Extending Their ReachWith the 50th anniversaries approaching of the establishment of Phi Beta Kappa chapters at Howard and Fisk universities, the anniversary is a reminder that the honor society remains a remote influence on historically Black institutions and Black students at predominantly White college campuses.By Ronald RoachFew academic organizations can claim to have conferred as much prestige on America’s most competitive colleges and universities and their top students as the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Universities and colleges with a Phi Beta Kappa faculty chapter have long enjoyed the honor of having their institution recognized for high quality liberal arts and science programs.
Next year, the 50th anniversary of the Howard University and Fisk University Phi Beta Kappa chapters will mark a milestone for those institutions as well for the society. Howard and Fisk were the first historically Black institutions to be granted faculty chapter charters. The Fisk anniversary has special symbolic importance for the society because one of that chapter’s founding members, the distinguished historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, served as the national organization’s first and only Black president.
Despite the distinction by the two schools and their chapters, the upcoming anniversaries may serve as a reminder to many that Phi Beta Kappa has had limited influence on historically Black schools and on Black students at predominantly White college campuses with Phi Beta Kappa chapters.
Of the 262 higher education institutions having a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, only four are at historically Black schools. In addition to Howard and Fisk, Morehouse College and Spelman College have chapters. The national society maintains no records on the racial and ethnic background of its members, but guesses by knowledgeable individuals put the Black population at 3,000 to 5,000, which is less than 1 percent of the national membership.
While chapters at historically Black schools have ushered a stream of African American members into the society, no one keeps track of the frequency of Black students gaining society admission who are at predominantly White institutions. Nevertheless, Phi Beta Kappa officials say that diversity is a serious concern of the organization. It’s clear the society takes pride in having a distinguished Black presence, particularly in the case of Franklin. Dr. Don J. Wyatt, an Asian studies expert and history professor at Middlebury College, and Dr. Allison Blakely, a European and comparative history scholar at Boston University, serve on the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Senate, which is the legislative governing council of the society.
“Diversity is a part of our policy discussions,” Wyatt says.
Both Blakely and Wyatt say talk about diversity has naturally focused on the encouragement of applications from Black schools for faculty chapters. For them, Black membership growth is an issue they see potentially addressed by the addition of chapters at historically Black schools and by outreach efforts to encourage academic achievement among Black students. Although no formal policies facilitating special outreach efforts to any one set of institutions or group have emerged, society officials say they want historically Black schools to consider Phi Beta Kappa.
“The posture of Phi Beta Kappa is one of welcoming encouragement,” says Dr. John Churchill, the national secretary of Phi Beta Kappa. “We’re looking for ways to increase the presence of historically Black institutions.”
To a great extent, talk about diversity has also centered on the growing numbers of international, and first- and second-generation immigrant students on American campuses. For high-achieving students with international backgrounds as well as minority American-born students, officials say the challenge of building diverse ranks revolves around making sure there’s an awareness of Phi Beta Kappa given that chapters exist at less than 10 percent of American four-year colleges and universities.
Wyatt believes that there’s significant overlap between Phi Beta Kappa’s visibility on individual campuses and the society’s ability to motivate students to apply themselves in such a way that makes them potential inductees.
“Many students — international, first-generation college going and immigrants — have little or no knowledge of Phi Beta Kappa and its tradition,” he says.
Phi Beta Kappa has not yet marketed itself to specific student audiences, such as the 1,500 Black high school seniors annually named National Achievement Scholarship semifinalists because of their promising academic and standardized test performances. But the society’s 50 associations, which are regionally-based affiliates of the academic chapters, have begun a campaign in recent years to sponsor activities that encourage academic achievement and appreciation of the liberal arts among students in local school districts around the nation, according to Phi Beta Kappa officials.
TRADITION AND CHALLENGES
Founded on Dec. 5, 1776, by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Phi Beta Kappa has grown into an organization of more than 500,000 members, which elects 15,000 new members annually. Well-known Phi Beta Kappa members include President Theodore Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Helen Keller and Mark Twain.
During the earliest days of membership, Black Phi Beta Kappa inductees attended majority White schools, with George Washington Henderson, a former slave, elected into the society in 1870 at the University of Vermont. Those early pioneers have been among the ranks of highly acclaimed Black Americans and some of them proved pi-votal in getting chapters established at the historically Black schools. Individuals, such as Paul Robeson, Alain Locke, and W.E.B. DuBois are well-known figures in 20th-century American history in addition to being among early Black Phi Beta Kappa inductees. The accomplishments of contemporary Black individuals, such as David Levering Lewis, Rita Dove, Condoleezza Rice and Henry (Skip) Louis Gates Jr., recall that of their early Phi Beta Kappa predecessors.
Phi Beta Kappa members, academic administrators and faculty members say the honor for students carries tremendous prestige and symbolism, if not decisive advantages. “The distinction provides our students with an opportunity to be affirmed,” says Dr. Cynthia Spence, academic dean at Spelman College. “It also helps to affirm that we are committed to academic excellence.”
Phi Beta Kappa members and faculty members report that while membership represents a plus in graduate school admissions and academic hiring, it doesn’t confer a decisive advantage for those with the distinction.
“Having the Phi Beta Kappa on your CV certainly doesn’t hurt a job candidate, but it’s not the primary reason why someone gets hired,” says Dr. James Franklin Johnson, a Phi Beta Kappa faculty member at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.
Last year, the national society undertook a campaign in association with the National Honor Society, a high school-based organization, and Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for community college students, to promote liberal arts learning.
“American high schools and community colleges, as well as four-year institutions, are under pressure to train a work force rather than to educate a community,” declared Dr. Douglas Foard, a former executive secretary of Phi Beta Kappa.
“The new economy is siphoning students away from a general education curriculum that emphasizes the liberal arts, to the acquisition of technology-centered skills. Students think they can take a one-year certificate course in computer networking and programming and start earning $50,000 a year. This creates a public perception that it doesn’t pay to pursue studies in traditional academic disciplines,” Foard told the news media.
The three groups have joined to form the Alliance for Educational Excellence. The alliance has been developing enrichment programs to support high school teachers and their students.
Churchill, who succeeded Foard as national secretary late last year, says the challenge to liberal arts education has been an ongoing struggle in this country given Americans’ strong cultural focus on being practical.
“Americans are famous for their pragmatism,” he says.
Churchill explains that the Phi Beta Kappa associations have taken on the bulk of the task to promote the liberal arts in concert with the National Honor Society and the Phi Theta Kappa group. Some of that outreach work is reaching low-income minority communities, he notes. Churchill cites the Chicago chapter for its sponsorship of inner-city debate team competition and the Houston chapter for sponsoring scholarships for the valedictorians of Houston’s public high schools.
Phi Beta Kappa officials say that in addition to pushing institutions to stay focused on liberal arts and sciences, the society works hard on creating an awareness of the organization and its significance. A lack of awareness about Phi Beta Kappa is most evident at mid- to large size state institutions, according to Wyatt. “We see this as a particularly acute problem at the large state institutions,” he says.
There is a sense among Phi Beta Kappa officials that raising the society’s profile beyond the election ceremony for new inductees and the occasional Phi Beta Kappa lecture by visiting scholars would be helpful at many campuses.
CHARTERING THE CHAPTERS
The chartering of a new chapter can represent a momentous achievement for a school that seeks the distinction. For small to mid-size institutions in particular, a Phi Beta Kappa chapter is perceived to carry a great deal of prestige and can boost the recruitment of students and faculty. Schools have also been known to see an increase in their fund raising as a result of gaining a chapter, according to Churchill.
Establishing a chapter requires a school to have at least 10 percent of their full-time faculty, or exactly 10 full-time faculty members, to be Phi Beta Kappa members. The charter is given to the faculty group rather than the university as an institution, according to Phi Beta Kappa officials. During the application process, the faculty cohort must demonstrate that the school is fully dedicated to the prospect of having a chapter. “We’re looking for a thorough institutional commitment,” Churchill says.
Churchill, a former professor of religion and philosophy, says the society gets from 70 to 80 applications every new chapter cycle, which lasts three years. Out of that large applicant group, six to 10 schools will qualify for actual site visits and a final round of consideration.
“The process of scrutiny is quite intense,” Churchill says, likening it to something akin to undergoing an accreditation. The school is evaluated on the basis of its commitment to liberal arts and science education.
Churchill, who last held a senior administration job at Hendrix College in Arkansas, says that officials at Hendrix had been attempting to establish a Phi Beta Kappa chapter there since 1926. Churchill had worked on the project since 1981 when he was a young faculty member. The school finally got its chapter charter in 1997, the same year as Spelman College.
“The difficulty for many institutions is having enough Phi Beta Kappa faculty members,” Boston University’s Blakely says.
Blakely, who was a professor at Howard University for more than three decades, says it has taken decades for historically Black schools to achieve the institutional character that Phi Beta Kappa seeks in its chapter colleges and universities. Many Black schools started out as either teacher colleges, or agricultural and technical schools, he explains.
“They evolved into liberal arts institutions,” Blakely says of the Black schools with charters and the others that are mentioned as possible candidates.
Last year, officials at Xavier University took inventory of its Phi Beta Kappa faculty members and found that they fell short of the required numbers who could submit an application. Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon for schools to actively recruit Phi Beta Kappa faculty in hopes of establishing a chapter, according to officials. Dr. Elizabeth A. Barron, Xavier’s associate vice-president for academic affairs, says administrators have encouraged department chairs to look out for faculty prospects who are Phi Beta Kappa members, but she adds that the school has no formal policy with regard to hiring such faculty.
“We’d like to have that recognition for our students. But we haven’t made (Phi Beta Kappa membership) a priority in our faculty hiring,” Barron says.
Dillard University president Dr. Michael Lomax, who is one of the few Black Phi Beta Kappa college presidents, says he considers the charter to be a great honor for an institution, but he has chosen currently not to push Dillard in direct pursuit of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
“It’s not high on my list of priorities. There are other approaches we can take to strengthen the institution,” he says. “If in another five years I find that we’ve achieved our main goals, we may consider looking at Phi Beta Kappa,” he adds.
In 1968, Lomax was in the first Phi Beta Kappa inductee group at Morehouse College when the school got its chapter. “Dr. (Benjamin) Mays spent the better part of 25 years in pursuit of Phi Beta Kappa. For him, it represented an unprecedented achievement because Black institutions were perceived to be of lesser quality than predominantly White institutions. Today, Black institutions don’t have to have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to justify themselves,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com