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Honor Societies - Phi Beta Kappa

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Founded at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is a college and university honor society established to recognize and promote intellectual scholarship and liberal arts education. Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest Greek-letter organization and national academic honor society. In addition to awarding membership to distinguished undergraduates, the Phi Beta Kappa Society also offers scholarships, awards, funding for visiting scholars, and high-school development programs.


For more than 200 years the Phi Beta Kappa Society has engaged its mission of promoting and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. Phi Beta Kappa's purpose is to emphasize the importance of the literary and humane tradition by recognizing outstanding scholarship in those fields. At its inception, Phi Beta Kappa was distinguished by such characteristics as an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws, elaborate initiation rituals, a seal, and a special handshake. The society's distinctive emblem, a golden key, is widely recognized as a symbol of academic achievement. Though the original standards have been modified over time by such changes as omitting the secrecy clause and through the inclusion of women for membership, the focus on excellence in the liberal arts and scholarly achievement remain central tenets of Phi Beta Kappa's mission.

Programs and Activities

Programs are offered through the chapters and their community counterparts, the associations, both of which work in conjunction with the national office. The goal of the programs is to honor and champion liberal arts scholarship. Through its various programs and activities, Phi Beta Kappa provides support via scholarships and lectureships, book and essay awards, and funds for visiting scholars. More than one million dollars is raised and distributed each year to support these efforts and the students whom they benefit.

Scholarships are available from the national office, individual chapters, and associations. Individuals must apply for these scholarships and demonstrate merit for receipt of a scholarship. There is an application process, outlined by each respective organization, and committees that evaluate the applicants and confer the awards.

Sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the Phi Beta Kappa book awards are granted annually to authors of exceptional scholarly books published in the United States in the fields of the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and mathematics. There are three book awards that each bestow a prize of $2,500 to recipients. The awards include the Christian Gauss Award in the field of literary scholarship or criticism; the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science for contributions to the literature of science; and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for scholarship regarding the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. In addition, the Phi Beta Kappa Poetry Award is presented annually for the best book of poems published in the United States within a given year. It carries a $10,000 one-time award.

The Visiting Scholar program affords chapters the opportunity to bring renowned scholars to their campuses to participate in lectures and seminars, meet with faculty and students, and address each institution's academic community over a two-day period. The objective of the program is to enhance the intellectual life of campuses by allowing an exchange among visiting scholars, faculty, and students. Twelve or more scholars participate each year.

To foster academic excellence and promote liberal learning at the secondary level, Phi Beta Kappa has built a partnership with the National Honor Society and the National Junior Honor Society. The partnership was initiated in 1994 and has as its central feature the participation of Phi Beta Kappa in the National Honor Society's annual meeting wherein the society provides the central academic program.

The society also circulates two main publications. The American Scholar, which has been in quarterly circulation since 1932, is a scholarly journal that provides articles and essays on various literary, artistic, and scientific subjects. The Key Reporter is distributed to all Phi Beta Kappa members and provides organizational information and news.

The Development of College and University Chapters

When Phi Beta Kappa was initially established, chapters were founded when a chartered Phi Beta Kappa organization on one campus granted a charter to another institution. This process details how the founding chapter at William and Mary awarded chapters to Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth between 1776 and 1781. Then, in 1881, a national organization was created–the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa–to coordinate Phi Beta Kappa programs, activities, and membership. The United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa evolved into what is known today as the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

The society's governing body, the Council, convenes every three years and brings together national representatives from every chapter and alumni association. This council sets general policies, elects officers and members to the twenty-four-member senate governing board, and decides on applications for new chapters. A Committee on Qualifications–a twelve-member elected body–receives all chapter applications, reviews them, and recommends to the Senate their opinions regarding applicants.

When a campus decides it would like to apply for membership, an informal group of faculty must organize to begin the process of applying for a charter. Since charters are granted to the Phi Beta Kappa members on the faculty rather than to an institution, adequate faculty representation is essential to the vitality and stability of organizing a new Phi Beta Kappa chapter. The appropriate faculty representatives communicate with Phi Beta Kappa headquarters to obtain an application and begin the documentation process. Because the Council only convenes every three years, timing is also critical. After submission of the application and the appropriate fee, the Committee on Qualifications considers applications and seeks reliable evidence that an applicant institution can meet the Phi Beta Kappa selection criteria.

Phi Beta Kappa sets very high standards not only for the students selected for membership but also for institutions desiring a campus Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Due to the vast differences among colleges and universities, no uniform, abstract standards exist for institutional membership and the awarding of Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Rather, institutions must provide valid evidence and submit to a rigorous assessment process based on individual campus distinctions. It is critical that institutions demonstrate their ability and willingness to uphold the Phi Beta Kappa ideals and standards in cultivating liberal learning. For example, the selection process gives careful consideration to the degree to which institutions possess standards that encourage excellence, a governance structure that fosters academic freedom and vitality, a scholarly faculty, a promising student body, sufficient resources (i.e., libraries and educational facilities), and adequate institutional income.

If institutions meet these standards and are deemed worthy candidates, a site visit is arranged. Phi Beta Kappa representatives conduct the site visits and reconvene to discuss their recommendations. These recommendations are forwarded to the Senate for discussion at the triennial Council meeting. A two-thirds vote by attending chapter and association delegations is required for approval of a new chapter. Upon approval, the charter for a new chapter is promptly granted and formal initiation procedures are arranged. In 2001 there were more than 250 chapters of Phi Beta Kappa in the United States.


CURRENT, RICHARD N. 1990. Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years. New York: Oxford University Press.

VOORHEES, OSCAR M. 1945. The History of Phi Beta Kappa. New York: Crown.


PHI BETA KAPPA SOCIETY. 2002. <www.pbk.org>.


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