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PBK's homecoming

July 17, 2019
By Noah Robertson '19

Photo by John Henley.

It started with five teenagers, a December night and the Apollo Room of Colonial Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. William & Mary students John Heath, Thomas Smith, Richard Booker, Armistead Smith and John Jones — ages 13 to 18 — met Dec. 5, 1775, to found a secret society. They named their organization Philosophia Biou Kybernētēs (Greek for “the love of learning is the guide of life”) and referred to it by its initials: Phi Beta Kappa (PΒΚ).

The students founded PBK as an escape from the constrained education system of their day. In the late 18th century, professors prioritized recitation over conversation, meaning that students weren’t permitted the freedom of inquiry they often desired. PBK was just the opposite, allowing an unsupervised platform for intellectual debates on the biggest issues of the time. Is slavery moral? Can the colonies legally secede from England? Is democracy the best form of government? They set up regular meetings, laid out the organization’s principal values and took an oath of secrecy. 

With that, PBK was born.

Those five students didn’t know what they were launching. They could not know that PBK would become an American intellectual high plateau: the nation’s oldest, largest, most prestigious honors society. In the 243 years since that fateful December night, PBK has expanded into almost 300 colleges and universities, with over half a million members worldwide. Among its members are 17 U.S. presidents, 40 Supreme Court justices (including seven of the current nine) and 130 Nobel laureates. And it all started at William & Mary.

Since 1957, PBK at the university has lived in the similarly named Phi Beta Kappa Hall. Beginning a full renovation this year, the building will remain closed until the fall 2020 semester. When it reopens on the honors society’s 245th birthday, PBK will be part of the new Arts Quarter. Until a new home is found on campus, the Alpha Chapter of PBK gathers for celebrations and meetings in the boardroom of Swem Library.

Professor Emeritus George Greenia has been a member of PBK for 44 years and William & Mary’s Alpha Chapter for 37 years.
When he was first inducted as an undergraduate at Marquette University, Greenia said, he didn’t completely understand the honor. It wasn’t until he got involved with William & Mary’s chapter that it finally clicked.

Not only is the honors society one of America’s top intellectual incubators, it’s the longest-affiliated partner organization of the university. As old as the nation itself, PBK suspended operations for years due to the Revolutionary War. It remained inactive until the 1850s, and then paused again for 30 years after the Civil War. During this time, though, the organization’s daughter chapters spread across the nation.

Now back and better than ever, PBK is William & Mary’s second-largest distributor of scholarships, next to the university itself. Greenia affirms that almost all the funds they receive are repurposed into scholarships supporting campus faculty and students. The work he and other chapter officers do for the Alpha Chapter goes unpaid. For them, it’s well worth it.

“PBK is part of our institutional DNA,” he said. “It’s who we want to be as well as who we’ve been. We’re the stewards of our values, for William & Mary and the nation.”

Phi Beta Kappa student members are selected for more than just their grades. Academic excellence is definitely a part — the GPA cutoff for newly inducted undergraduates is a 3.7 — but PBK stands for much more. First, the organization looks for new members who display a love of learning and intellectual ambition. That means taking courses outside your major, not just playing it safe. Second, the selection committee expects a certain moral quality from its members. At a university with a strong honor code, PBK initiates should support these same qualities in their personal lives.

While these multifaceted criteria apply to PBK nationwide, William & Mary’s selection process is the most stringent in the nation. Each semester, professors receive a list of qualifying seniors and are asked to write recommendations for those they consider strong candidates. From a list of hundreds of student names come an average of 150 faculty letters each semester. Every letter is independently scored and read at least twice by a full team of PBK faculty, who spend weeks distilling the list of candidates. Finally, they send candidates news of their selection. PBK inductees make up just 7 percent of the graduating class (including the author of this story).

“It’s cool,” Greenia said, proudly wearing his PBK pin on the lapel of his jacket. “We have a brand, an identity, a commitment. We affirm excellence in the liberal arts and sciences throughout higher education in America. We defend the values of the nation.”
In seven years, Phi Beta Kappa will celebrate its quarter-millennial anniversary. The organization may have started with five students, but there are over 500,000 now. No one was watching that December 1776 night in the Apollo Room, but come 2026, all eyes will be on Williamsburg, William & Mary and Phi Beta Kappa.

PBK’s coming home in under a decade. PBK and the nation turn 250 in just a few years. The Alpha Chapter’s ready, and this time, they want the spotlight. In 2026 PBK will be in the epicenter of a national conversation on education and the great American experiment in democracy.