More Than Words
Outgoing liberal arts Dean Pamela R. Matthews shares her passion for words, her love of Texas A&M, and her admiration of students.
By Heather Rodriguez ‘04
Photos by Butch Ireland
It all began with words.
“When I was in the first grade, my teacher asked me to spell ‘antidisestablishmentarianism,’ and I did,” Pamela R. Matthews, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said. “And I remember thinking, ‘I will never again be this happy in life. This is amazing.’ So it started with a total fascination with words.”
This fascination with words took Matthews on an academic journey through Texas A&M University and the College of Liberal Arts, from a student and staff member, to faculty member, to dean and donor of the college. And the journey began in Texas A&M’s backyard.
“Some of my earliest and strongest memories are attached to College Station,” Matthews said. “My grandparents took care of me while my parents worked and they were right across from the band’s practice field and I would hear the band play every day. It’s still pretty incredible to me how concrete the memories are.”
Matthews’ history with the university runs deep. Her father attended Texas A&M as a student, and her mother worked on campus, as did her grandfather. When she was young, she lived with her parents in married student housing until her father graduated.
“My family’s history with the university has shaped my own history with the university,” she said. “I think of Texas A&M as a family member.”
Matthews received her undergraduate degree from the University of Houston, and initially came back to Texas A&M to work on campus. As a staff member, she decided to pursue her Master’s degree, which she did from the Department of English. It was during this time that she met her husband, Dennis Berthold, who also worked for the university. And while she left to pursue her Ph.D. from Duke University in North Carolina, something pulled her back.
“This just feels like home. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I think I’m done going away now.”
Once she returned from North Carolina, she started working at Texas A&M again, but this time she was a lecturer with the Department of English. She became a tenure-track assistant professor the following year, and later was promoted to full professor.
“I loved teaching right from the start,” Matthews said. “I miss teaching sometimes because I love the students…I was always happiest in the classroom.”
She ultimately served in many positions: associate head of the Department of English, director of women’s and gender studies, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts, associate provost for undergraduate studies, and vice provost for academic affairs. In 2014, Matthews was appointed interim dean of liberal arts and, following a national search, was named dean by the Board of Regents in 2015.
“Along the way, someone probably figured out that I say ‘yes’ too often for committees, and began to choose me for leadership roles,” Matthews joked. “But I do like to get involved, and I believe if you want to see change, you need to be part of that change. You have to be willing to do your part.”
Matthews said she believes the spirit of making positive changes lives in the faculty, staff, and students in the College of Liberal Arts.
“Our faculty are used to thinking through things and looking at them from every angle and consider all the possibilities, and that’s just kind of who we are,” she said. “There’s also something about liberal arts students…they tend to care about other people. It’s all about the people and that’s what we’re all about as a college.”
While Matthews said all of her students resonated with her, she’s particularly fond of her memories with first-generation college students. As associate dean, she taught students in the Regents’ Scholars Program, a university-wide initiative designed to assist first-in-family college students in achieving their educational goals through needs-based scholarships and dedicated skills-building classes. She said the four years she spent with them made an impact.
“I watched students go from a little intimidated by this very large place to becoming new leaders on campus, and it was just incredible,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Here’s the future of the rest of the world.’ It changed me to teach them.”
The experience motivated Matthews to become involved in yet another way: as dean, she created the Pamela R. Matthews First in Family Scholarship, which benefits first-generation college students. She hopes her scholarship will go a long way in creating new, empathetic, and innovative leaders — particularly at a time of disconnect in our country.
“I think the College of Liberal Arts is so important in bringing people back together. It’s important to remember that the country has been divided before, but I do think that no one is listening to each other,” Matthews said. “You have to have people willing to speak each other’s language, and understand each other’s view of the world. You have to be able to think critically, and that’s what we teach.”
In addition to enriching the university and the college, Matthews also helped Bryan-College Station in 2005 by co-founding Brazos Valley Reads — an initiative in the Department of English that brings internationally-recognized authors to B-CS for public readings and interactions with the community. It’s designed to give everyone a shared reading experience and the opportunity to come together and discuss relevant issues. It’s also her way of giving what she loves to the town she calls “home.”
“I think that reading literature helps you become other people. It can help you understand what it’s like to be someone else,” she said. “That’s partly why reading is the thing I love to do most in the world.”
While she is retiring in September 2021, she still plans to stay involved and active in the college’s Liberal Arts Development Council, a philanthropic organization that builds relationships and fosters impactful gifts to benefit the college’s faculty and students.
“I hope that my legacy is an appreciation of human accomplishment, that we all remember that it is the basis for everything,” Matthews said. “As a donor, I just want to see the college thrive. I’m excited to see the new ideas.”
It also ends with words.
Before she leaves, Matthews offers this advice to all Aggies: “Remember the core values, and don’t just recite them; act on them,” she said. “They’re not just words. They’re supposed to help us understand how we behave, how we treat people. It’s one of the best things about us. And we should really think about that.”