College of LAS News
- All 2013 News
- News Archive
- Email Newsletter
- LASNews Magazine
- Class Notes
Marketing and Media
Faculty Honors and RSS Feed
The Secret is Out
Liberal arts honor society celebrates 100 years at U of I.
What started as a secret society has spread to colleges and universities across the country and has now left its mark at the University of Illinois for 100 years. Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most distinguished national honor society for liberal arts students-and the first society to have a Greek-letter name-established a chapter at the U of I in 1907, so the group is celebrating its centennial year in style.
The roots of Phi Beta Kappa run as deep as the country itself. Phi Beta Kappa was founded by five students from the College of William and Mary in a year known for great beginnings-1776. Meeting in the famous Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Va., the students created all of the usual trappings of a secret society: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate initiation, a seal, and even a secret handshake.
From these revolutionary origins, Phi Beta Kappa, or PBK, has emerged as the best-known honors society in America. It boasts a long list of luminaries as members, such as John Quincy Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Theodore Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, and more recently Tom Brokaw, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice, to name just a few.
The cloak of secrecy was lifted from PBK long before the U of I added a chapter in 1907. But as U of I professor of Slavic languages and literatures Steven P. Hill notes, the organization remained exclusive to private colleges and universities, primarily on the Eastern Seaboard, throughout much of the 19th century.
In fact, he says, the U of I was turned down twice for a PBK chapter. It wasn't until the university hired a Harvard man as president, Edmund J. James, that it finally won a chapter.
Today, PBK is not quite so elitist, Hill says. But schools still have to meet stringent requirements before they can receive a chapter. That's why only 11 schools in Illinois have chapters, with the U of I being the third behind Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
The requirements for students to qualify for PBK are equally tough. At the U of I, seniors in LAS must rank in the top 7 percent of their class and juniors must rank in the top 1 percent.
"This year, we invited 29 juniors and 195 seniors," says Mary Macmanus Ramsbottom, LAS associate dean and former executive secretary for PBK at Illinois. LAS inducted these students on May 11; at its centennial celebration in April, it named former LAS dean Jesse Delia as an honorary member. In addition, the chapter handed out its first Alumni Scholars Award to PBK member Richard Powers, a U of I writer-in-residence and renowned author who recently won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker.
Although the U of I chapter has been around for 100 years, the original PBK chapter lasted only four years before the British Army forced the College of William and Mary to close. But PBK survived nonetheless and now has 276 chapters across the country.
More LAS News Articles
- LAS Leaders Bring Energy to the College and Community
- For Many Alumni, it’s as if Mark Leff Never Retired
- Historian Elaborates on the Integration of Baseball Beyond its Hollywood Portrayal
- Alumna Challenges the Overmedication of America
- University of Illinois Plans to Host a Confucius Institute on Campus