Phi Beta Kappa, Grinnell, and the Liberal Arts

Wed, 2009-08-05 04:12 pm


Grinnell College president emeritus George Drake '56 looks back on the 100-year history of Grinnell's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Beta of Iowa.

You are here because you've made a habit of excellence. Occasional brilliance will not get you into Phi Beta Kappa. You are not one-subject wonders. You've established your intellectual credentials in a wide range of subjects. The excellence that brings you here is not accidental. You have chosen to pursue it, and you have earned it. You've broken the code of how to get it done. And that stays with you for life.
— from a Phi Beta Kappa initiation speech by John D. Zeglis, corporate leader in wireless communication

Beta of Iowa, Grinnell's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, is celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Its charter was approved by the representatives of 61 institutions present at the Triennial Council meeting in 1907, and was issued on Sept. 12 of that year. Other institutions whose chapters were approved at the same triennium were Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, Franklin and Marshall, and Tulane. Grinnell became the 70th chapter in the nation and the second in Iowa, after the University of Iowa, whose charter was issued in 1895. In fact, it was the president of the University of Iowa, George E. MacLean, who delivered the charter to Iowa College (as Grinnell was then known) at a ceremony held on April 11, 1908. Professor Jesse Macy, the chapter's first president, received the charter along with two other charter members in a classroom in the southwest corner of the Carnegie Library basement. They then adjourned to a public ceremony at Herrick Chapel. The first members-in-course were chosen on June 5, just prior to commencement.

As I perused the Phi Beta Kappa files in Burling Library's Iowa Room, I came across a reminder that I had given an earlier Phi Beta Kappa Convocation address in April 1961. Though I was in the midst of graduate studies at the University of Chicago, I had taken a year to serve as a sabbatical replacement in the Grinnell history department. The title of my talk was "Liberal Arts — Necessity or Luxury?" I began with some comments about the Phi Beta Kappa Society, then considered Beta of Iowa, and finally adumbrating on the liberal arts and the fact that our Phi Beta Kappa chapter has helped to keep the liberal arts alive and well on the Grinnell campus.

A Brief History of Phi Beta Kappa

Phi Beta Kappa began with the organization of Alpha of Virginia on Dec. 5, 1776, at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Va., home of William and Mary College. The English translation of the motto is "Love of wisdom, the guide of life." One of the reasons for the growth of this local William and Mary society into a powerful national movement is the essential truth and tenacity of 18th-century ideas. Freed from the ideological bias of ecclesiastical education, Enlightenment devotion to the power of human reason ensconced the liberal arts (and sciences) at the core of learning. Phi Beta Kappa preeminently is a product of the 18th-century, and liberal learning as we have come to know it is the bequest of the Enlightenment.

Alpha of Virginia quickly sought company, logically turning to Harvard and Yale. Dartmouth was next, immediately following the American Revolution, and the fact that Phi Beta Kappa was able to establish chapters at the fledgling republic's most prestigious colleges gave it instant currency. Fresh charters were rationed, and a century later, there were only 25. In 1883, those 25 combined to form the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, finally relieving the three original chapters (William and Mary, Harvard, and Yale) of the responsibility of selection. New elections now would be determined by the vote of all chapter delegates at triennial meetings. An elected Senate governed in between Triennial Councils, with a secretary as the chief executive of the United Chapters. In 1988, the name of the organization was changed to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which is currently composed of 218 chapters. This small number among the more than 3,000 collegiate institutions in the United States, combined with the rigorous
selection criteria (including quality of faculty, adherence to the liberal arts, library holdings, science facilities, finances, and quality of students), has contributed to the high prestige of Phi Beta Kappa.

Phi Beta Kappa has used the "clout" of its status as a marker of institutional quality to preserve the integrity of the liberal arts in liberal arts colleges. In addition, it has leveraged engineering and agricultural universities to give due weight to the liberal arts. For example, Iowa State University sought and was awarded a chapter in 1973 after building strong liberal arts departments.

As I searched the files in the Iowa Room, I came across an incident dramatically illustrating a Phi Beta Kappa initiative to use its prestige to arrest what it judged to be a serious threat to academic integrity — namely, the burgeoning overemphasis on intercollegiate athletics at major universities. The mid- to late 1950s was a crucial period in the growth of so-called revenue sports, with the effort of large schools and their conferences to lure huge crowds with almost-professional quality teams. The 1960s would see the fracture of the NCAA into three divisions in an effort to create a first division (Division I) that could emphasize big-time athletics without being retarded by the large majority of small colleges in the NCAA. Phi Beta Kappa decided to tackle this issue head-on at the Triennial Council in 1955. The growing number of athletic scholarships was the engine that was accelerating athletics, so the Triennium attempted to deprive it of fuel.

After a preamble urging the Committee on Qualifications (the selection committee for new chapters) to pay particular attention to whether athletics advanced or inhibited "sound educational goals," four criteria were laid down. The first mandated that athletic control be in the hands of the administration, together with competent members of the faculty. The second called for adequate safeguards against recruiting practices that contribute to the professionalization of athletics. The third stipulated normal progress toward the bachelor's degree for athletic eligibility. Finally, the fourth addressed the growth of athletic scholarships, and it was here that Phi Beta Kappa stepped into a buzz saw.

Rule four mandated that in all scholarships, grants-in-aid, loans, and jobs, the financial assistance for athletes must be approximately in the same ratio to the total number of athletes in the student body as financial assistance awarded to the entire student body. In other words, if all athletes were awarded financial aid, then all other students should be awarded aid as well, if the institution was to meet the requirements for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

Not surprisingly, the reaction was swift and vehement. Twenty-five faculty representing the College of Arts and Sciences at Louisiana State University, which had applied for a chapter, wrote to the Phi Beta Kappa Senate with copies to every chapter in the United States (hence the presence of this issue in the Beta of Iowa files). According to this petition, LSU had met all of the criteria for a chapter save those relating to athletics. The LSU faculty complained that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences should not be held liable for university policies instituted in compliance with the rules of the Southeast Athletic Conference. Most tellingly, they pointed out that many universities that already had Phi Beta Kappa chapters were awarding athletic scholarships in compliance with league regulations, but in gross violation of the new Phi Beta Kappa rules. They went on to argue that this glaring inequity was unworthy of such a distinguished organization.

The LSU appeal is a direct and forceful document, but by itself, it might not have won the day. What tipped the balance was that other athletic powerhouses with grandfathered Phi Beta Kappa chapters weighed in. One was a fellow Southeast Conference member, the University of Florida, whose supporting letter points out that only one institution, Kalamazoo College, had been approved since the new athletic rules had been set down, and at least three universities had been denied. The supporting letter goes on the suggest that only small liberal arts colleges and women's colleges would be eligible for election in the future, even though universities were at least their equal in academic quality. Examples of other institutions that operated under the same athletic rules as LSU, but were grandfathered into Phi Beta Kappa, includes: SMU, Rice, Texas, North Carolina, Duke, and the University of Virginia. In the opinion of Florida's faculty, the injustice done to LSU and other universities was blindingly obvious.

The LSU protest was registered in the summer of 1956, followed by supporting letters in the following academic year. In the interval between Triennial Councils, it was left to the Senate to respond, which it did in December 1957. Following a series of face-saving statements in response to the LSU petition, the Senate proceeded to modify the offending rule number four. Stating that the Senate wished to give the Committee on Qualification more discretion, the new rule four stipulated that the assignment of financial aid should be on the basis of need and academic record or promise. "This means that athletic prowess or promise will be given no priority over other talents or attainment." However, no standards for enforcement were stipulated. Gone was all reference to ratios of athletic grants to those for the total student body. In other words, the attempt to restrain athletic scholarships had been gutted.

The paper trail in the Iowa Room archives runs cold after this, but it is clear from the Senatorial revision of 1957, as well as from subsequent history, that the United Chapters' valiant effort to curb overemphasis on athletics had failed. As powerful as is Phi Beta Kappa, it is no match for big-time athletics. By the mid-1950s, it was too late to stem the tide.

Phi Beta Kappa and Grinnell

It is interesting to note that the last alumnus elected was in 1951, and the last honorary member (Professor of English Charles foster) was elected in 1954. Since then, only undergraduates (members-in-course) have been elected, even though the bylaws still permit both alumni and honorary elections. In fact, in conjunction with our 50th anniversary in 1957, Professor Evelyn Boyd, Beta's secretary, wrote to the national secretary inquiring about the propriety of an alumni election as part of Grinnell's celebration. The national secretary's response was that the practice is discouraged because it can subject local chapters to undue alumni pressure. Obviously, our chapter has heeded that advice, since no alumnus has been elected for more than half a century.

Beta of Iowa dispenses other honors in addition to membership. We have a Second-Year Book Prize awarded on the basis of academic excellence in the first year. The prize has been named in honor of Neal Klausner, professor emeritus of philosophy, who joined the Grinnell faculty in 1944. Now in his late 90s, Neal remains the best-read member of our faculty and is still an active member of our chapter. We also have an annual Scholars' Award, given to the most outstanding student paper or papers each year. Finally, the Phi Beta Kappa Convocation is presented by a visiting scholar biannually, with the support of the national organization. In alternate years, the convocation address is provided by a member of the Grinnell community.

Beta of Iowa has had many outstanding members, a few of which are listed here: Henry A. Wallace is an honorary member, and Albert Shaw 1879, Harry Hopkins 1912, and Chester Davis 1911 were elected as alumni. Particularly notable members-in-course are: Joseph Nye Welch '14, Leonard Paulu '21, K.C. Wu '23, Raymond Hare '24, Robert Noyce '49, Thomas Cech '70, and Edward Hirsch '72.

As long as Grinnell had a required curriculum that included foreign language and laboratory science, as well as distribution among the divisions, the standards for election to Phi Beta Kappa focused only on cumulative grade averages. However, in 1970, the "open curriculum" that has prevailed to this day was adopted. Because of the stringent liberal arts emphasis of Phi Beta Kappa, in the absence of College requirements, Beta of Iowa has devised its own curricular standards. These include three semesters of modern language or two semesters of classical language; calculus; a laboratory science; and distribution of 12 hours in each division, no more than eight in a single department. So, newly elected Phi Beta Kappa members, in addition to their high cumulative averages, have met demanding requirements well beyond those set by the College.

The Liberal Arts

You can see by this recital of requirements that Phi Beta Kappa has helped keep Grinnell faithful to the liberal arts. It has not been alone in this endeavor, but it has been instrumental. Actually, Grinnell has not needed much nudging, in part because it serves as an important stepping-stone to graduate and professional school for most students, and the liberal arts are the core of postgraduate preparation. I would venture to say that most entering students don't know a lot about the liberal arts, but they do know that Grinnell's curriculum, when successfully negotiated, will lead to graduate school. In fact, more than 80 percent of Grinnell's entering students expect to pursue further studies.

Grinnell is fortunate in its outstanding reputation and strong finances. This means we are not tuition-driven, which, in turn, means we do not have to offer the curriculum demanded by the marketplace. There are even fewer vocational options at Grinnell today than when I was a student in the 1950s (education was a major in those days, and there were many business courses; we also had a speech and physical education major). In its rejection of highly vocational courses, Grinnell is an anomaly in the state of Iowa. A few years ago, I had occasion to compare the degrees of Grinnell's graduating class with those from other Iowa colleges and universities. We had nothing like the airport management major that was featured by one small Iowa college, and we graduated nearly as many English and chemistry majors as the University of Iowa, despite the huge discrepancy in the respective size of student bodies. The overlap of departmental majors with other small colleges only reached as high as 50 percent with one institution, Cornell College. For all the rest, there was considerably greater variance.

Having mentioned that there was more vocationalism in Grinnell's curriculum 50 years ago, I should also point out that it was almost totally Eurocentric. As a history major, I could study only the United States and Europe, and we offered no Russian, Chinese, or Japanese languages — not to mention the possibilities available now through the Alternative Language Study Option (ALSO) program. Off-campus study options were virtually nonexistent, the paperback book revolution was in its infancy, Carnegie was the library, and the faculty usually taught four courses a semester, as opposed to the 3/2 standard of today. These are just some of the many differences, and yet, though Grinnell offers much more today, those of us who just celebrated our 50th reunion last June received an excellent education from some of the most outstanding faculty every to teach at Grinnell: Joe Wall '41 and Neal Klausner, both members of Phi Beta Kappa.