One hundred and one years ago, members of the national Phi Beta Kappa Council, meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, voted unanimously to grant a petition from the University of Oregon to establish a chapter of the esteemed academic honor society.
The year was 1922, and the UO was coming off a decade of remarkable growth under the leadership of President Prince Lucien Campbell. Gaining a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the first in Oregon, was viewed as confirmation that the UO had established itself as a top-tier university.
“An old secret doubt was removed from the minds of a thousand loyal alumni of the University when the news went abroad that Phi Beta Kappa had come to Oregon,” read an editorial in Old Oregon, a publication of the UO Alumni Association. “Phi Beta Kappa has arrived, and when the neighbor's children talk about going east in search of a college ‘where they have higher standards,’ it is now a politic and legitimate question to ask, ‘What do you mean, higher standards?’”
The Alpha of Oregon chapter is celebrating its centennial this year with a series of events, which will culminate with a visit from the Phi Beta Kappa Society CEO and secretary, Frederick Lawrence, this June to participate in this year’s induction ceremony.
Since it was officially chartered in 1923, the local chapter invited more than 7,000 members, some retroactively to 1873. Since 2005, the chapter has invited an average 220 students each year, representing about 8 percent of undergraduates earning liberal arts and sciences degrees.
The chapter resumed electing a small cohort of juniors in 2020 and continues the tradition of selecting the Oregon Six, representing the top arts and sciences graduates, a distinction originating in 1930.
Alpha of Oregon chapter President Kevin Hatfield, assistant vice provost for undergraduate research and distinguished scholarships, was a first-generation college student at the UO when he got an invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “My father, who didn’t go to college, he had heard of it; he knew it was something to look into. I followed up with faculty members, and they shared the significance of it. It was a wonderful opportunity to be invited to the nation’s longest-standing liberal arts honor society. From that point on, it’s just continued to open doors for me.”
Phi Beta Kappa matters because “there’s still a place for liberal arts and sciences, not just at the UO, but throughout students’ lives,” Hatfield said.
Unlike some other honor societies, Phi Beta Kappa does not look solely at students’ grade-point average, he said. The society also looks at the breadth of a student’s education, including upper-division courses in the humanities, social sciences and sciences.
Julie Hessler, associate professor of history and vice president of the Alpha of Oregon chapter, said her view of the value of Phi Beta Kappa has evolved over the years. As an undergraduate at Yale, she felt “incredibly honored and validated” as a scholar when she was invited to join.
As a professor, she’s seen higher education become more narrowly focused on majors and subjects that have a direct link to career readiness, so she appreciates Phi Beta Kappa’s continued focus on the value of a broad liberal arts and sciences education.
“The U.S. and the world need people who have a broad awareness of other people and countries and literacy and a breadth of intellectual inquiry,” she said.
For students wondering about the value of Phi Beta Kappa membership, Hatfield offers two answers.
From a practical point of view, “Phi Beta Kappa on a resume or on a curriculum vitae still means something to many employers and many institutions,” he said. “As an achievement, it’s still recognized, at least in the United States. Having that on a resume or CV can contribute to a student’s success.”
Beyond the practicality, “There are students who have enjoyed the exploration and the curiosity that comes with being a student at a liberal arts and sciences university,” he said, “and if that’s an area they want to continue to pursue in their life, Phi Beta Kappa is a great way to do that.”
The organization features a journal, a magazine, alumni associations and events. For instance, during the total solar eclipse of 2017, UO physicist Scott Fisher hosted members at the Pine Mountain Observatory in Central Oregon.
Through funding provided by the Society's Visiting Scholar Program, the local chapter annually hosts distinguished scholars and artists to deliver public talks, visit classes, and engage with students and faculty. At this year’s induction ceremony on June 17, Lawrence, the national president, will be the keynote speaker and will be a special guest at related events.
This month, UO junior Nayantara Arora was awarded one of Phi Beta Kappa’s Key Into Public Service scholarships for undergraduates, one of 20 students to be awarded out of more than 900 applicants. Arora, who is studying neuroscience and global health in the Clark Honors College, was recognized for her academic achievements, breadth and depth in the liberal arts and sciences, and interest in public service. She’ll receive a $5,000 scholarship and attend an expenses-paid conference in Washington, D.C.
Former UO presidents Michael Schill and Patrick Phillips, as well as incoming president Karl Scholz, are members. Its numbers also include 17 U.S. presidents, 42 Supreme Court justices and more than 150 Nobel laureates.
—By Tim Christie, University Communications
—Top photo: The UO Phi Beta Kappa class of 1930