Remembering Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes

'A guiding light' for fellow female faculty and people of color, an advocate of diversity and inclusion
Written by: 
Amanda Fuller
Bertina Combes
Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes (front row in yellow) and her mother, Dr. Gladys J. Hildreth (front row in green), keynote speaker at the Black Women’s Initiative 2015 symposium, "Black in the Ivory Tower."

Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes held many roles in her nearly 32 years at UNT, including professor of special education, associate and interim dean for the College of Education, and vice provost for faculty success, but her legacy runs deeper than those titles convey. An advocate for inclusion and the embodiment of servant leadership, Dr. Combes, who passed away Feb. 19, 2021, dedicated her career to improving the university she loved and transforming the lives of the countless students and colleagues who loved her in return.

"I have never met a person who believed more in UNT, its students, its employees and its potential to improve students' lives," says Dr. Beverly Bower, Professor Emerita of counseling and higher education. "Her compassion for everyone in the community, especially the students, guided all her interactions, even in the most trying of situations."

The child of two college educators, Dr. Combes was raised on university campuses and developed an early appreciation of the important role higher education plays in improving the human condition.

After graduating from Oral Roberts University, she began her career as a special education teacher in Baton Rouge, La., where she specialized in learning and intellectual disabilities, and emotional and behavior disorders. She went on to complete her master's degree at Southern University and her Ph.D. at the University of Texas in Austin, and served as an assistant professor at Texas Tech University before joining the UNT faculty in 1989.

One of her greatest strengths was her ability to build relationships and foster a sense of community, not just with her students in the College of Education, but throughout the UNT campus and beyond.

Engaged Citizen
 Bertina Combes
Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes and Joanne Woodard, UNT's vice president for institutional equity and diversity

Despite her humble nature, her reputation often preceded her.

"I had heard of Bertina as someone who would be an excellent person to know before my arrival at UNT in 2002," says Dr. V. Barbara Bush, retired associate professor and coordinator of the Higher Education Program. "She was that and more. Under her mentorship, I had the opportunity to serve alongside her on a dissertation committee as well as on numerous college and university committees. Her calm, thoughtful and fair approach to addressing academic issues resonated in her interactions with everyone."

When Joanne Woodard joined UNT in 2015 as the vice president for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Dr. Combes made a point to come out and personally greet her, as she often did.

"One of the first things she would say to people is, 'I am so glad that you're here. What can I do to help you?' When it came to being an engaged citizen of the UNT community, she was really without peer," Woodard says.

Dr. Tony Carey, associate professor of political science, also remembers meeting Dr. Combes when he first came to campus for his job interview.

"Bertina was so warm, but direct and honest," he says. "She wanted me to know what I was getting into, but she wanted to reassure me that if I chose to come, I would have a support system. And that is what she has been for me all these years. There are so many moments through my career at UNT for which Bertina served as a sounding board and a solace."

Dr. Combes led and served on countless committees throughout her career, a testament to her belief in interdisciplinary collaboration as the key to meaningful, systemic change.

Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes
Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes

In recent years, she served on multiple dean's search committees, the University Graduate Council, the Digital Strategy Advisory Committee, the University Taskforce on Mentoring, the Women's Faculty Network Advisory Board and the Ronald E. McNair Scholar Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program Advisory Board.

She also recruited colleagues and administrators for new committees to address the needs she saw in the UNT community, such as the College of Education's Diversity Committee.

Launched as an ad hoc committee but quickly included as a standing charter committee by faculty vote, the College of Education Diversity Committee examined diversity as it related to students, faculty and curriculum. One of its major outcomes was the development of a strategic diversity plan to help guide the college's efforts toward not just diversity, but inclusion.

"I think that's an important legacy of her work," says Dr. Chandra Carey, associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Health and Public Service. "Because there's a difference between diversity and inclusion. She was so invested in new programming, particularly programming for students with disabilities. She really cared about people being included, heard and respected."

Quiet Leader
Bertina Combes
Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes and Dr. Valerie Martinez-Ebers, University Distinguished Research Professor of political science and director of Latina/o American Studies Program

Dr. Combes was tireless in her efforts to grow UNT's programming and resources. Over the course of her career, she led or participated in efforts to secure over $4M worth of external grants and nearly $40,000 in internal grants, including $1.2M through Project STArT: Systematic Training for Autism Teachers and $1.2M through Project TELL: Training Effective Leaders through Local Partnerships. Notable internal grants include Infusing Multicultural Content across the Special Education Curriculum, Mentoring Researchers of High Needs Schools and the Black Women's Initiative.

The Black Women's Initiative was an invaluable professional and personal support system for Dr. Chandra Carey.

"There were some real powerhouses of UNT faculty involved: Bertina, Annette Lawrence, Barbara Bush, Beverly Bower, Demetria Ennis-Cole. Bertina, Bev and Annette were the wise sages of the group. Whatever else I had going on in my day, I didn't want to miss those luncheons. There was a sense of safety there, of being unmasked," Dr. Carey says. "A lot of what UNT looks like for faculty of color, particularly Black faculty and Black female faculty, we all attribute in some way to Bertina. She was so visible, always ready to work and be available to everyone. We needed that stability."

When the grant funding came to an end, Dr. Combes was instrumental in transforming the initiative into the Black Faculty Network, a robust faculty resource group that continues to provide critical professional and psychosocial support for Black faculty members at every stage of their career.

Dr. Valerie Martinez-Ebers, University Distinguished Research Professor of political science, met Dr. Combes on their first day at UNT in 1989. Their camaraderie quickly grew into a lifelong friendship that was strengthened by their shared faith and experiences.

"As new assistant professors, we saw each other every day -- early mornings, late nights, even weekends," she says. "I was the first person of color in my department, and we were both openly affirmative action hires. There was a small group of us at that time, untenured women faculty of color, and we felt a lot of pressure to do well. Some of us were so scared, but not Bertina. She was the calm one, the quiet leader who had experience and knew what to expect. We learned a lot not only from her, but also from her parents."

Dr. Martinez-Ebers invited Dr. Combes to join La Colectiva, a faculty mentoring network originally created for Latina faculty but expanded to include women faculty of color and allies.

"La Colectiva is distinctive because we realized that, while we can and do engage in one-on-one mentoring, it's much more effective if we do it as a group and dedcated to advancing the presence of women in positions where we could make a difference," she says. "Bertina played a big role in helping women faculty of color become leaders in administration."

Grace and Purpose
Bertina Combes
Dr. Dorothy Bland, Joanne Woodard, Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes and Dr. V. Barbara Bush

In her roles as associate and interim dean of College of Education, Dr. Combes was a collaborative and policy-driven leader, approaching complex problems with the goal of finding sustainable, long-term solutions. Her critical examination of pedagogy and curriculum helped to make the College of Education more responsive not only to their own students, but also to the diverse students and families that their graduates would go on to serve in classrooms across the country.

Current College of Education Dean Randy Bomer attributes much of the college's success to Dr. Combes' expertise in multicultural special education.

"She tried to convince us that we should shape what we do in the interests of people who might be made vulnerable by our decisions, or who were already vulnerable because of the ways the world has been structured by the powerful," he says. "Through questioning, she consistently taught us habits of considering multiple perspectives as we designed processes and made decisions, forcing us to imagine how they would affect people's -- especially students' -- experiences and life chances."

When Dr. Angie Cartwright, associate professor of counseling and higher education, first met Dr. Combes, she was awed by her accomplishments. "It truly felt like I was in the presence of a giant," she says.

"I learned many lessons from Bertina, but there are two that stand out the most. The first one is to be gentle and listen to people -- I mean really listen and hear them. Bertina had a way of giving people her undivided attention that made them feel seen and heard," Dr. Cartwright says. "You could feel how important you were to her. The second thing is to live life with grace and purpose. She was intentional about all that she did -- even the little things."

Advocate for Equity and Diversity
Bertina Combes
Dr. Bertina Combes (center) with daughter Ashley Combes, mother Dr. Gladys J. Hildreth, and sisters Kathleen Harris and Karen Lathan

Dr. Combes was appointed vice provost for faculty success in January 2020, and she immediately began seeking solutions to the challenges she knew many faculty members face: increasing the reputation of their work outside of UNT; aligning learning environments to better meet the needs of a diverse student body; supporting the retention and upward mobility of associate professors, especially women and faculty of color; and cultivating the next generation of academic and university leaders.

"Dr. Combes was a strong and effective advocate for faculty," says Dr. Bush. "I could not think of a person more suited to a position that called for an administrator who could provide a balanced view of academic affairs through both her faculty and administrative experiences."

Bertina Combes
Dr. Bertina Hildreth Combes, son Julius Combes, and sister Kathleen Harris

No initiative better represents Dr. Combes' commitment to professional and personal development than the Anti-Bias and Cultural Awareness Program, a scaffolded learning plan she launched last fall with assistance from Dr. Cartwright and Shani Barrax Moore, UNT's director of diversity and inclusion.

Woodard has presented the program twice at the UNT System's quarterly chancellors meetings as a best-practice model that could be replicated at any institution.

"Over 2,000 people have already been trained and engaged in some kind of learning around DEI, which is just phenomenal," she says.

Through thoughtfully curated trainings, workshops and guest speakers, the program is designed to meet people where they are and empower faculty, staff and administrators to facilitate a more equitable and affirming environment for all members of the UNT community.

"She had so many plans in place," Dr. Martinez-Ebers says. "She was well into them, but she wasn't in the role long enough to see them through. I think that many faculty -- certainly the women of La Colectiva -- are going to commit themselves to making sure that all of the things she started get done."

"What she was doing to develop faculty wholly and ensure that UNT truly represents its philosophy -- that's what she leaves behind," Dr. Chandra Carey says. "We owe it to her to make sure that continues, because she really loved UNT."

Timeline of Dr. Combes' Service with UNT
  • 2020-2021: Vice provost for faculty success
  • 2019-2020: Associate dean for graduate studies and research, College of Education
  • 2017-2019: Associate dean for academic affairs and research, College of Education
  • 2016-2017: Interim dean, College of Education
  • 2015-2016: Associate dean for academic affairs and research, College of Education
  • 2015-2020: Professor, College of Education
  • 1995-2015: Associate professor, College of Education
  • 1995-1997 & 2002-2009: Coordinator for special education programs, College of Education
  • 1999-2002: Associate dean for educator preparation and academic affairs, College of Education
  • 1997-1999: Associate dean for academic affairs, College of Education
  • 1989-1995: Assistant professor, College of Education

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