Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors organization in the United States. Its mission is to foster and recognize excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.
Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was the first society to boast a Greek letter name, and it introduced the essential features of such societies: an oath of secrecy, a badge, Latin and Greek mottoes, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handshake. Regular meetings were held, concentrating on literary exercises such as composition and debate.
This original Phi Beta Kappa Society was active for only 4 years, disbanding when the approach of the British army forced the college to close its doors. But during its brief life it had granted charters to two new chapters, or Alphas as they were termed. These charters went in December of 1779 to Harvard and Yale. Fifty years after the emergence of Phi Beta Kappa in New England (1830), only 4 other chapters had been founded: Dartmouth, Union, Bowdoin, and Brown. In the next 30 years 15 more chapters appeared. By 1883 the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was established to provide a unified organization for the Society. At this time 25 chapters had been chartered, although not all were active.
During the first 100 years of its existence Phi Beta Kappa experienced 3 momentous changes. The first was the dropping of all trappings of secrecy due to anti-Masonic agitation in the country at large during the 1820s. The second was the transformation of the Society from a social fraternity to a purely honor society. The third major change was the admission of women, first at Vermont in 1875 and several years later by all members of the United Chapters.
As the organization acquired a truly national character and some of its members created off campus Phi Beta Kappa Associations to foster the Society's educational mission, it became clear that the term "United Chapters" no longer described the scope of Phi Beta Kappa activities. In 1988 the name of the organization was changed to The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the name of the original group at Williamsburg.
Phi Beta Kappa recognizes 3 classes of membership: members in course (student members), alumni members, and honorary members. Members in course usually are elected from the upper 10th of the graduating class. Students must have an outstanding academic record as well as a broad program of study in the liberal arts and sciences. Some chapters also elect graduate student members. Many chapters use the term "immediate or resident members" to designate their current active membership. These are usually the members of Phi Beta Kappa on the faculty and in the administration, including those elected by other chapters, and undergraduate members in course. Some chapters also include Phi Beta Kappa graduate students in their resident membership.
Phi Beta Kappa alumni associations exist in many areas of the country, and are open to anyone elected to Phi Beta Kappa. They foster learning in their communities and allow members to continue their affiliation with the Society after graduation from college.
The legislative body of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is the Council, which meets every 3 years to transact business on behalf of the Society as a whole. It alone has the power to charter new chapters. Delegates to the Council are representatives of the Phi Beta Kappa chapters and associations. The Senate, the permanent executive body of the Society, consists of 24 members elected by the Council. The chapters and associations are divided into 7 geographic districts charged with nominating candidates for district senator.
The Phi Beta Kappa Foundation, chartered in 1924, makes grants to the Society to support its programs and activities. The 150th anniversary of the Society in 1926 was the catalyst for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, the Foundation having erected a Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall at the College of William and Mary. The Phi Beta Kappa Associates, organized in 1940, are committed to providing the Society with an annual income in furtherance of its objectives.
Membership in the Associates is limited to 300 active members, who make annual contributions for 10 years before retiring to life status. This group sponsors the Associates Lectureship to help Phi Beta Kappa chapters and associations obtain distinguished speakers for their meetings, and also makes an annual award to an individual whose achievements exemplify the ideals of Phi Beta Kappa.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society has published the scholarly journal The American Scholar since 1932, and issues its newsletter The Key Reporter free of charge to every member of Phi Beta Kappa for whom the Society has a current address. Other programs of the Society include: the Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards, three $2500 awards offered in different areas of the liberal arts and sciences; the Visiting Scholar Program, which brings distinguished scholars to campus for activities largely geared toward undergraduate students; the Mary Isabel Sibley Fellowship, awarded alternately every year in Greek studies and French language and literature to women scholars at the dissertation or post-doctoral level; the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship in Philosophy, which supports 3 public lectures by the chosen scholar in his home community; the Phi Beta Kappa Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities; the Sidney Hook Memorial Award to educators excelling in scholarship, teaching, and leadership in liberal education; and the Schools Program, including links with the National Honor Society and the conducting of teacher workshops, to encourage outstanding teachers to remain in the profession and to foster the idea of academic excellence among students before they begin their undergraduate experience.
The Society's name is formed by the first 3 letters of the Greek motto Philosophia Biou Kubernetes, "Philosophy (wisdom) is the guide of life." The emblem adopted at the first meeting of the Society in Williamsburg was a square medal engraved on one side with the letters S P, the initials of the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, and on the other with the letters PBK in the Greek form. A pointing finger and 3 stars symbolized the ambition of the young founders and the 3 distinguishing principles of their Society: friendship, morality, and learning. Later a stem was added to the medal, converting it into a watch key. The form of the key was standardized in 1917 and still looks much like the Williamsburg original.
Gamma of Missouri Chapter: The 28th Triennial Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa on August 27, 1967 authorized the establishment of the Gamma Chapter of Missouri at Saint Louis University. The installation ceremony took place on January 7, 1968 in the Sesquicentennial Room (now the St. Louis Room) of Busch Memorial Center. Approximately 150 persons attended, including the Charter and Founding Members of the new chapter, delegates from other chapters, local members of the Society, and University students and staff. The United Chapters were represented by President H. Bentley Glass and by Irving Dilliard, member of the Phi Beta Kappa Senate. President Glass conducted the installation ceremony after an academic procession that included the Charter Members of the new chapter and Saint Louis University President Paul C. Reinert.
Since the chapter installation took place during the University's Sesquicentennial year with its theme of "Knowledge and the Future of Man," eminent geneticist Glass, academic vice president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, based his address on this same theme. He "spoke on the central place of science in a liberal education, the 'unattractive but vital core of the apple, containing the seeds of progress and change, and forming the structure around which the arts and social sciences grow.' He suggested some of the frightening ethical, legal, and political problems that will be posed by genetics in the year 2000. The artificial creation of a living human being, Dr. Glass predicted, will bring about questions on the nature and purpose of man that will dwarf current racial and cultural problems. To meet the rapid advances in scientific research, universities will have to open re-education centers to keep professionals aware of changes in their respective fields. Glass cited the information centers for high school teachers that were revitalizing the Japanese school system, and suggested that attendance at such centers, as well as re-licensing procedures, become mandatory for all educators and practitioners. Glass later answered questions concerning his activities with the Committee of Responsibility, an organization raising funds to bring Vietnamese children to the United States for treatment of war injuries. He also criticized the graduate deferment policy, indicating that "it could be disastrous to the national welfare as a whole, while the manpower released for the war by the lack of graduate deferments will only be a very small percentage" (from The University News, January 12, 1968).
Charter Members inducted were: Kenneth H. Adams; Alexander V. Bushkovitch; James Collins; William M. Davis; Malcolm D. Gynther; Walter K. Hood; F. Henri Gaspar; Donald H. Kausler; Sam Lachterman; Francis Regan; Marjorie H. Richey; Joseph F. Rycwak; and John P. Willson.
These Charter Members nominated Founding Members to assist in organizing the new chapter: Chauncey E. Finch, Professor of Classical Languages (honorary member); Carl Kisslinger, Professor of Geophysics and Geophysical Engineering; William C. Korfmacher, Professor of Classical Languages; J. Barry McGannon, S.J, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Thomas P. Neill, Professor of History; and Walter J Ong, S.J, Professor of English. Apart from Finch, the Founding Members were all alumni members.
The first annual initiation of members in course was held on May 14, 1968 in Kelly Auditorium. All of the students invited to join Phi Beta Kappa accepted the honor: 80 men and 69 women, for a total of 149.