AUBURN – This year marks the 10th anniversary of Auburn University’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest honor society in the nation and universally recognized as the most prestigious. After four decades of work by members of both the Auburn faculty and the community who had been initiated at universities around the country, Phi Beta Kappa approved the installation of a chapter at Auburn in 2001.
Phi Beta Kappa recognizes academic excellence in the liberal arts and sciences, focusing on studies in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, including mathematics. The society’s founding members challenged the non-intellectual emphasis of earlier university student groups and promoted the serious seeking of higher education fostered by freedom of inquiry and expression – all in the pursuit of wisdom.
Efforts to obtain a chapter at Auburn began in 1962, but the first formal application was sent to the Phi Beta Kappa committee on qualifications in 1970; this would be the first of many denied requests.
Before Phi Beta would grant a chapter for Auburn, the society’s committee on qualifications challenged the university to clarify the role of liberal arts in its curriculum, expand its library, award more academic scholarships and establish a comprehensive honors program.
James E. Foy, former dean of students, initiated the efforts to secure Phi Beta Kappa at Auburn. Later, Joyce Rothschild, a professor of English, played an integral role in the successful application process.
“Auburn’s genuine commitment to establishing a broadened curriculum for the liberal arts and sciences was what gave us the inspiration for seeing our mission through,” said Rothschild. “With the establishment of the honors program and the Littleton-Franklin distinguished lecturer series as well as an increase in academic scholarships and improved library holdings and services, we were confident that the national committee on qualifications would consider our university worthy of sheltering a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.”
During the presidency of Harry M. Philpott, Auburn’s president from 1965 to 1980, the university saw an expansion in the arts and humanities that would continue through the next two decades through the efforts of succeeding presidents. As president in the 1980s, James E. Martin was responsible for doubling the size of the library, expanding its holdings and securing its membership in the Association of Research Libraries. William V. Muse, who served as president during the 1990s, made Phi Beta Kappa membership a priority for Auburn while significantly strengthening Auburn’s liberal arts and sciences.
Under the leadership of these presidents, Auburn garnered recognition as a major comprehensive research university.
“Phi Beta Kappa has long been the premier way of recognizing outstanding students at American colleges and universities,” said Bert Hitchcock, current Phi Beta Kappa President. “It serves as an index of the intellectual quality of a university.”
To be considered for membership into the Phi Beta Kappa Society, students must, at minimum, maintain at least a 3.75 grade point average and have completed three-fourths of their course work in the traditional arts and sciences, including a higher-level math course and multiple semesters of a foreign language.
About 10 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters; from those institutions, about 10 percent of graduating seniors will be invited into the society.
Since its establishment, the Auburn University chapter has initiated an average of 50 new members each year. Thomas Huggins, a 2010 Phi Beta Kappa initiate is currently earning his master’s in human factors and applied cognition at George Mason University.
“It’s such an honor to be a part of an elite group of individuals,” said Huggins. “I know that I will always have an advantage when applying for higher education programs or jobs with my membership in Phi Beta Kappa.”
(Written by Margaret Ann Killam.)