By Ryan Johnson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 20, 2005
"You didn't accept your Phi Beta Kappa invitation? Are you crazy?" my summer roommate, who went to an east coast private school, said to me.
It's the most famous college honorary in the country. It's the most famous fraternity. The first fraternity, for that matter. But Phi Beta Kappa has been having big problems getting UA students to accept its invitations.
For more than 200 years, the organization has been the most significant honorary in the country. Its list of famous alumni goes on for pages. When fraternities and sororities talk about all the famous people and politicians who have been greek, they're mostly talking about Phi Betas, as they're often called.
It's often mentioned in obituaries, with one recent example being William Rehnquist. Had three kids and a loving wife, grew up in Wisconsin, led one-third of the federal government for 20 years, was a Phi Beta Kappa. It is even an adjective - he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Traditionally an invitation goes to the top 1 percent of graduating seniors majoring in liberal arts and sciences. At private schools and small liberal arts schools, it is a huge deal, with interviews for potential members.
But at the UA, the majority doesn't accept its invitations. Theresa Enos, secretary of Alpha of Arizona, the UA chapter, said the UA's acceptance rate last spring was 49 percent, near the bottom of the national range.
For half of Phi Beta Kappa chapters in the country, the acceptance is 100 percent, so what is going on here?
The main reason might be that students don't know about it. Because people are honored for everything nowadays, it's hard to know which honors are legitimate. Indeed, students are inundated with invitations from "all these imitations," as Enos put it. The Phi Beta invitation usually arrives last, after Blue Key (top 30 percent), Golden Key (top 15 percent) and Phi Kappa Phi.
But if students would ask their parents, or better, their grandparents, they would hear a different story.
"People, especially the men, used to flaunt their Golden Keys (the symbol of Phi Beta Kappa) on the end of watch chains," Enos said.
Graduate schools and employers also often care about it. Sometimes it's synonymous with graduating summa cum laude. Enos said that medical students especially seem to understand that it's a big deal.
But it's not just lack of awareness that is plaguing Phi Beta Kappa. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a liberal backlash against its perceived elitism. Also, its problems are mostly at state schools, where more students are first-time college students and fewer come from private high schools, which value tradition more.
Other problems include Phi Beta Kappa becoming less selective. Though the organization has traditionally accepted the top 1 percent of graduating classes, at the UA up to the top 10 percent are offered invitations, 3 percent in the fall and 7 percent in the spring. If 50 people are honored, it's a big deal. If 500 are, it's not so big a deal.
Also, at the UA the invitations are given out seemingly shotgun style. Though the organization prides itself on members with honor and high moral standing, they are chosen strictly on their grade point average, and the only required event is the initiation.
What, then, is Phi Beta Kappa to do? Enos said that a couple years ago she enlisted the help of President Peter Likins, a member. He wrote a letter to the faculty asking for more awareness. But it didn't appear to pay off, and the UA chapter has actually seen acceptances getting gradually more rare.
Some would say that Phi Beta Kappa has lost its purpose at large, impersonal state schools. It's impossible to know who's in it when it's impossible to know a significant portion of the student body in the first place, that standardized tests serve the same purpose but more effectively.
But don't discount this centuries-old tradition. Discuss why its acceptance rate is so low all you want, but the fact remains that the students who received their invitations earlier this month should think twice before neglecting it, then dangle the key like a rapper's bling.
Ryan Johnson is a senior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.