Extending Their Reach: With the 50th Anniversaries Approaching of the Establishment of Phi Beta Kappa Chapters at Howard and Fisk Universities, the Anniversary Is a Reminder That the Honor Society Remains a Remote Influence on Historically Black Institutions and Black Students at Predominantly White College Campuses

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Few academic organizations can claim to have conferred as much prestige on America's most competitive colleges and universities and their top students as the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Universities and colleges with a Phi Beta Kappa faculty chapter have long enjoyed the honor of having their institution recognized for high quality liberal arts and science programs.

Next year, the 50th anniversary of the Howard University and Fisk University Phi Beta Kappa chapters will mark a milestone for those institutions as well for the society. Howard and Fisk were the first historically Black institutions to be granted faculty chapter charters. The Fisk anniversary has special symbolic importance for the society because one of that chapter's founding members, the distinguished historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, served as the national organization's first and only Black president.

Despite the distinction by the two schools and their chapters, the upcoming anniversaries may serve as a reminder to many that Phi Beta Kappa has had limited influence on historically Black schools and on Black students at predominantly White college campuses with Phi Beta Kappa chapters.

Of the 262 higher education institutions having a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, only four are at historically Black schools. In addition to Howard and Fisk, Morehouse College and Spelman College have chapters. The national society maintains no records on the racial and ethnic background of its members, but guesses by knowledgeable individuals put the Black population at 3,000 to 5,000, which is less than 1 percent of the national membership.

While chapters at historically Black schools have ushered a stream of African American members into the society, no one keeps track of the frequency of Black students gaining society admission who are at predominantly White institutions. Nevertheless, Phi Beta Kappa officials say that diversity is a serious concern of the organization. It's clear the society takes pride in having a distinguished Black presence, particularly in the case of Franklin. Dr. Don J. Wyatt, an Asian studies expert and history professor at Middlebury College, and Dr. Allison Blakely, a European and comparative history scholar at Boston University, serve on the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Senate, which is the legislative governing council of the society.

"Diversity is a part of our policy discussions," Wyatt says.

Both Blakely and Wyatt say talk about diversity has naturally focused on the encouragement of applications from Black schools for faculty chapters. For them, Black membership growth is an issue they see potentially addressed by the addition of chapters at historically Black schools and by outreach efforts to encourage academic achievement among Black students. Although no formal policies facilitating special outreach efforts to any one set of institutions or group have emerged, society officials say they want historically Black schools to consider Phi Beta Kappa.

"The posture of Phi Beta Kappa is one of welcoming encouragement," says Dr. John Churchill, the national secretary of Phi Beta Kappa. "We're looking for ways to increase the presence of historically Black institutions."

To a great extent, talk about diversity has also centered on the growing numbers of international, and first- and second-generation immigrant students on American campuses. For high-achieving students with international backgrounds as well as minority American-born students, officials say the challenge of building diverse ranks revolves around making sure there's an awareness of Phi Beta Kappa given that chapters exist at less than 10 percent of American four-year colleges and universities.

Wyatt believes that there's significant overlap between Phi Beta Kappa's visibility on individual campuses and the society's ability to motivate students to apply themselves in such a way that makes them potential inductees. …

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