What do Father Hesburgh, former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, John Updike, Stephen Sondheim and former Buffalo Bills Coach Marv Levy all have in common?
They’re all members of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most distinguished academic honor society in the United States.
Notre Dame is one of 270 colleges and universities nationally that every spring induct the top 10 percent of their graduating seniors from specific fields into the society. Not every college qualifies to have a chapter, however. In fact Notre Dame wasn’t granted one until 1968.
“We applied several times for a chapter and got to the visiting stage but didn’t get accepted,” said emeritus philosophy professor Frederick Crosson ‘56Ph.D., a former president of the National Phi Beta Kappa Society. "The problem was partly athletic, I think. We didn’t . . . have any scandals in our program in those days, but that was always something they looked at."
The Catholic nature of the university also apparently caused some hesitation on the part of the national organization.
“It wasn’t that they kept all Catholic schools out, it was more a fear of how open [Catholic schools] were to intellectual investigation and academic discourse. The whole purpose of Phi Beta Kappa is to investigate and be open to all different views,” said member Father Tom Blantz, CSC, ’57, ’63M.A.
Graduating seniors hoping to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa have to wait for an invitation from a committee of Phi Beta Kappa-member faculty, which make its selections based solely on academic record. “It’s not anything you try out for or anything like that,” said Father John Pearson, CSC, ’68, ’71M.Th., formerly president of the Notre Dame chapter, Epsilon of Indiana.
Inductees generally have an average cumulative grade-point average of 3.8 and must have at least 90 hours of humanities credits. They must also possess an intermediate proficiency in a foreign language and have taken at least two math classes.
Phi Beta Kappa was founded in a tavern in 1776 by a group of students from the College of William and Mary in Virginia who based the organization on principles of friendship, morality and literature. That spirit of pure intellectual inquiry has endured and is the main reason why only students from the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Science are eligible for induction into the Notre Dame chapter.
Students selected for membership typically receive their invitations in late March and are inducted the morning of commencement. They have to pay an initiation fee of $50, of which $40 goes to the national organization. The other $10 helps the local chapter support a visiting scholar program and other activities. Members who want the famous Phi Beta Kappa golden key have to order it themselves ($29 to $116 depending on size, configuration and karat rating).
Phi Beta Kappa was founded as a secret society, and although the group repealed its secrecy provisions in the 1830s because of agitation against another secret society, the Masons, that aspect of its history remains an interesting side note to members.
“Apparently at one time there was a secret handshake,” Blantz said, “but it was so secret that no one knows it anymore!”