just could not believe the way the students participated, analyzed ideas, compared different viewpoints and really got engaged with learning.”
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.”
Sara Alpern, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M, also knew Unterberger as a mentor and credits much of her career path to Unterberger's guidance.
"Betty Miller Unterberger is the reason I became a historian," Alpern said. "I was a graduate student, and every conference I went to it seemed that there were rarely any women on the program. But there was often this Betty Miller Unterberger, and I thought, 'Women can be historians!' She was always a role model and an inspiration to me before I even met her."
In 1991, the College of Liberal Arts appointed Unterberger to the Patricia and Bookman Peters Professorship in History. The Peters Professorship made it possible for Unterberger to accept an exchange professorship at Charles University in Prague in 1992. There, Unterberger became one of the first Western scholars after the breakup of the Soviet Union to gain access to important historical documents.
This time period resulted in her publication of “The United States and the Russian Civil War: The Betty Miller Unterberger Collection of Documents,” which Unterberger felt was her “capstone research contribution to the field of American foreign affairs.”
Unterberger retired from Texas A&M in 2004 at the age of 81. She was the recipient of numerous awards throughout her life, including an Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching in 1975, a Myrna F. Bernath Book Prize (inaugural winner) from the Society for Historians of American Public Relations in 1989, a Distinguished Teacher Scholar Award from the University Honors Program in 1997, and a Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service by Department of the Army for "exceptional service" while serving as a member of the Army Historical Advisory Committee between 1980 and 1982. Additionally, she was the first woman to win the Duke University Graduate Publication Award.
Throughout her life, Unterberger was active in numerous professional associations. She was a founding member of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies as well as of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). In 1986, Unterberger was elected president of SHAFR, which was predominantly male at the time.
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.
Olga Cooke, an associate professor of Russian in the Department of International Studies, knew Unterberger as a friend, colleague, and role model.
“She transformed so many lives – it just spilled over into everything she did,” said Cooke. “She was so generous with her time. If anyone called her she would just give all of herself to that person. She even said if someone worried about taking time out of her life she’d say, ‘There’s nothing more important that I have to do right now than to have this conversation with you.’”
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.