Phi Beta Kappa celebrates 30 years on campus

The campus community is invited to join in the gathering at the Merrill Provost House

Bronwen Stanford
Bronwen Stanford

For Bronwen Stanford, the scholarship she received from the Northern California Association of Phi Beta Kappa has been a crucial element in supporting her work in studying stream restoration as she pursues a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies.

“It’s definitely been helpful,” Stanford said. “It’s hugely important to get funding for all these research expenses.”

Originally from Washington, Stanford earned an undergraduate degree at Stanford University, studying human biology with an emphasis on conservation and development.

Having performed well in a variety of academic areas during her undergraduate program, Stanford was offered membership into the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest and—some would argue—the most prestigious honor society in the United States of America.

“I hadn’t heard of it until I was nominated,” Stanford said. “But they looked at my academic record and I was accepted.”

The UC Santa Cruz chapter of Phi Beta Kappa has now been in existence for 30 years will celebrate its anniversary from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Friday at the Merrill Provost House. Members of the campus community are invited and are asked to RSVP online.

It’s not unusual for students to remain unaware of Phi Beta Kappa until they are offered induction into its sacrosanct ranks, said William Ladusaw, a professor of linguistics, who also serves as the Phi Beta Kappa historian for UCSC.

While the honor society may not have a wide public profile, those initiated into its ranks understand acceptance means academic excellence in the arts and sciences at the collegiate and university level.

“It was created to encourage the values of a liberal education, excellence in intellectual accomplishment and a life-long love of learning,” Ladusaw said. “At least for most of the life of the republic it has been a noticeable honor, one puts it on the vita as a sign of accomplishment.”

The society notes that 17 U.S. Presidents, 28 U.S. Supreme Court Justices and 136 Nobel Laureates are members of Phi Beta Kappa. Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Elliott, Henry Kissinger, Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, W.E.B. Du Bois, President George H.W. Bush, Francis Ford Coppola, Pearl Buck, and President Bill Clinton are just a few of the notable members.

The honor society, which was the first fraternity to use combinations of the Greek alphabet as its name, was founded in 1776 in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, by students at William and Mary College. The honor society, which was secret at the time, soon spread to the Ivy League, adopted by Yale and Harvard.

It grew rapidly from there, but Phi Beta Kappa does not open a chapter on every college campus. Instead, it employs a degree of selectivity, choosing to open chapters only at higher learning institutions that embody its values of intellectual breadth as well as accomplishment.

UCSC’s founding of its chapter in 1986 was not without difficulty.

When Ladusaw arrived at the UCSC campus in 1984 as a junior faculty member in the Humanities Division, a group of senior professors were mounting a campaign to bring the honor society to Santa Cruz.

While UCSC’s interdisciplinary approach to the academy and its insistence that its students incorporate breadth as well as depth into their liberal arts harmonized with the values of Phi Beta Kappa there was one sticking point — UCSC didn’t give out grades.

It wasn’t until 2000 that UCSC moved away from its traditional alternative to the grade point average system, as prior to that professors would give narrative evaluations of their students’ performance.

“The society was skeptical that we could prove our students were excelling to a level of satisfaction nationally,” Ladusaw said.

But a group of UCSC senior faculty led by Don Osterbrock, a distinguished astronomy professor and Brewster Smith, a distinguished professor in psychology, persisted in their efforts to make a case to Phi Beta Kappa, eventually prevailing upon them to include UCSC.

Currently about 10 percent of the higher learning institutions in the United States feature a chapter. There are 286 of them. Of the Phi Beta Kappa chapters, only about 10 percent of the student body is offered and awarded memberships into the society.

“There are plenty of high GPA students who are not in the society because they take a minimalist path toward graduation,” Ladusaw said. “The values of the society assert the point of education is not just workforce preparation, but life-long learning and achievement.”

For Stanford, these values are part of the appeal and honor of membership.

“They clearly believe the purpose of education is making better world citizens,” she said. “Throughout my undergrad I had been taking classes across a lot of different departments because that was what interested me.

“It’s cool that type of broad interest is something they value.”