The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
Phi Beta Kappa

ALTHOUGH the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts is the oldest unit of the University on the campus, dating from 1841, and for the first years offered only a classical program, the local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was not established until 1907. The Alpha chapter of Michigan was an outgrowth of a society, which had started in the spring of that year, known as the Alpha Honor Society. It was founded by Phi Beta Kappa men on the faculty, who looked forward to the time when a chapter of the national society should be granted. For many years the need for formal recognition of intellectual and scholarly achievements of students had been keenly felt by both students and faculty alike, and at times this interest had been openly expressed but without results.

In the autumn of 1907 the National Council of the United Chapters granted to the members of the society, who were on the faculty of the University of Michigan, a charter for a chapter to be known as the Alpha Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa in the state of Michigan, the first in the state. Twenty-four names of these faculty members appear on the charter.

Although the oldest "Greek letter" society, originally organized in 1776, it is no longer in any sense of the word a secret body. Its founders were really and avowedly bound together to devote themselves to the encouragement and recognition of undergraduate scholarship Page  1930and its responsibilities. Since 1883 the various chapters have been united in a representative organization, the members of whose council meet every three years to transact general business. Its helpful traditions and stimulating personal associations have contributed materially to the friendship and fellowship of scholars.

One of the few references to the early period at Michigan reads:

Nearly fifty years ago a movement to organize a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Michigan was set on foot, but the absence of a marking system and the indifference or hostility of the Faculty defeated the project. It is to be regretted that there exists among us no society instituted for the purpose of high scholarship in classical studies; and perhaps the obstacles in the way of founding such a society are not insurmountable.


(The Michigan Book, 1898, p. 184.)
This would date the attempt near the end of the "fraternity war" in 1850, when after a severe struggle the University at last accepted the presence of social fraternities.

Phi Beta Kappa was not mentioned in the "Minutes" of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts of that period. According to record, the faculty on July 10, 1848, forbade the students to organize a literary society. It is possible that this society could have been a proposed chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, but it is more likely that the organization was to have been a local society with an active undergraduate program.

An unsigned and undated history of the Alpha chapter of Michigan reads as follows: "The official historian of the University remarks that as 'an indication of its free spirit … it is characterized by the total absence, from the beginning, of a marking system, and of a hierarchy of college honors, and the sole reliance upon natural incentives to secure study and win scholarship.'" These words explain two difficulties which so long attended the introduction of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa into the University of Michigan: its aim of fostering scholastic distinction was felt to conflict with the educational ideal of the University, and in the absence of a marking system it was argued that the appropriate machinery was lacking for selecting students with accuracy and fairness. Apparently, the gradeless recording system resulted from a belief that distinctions, even on the basis of scholarship, were out of place in a state university. Many educators, however, were of the opinion that grades encouraged high scholarship, and no doubt many members of the first University of Michigan faculty were well aware of and concurred in this view. Although not positively known, it is believed that their decision to dispense with grades sprang from sincere conviction and that the choice was made for the purpose of preserving democratic equality.

No account of a preliminary discussion of grades has been preserved, for the marking of passed, not passed, or conditioned had become established in the five years before the record of faculty meetings was begun. This record shows that the members of the faculty were men of stern temperament who were more disposed to give a student demerits for inattention to his studies than to hold out inducements for superior work. The task of a faculty member, as thus conceived, was to hold the student unremittingly to the performance of his duty. On January 9, 1865, Professor Alexander Winchell wrote in his diary: "Had call from Tutor Adams in reference to a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in the University." Winchell was absent from many of the faculty meetings in that eventful year, and apparently nothing came of the suggestion.

President Angell was greatly surprised Page  1931at the absence of grades when he came to the University in 1871, but soon became an earnest advocate of the practice which he found here. Various comments on the subject are made in his annual reports. The quality of the class work, he said, proved that the mature student did not require grades as an incentive. The upperclassmen, in particular, were studying not for marks or credits, but "with a sincere devotion to learning seeking in a most generous and earnest spirit the broadest and deepest culture obtainable here." Students who might otherwise have suffered from a planless program under the freer elective system, which he favored, by the lack of grades were thus spared the temptation of choosing courses simply to obtain a high average. Although President Angell was a member of Phi Beta Kappa (Brown University, 1849) and served as a member of the first senate (1883-92), he did not early encourage the establishment of a chapter on this campus. By 1883, when the United Chapters were organized, Phi Beta Kappa was represented by a total of twenty-five chapters, the "West" being represented by three in Ohio — Adelbert College of Western Reserve University, Kenyon College, and Marietta College. The geographical distribution of chapters rapidly changed, however, in the decade 1887-96; six of the sixteen added during that time were in the Middle West, and of these, four were in state universities younger than the University of Michigan.

The traditional indifference of the University toward recognition of exceptional scholarship persisted outwardly, but with the passage of time and the increase in the material prosperity of the state, different ideas of education arose. Students who had done good work here were resentful when former high-school classmates proudly displayed Phi Beta Kappa keys won at other institutions. This injustice was recognized by faculty members who as undergraduates elsewhere had been elected to the society.

In 1898-99 definite action was taken. A petition, signed by both undergraduates and graduates, requesting the establishment of a chapter was handed to Professor Henry S. Carhart to be presented to the proper authorities. Although it failed of its purpose, it precipitated much discussion.

Professor Robert M. Wenley reported on the objections (Mich. Alum., 6[1899-1900], p. 47). In outline, among his principal points, were these:

  • I. Theoretical or even imaginary objections.
    • A. The judgment of the world may reverse that of the society; hence, an election to Phi Beta Kappa has no value.
      • Answer: All academic judgments are subject to the same risk, but this by no means lessens the value of education or the rewards which are conferred upon outstanding students.
    • B. Election to Phi Beta Kappa from the senior class tends to place too much emphasis upon the first degree.
      • Answer: If this means that it might weaken the incentive to seek distinction by doing graduate work, it should be noted that the very students earnest and able enough to enter Phi Beta Kappa are the ones most likely to proceed with graduate work and that the best graduate schools are in those institutions in which Phi Beta Kappa maintains a chapter.
    • C. It will cause undue rivalry among the students.
      • Answer: The student body at the University of Michigan is far too large to suffer from such rivalry, and scholastic honors must compete with those bestowed for participation in such activities as athletics.
    • D. The age-old difficulty, women.
      • Page  1932Answer: The constitution of Phi Beta Kappa does not prevent the election of women members; in fact, several chapters have made such elections and still survive.
  • II. Practical difficulties.
    • A. The lack of a grading system, which many think absolutely necessary to the proper conduct of elections of Phi Beta Kappa.
      • Answer: The society is able to adapt itself to existing conditions.
    • B. The difficulty of making a choice under the existing conditions.
      • Answer: The task is not impossible, and the society will undertake it.

An event which fostered the cause of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan was the abolition in 1901 of the four time-honored degrees of bachelor of letters, bachelor of philosophy, bachelor of arts, and bachelor of science in favor of an omnibus bachelor of arts degree and an almost completely elective program of studies. In a few years the effects of the greater freedom became noticeable. Less serious students sought the path of least resistance; others were overwhelmed by their own ambition. Out of the confusion emerged the necessity for encouraging high scholastic achievement.

The Michigan Chapter of Sigma Xi was established in 1903. For a few years thereafter, membership was open to seniors in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts who had done the greater part of their work in science and had excelled in scholarship. This award for superior students in science made the lack of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa the more conspicuous. The final successful attempt to establish a chapter came from the students themselves. A feeling was growing among the more serious undergraduates that higher scholarship would be promoted by such academic distinction as Phi Beta Kappa could confer. At length in 1906 a new movement was begun under the leadership of two organizations, Quadrangle and Mortar Board, made up of members chosen on the basis of high scholarship and literary achievement. A petition was prepared in which the following points were brought out:

  • 1. That investigation has made clear that the desire for some formal recognition of scholarship and personal worth is strong throughout the student body.
  • 2. That the University of Michigan recognizes merit along other lines but makes no formal acknowledgment of intellectual and scholarly attainments of the students.
  • 3. That Phi Beta Kappa selects its members in the senior year, when the students of the University have demonstrated their ability and their personal worth.
  • 4. That Phi Beta Kappa has a chapter in all the other large colleges of the country, and so helps to uphold a certain standard of scholarship and character in the college world, and it seems accordingly desirable that the University of Michigan, as a recognized power in education, should contribute her support to this end.
  • 5. That Phi Beta Kappa confers distinction without material advantages.
  • 6. That Phi Beta Kappa is a democratic institution, in that its methods are known to every student and it is not exclusive, since its honors are open for the competition of all.
  • 7. That the plan under consideration does not necessitate a definite grading or marking system.

On January 30, 1907, a meeting of the faculty members of Phi Beta Kappa was called to consider the question of organizing a chapter at the University of Michigan. The names of the eleven professors who responded to this first call were: Arthur G. Canfield, Arthur Fair-banks, John A. Fairlie, Francis W. Kelsey, Alfred H. Lloyd, Joseph L. Markley, Frederic L. Paxson, Walter B. Pillsbury, John S. P. Tatlock, Hugo P. Thieme, and Robert M. Wenley. Mr. Page  1933Lloyd was elected temporary chairman and Mr. Fairlie temporary secretary. The student petition was then read. On the motion of Mr. Paxson those present formed themselves into the Alpha Honor Society of the University of Michigan, and a president, a secretary, and an executive committee of three were elected. After conferring with President Angell a constitution for the present honor society was drawn up, and a formal application was forwarded to the senate of the United Chapters requesting its endorsement for a charter. This application was signed by Henry C. Adams, Henry S. Carhart, Arthur L. Cross, William V. N. Garretson, William H. Hobbs, Herbert A. Kenyon, Edward H. Kraus, John F. Shepard, F. M. Taylor, W. H. Wait, H. L. Wilgus, and Max Winkler, in addition to the eleven who had organized the Alpha Honor Society.

On March 8, 1907, the senate of the United Chapters unanimously recommended to the Council that a charter be granted for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan. On the strength of this action, the Alpha Honor Society then proceeded to apply to seniors in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts the same estimates and tests of personality, character, and scholarship that would have been applied had the election been made to a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and on May 8, 1907, elected to membership ten men and nine women.

On May 28, 1907, a reception in their honor, followed by a dinner, was held in Barbour Gymnasium. Professor Alfred H. Lloyd, president, presided. Professor Herbert C. Sadler, as representative of Sigma Xi, welcomed the new organization to the University community; the other speakers of the evening were Professors Cross, M. L. D'Ooge, Fairbanks, Hobbs, R. Hudson, and Kelsey.

The National Council of the United Chapters, on September 12, 1907, adopted the recommendation made by the senate in the previous March.

Two months later, on November 13, 1907, the Alpha chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa of Michigan was installed by the president of the United Chapters, Professor Edwin A. Grosvenor of Amherst College. The names of President Angell and the twenty-three faculty members who had signed the application appear on the charter. Students from the senior class of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and members of Sigma Xi were guests at the ceremony, which took place in Sarah Caswell Angell Hall. The Michigan chapter thus founded comprised sixty-four members. The men and women of the class of 1907 who had previously been admitted to the Alpha Honor Society were formally elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and the Alpha Honor Society ceased to exist.

The installation of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa marked one of the most important changes which had taken place at the University in many years. There was placed before the student body a definite challenge which could arouse ambition and quicken interest in scholarly achievements. Unfortunately, some of the old prejudice still lingered. Professor Alfred H. Lloyd, to whose tact, energy, and enthusiasm much of the credit and success for its establishment was due, wrote:

Real democracy must do all in its power to put all men, as well as all the interests and affairs of men, on equal footing in the sense of securing to all equal opportunity, but it can never do without excellence and the cordial, public recognition of it. What renders conscious excellence or publicly recognized and applauded excellence unworthy and undemocratic is, not by any means the excellence itself nor the consciousness or applause of it, but the unconsciousness of its responsibilities. In short, equal opportunity, public recognition of excellence, and public Page  1934service make the real democracy.


(Mich. Alum., 14 [1906-7], pp. 100-103.)

A delicate and difficult task confronted the new organization. Since the election of alumni was permitted by the rules of the United Chapters, it was agreed that good students of former years, who had been denied recognition by the tardy arrival of the chapter, should receive the honor, even if late. The charter members needed assistance in this evaluation, and they accordingly elected eleven other faculty members, all of whom had been graduated from the University and, by reason of their long association with the students, were in a position to render valuable advice. They were Professors Wooster W. Beman, Charles H. Cooley, Martin L. D'Ooge, Joseph H. Drake, Richard Hudson, Moritz Levi, Fred N. Scott, Claude H. Van Tyne, Allen S. Whitney, Dean Myra B. Jordan, and Dean John O. Reed.

From the long list of graduates from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, prior to 1907, recommendations for alumnus membership were made. It was necessary, to some extent, to consider achievement subsequent to graduation, but in making the selections the members of the committee kept constantly in mind the fact that excellence in undergraduate scholarship was a prime prerequisite for election to Phi Beta Kappa. Therefore, so far as older teachers were willing to trust their memories and college records were available, undergraduate scholarship was the determining factor. All in all 452 elections of alumni were made before the chapter decided in 1932 to discontinue elections to alumnus membership. The action was taken not because of any waning of desire to give due recognition but because the loss of many older members of the faculty had made it increasingly difficult to obtain fair means of judgment. Another reason was the growing feeling in the society at large that the practice of electing alumni might easily be carried to excess.

The charter permits the election of honorary members, but the chapter has always been wary in availing itself of this privilege. In the fifty years of its existence only five such elections have been made.

Quite properly, inasmuch as the fraternity was organized with the purpose of giving recognition to high scholarship among undergraduates, the chapter has devoted its energy chiefly to making as careful and discriminating a choice as possible from the classes which have graduated since 1907. The primary ground of distinction is manifested by excellence in scholarship, as well as the qualifications of character and personality stressed by the parent organization. Furthermore, it is expected that only students who have taken at least one-half of their work in languages, literature, fine arts, history, political and social sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and science other than applied science may be considered as candidates.

At first, only seniors in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts were elected, but when the School of Education was opened in 1921 its seniors also were made eligible, since so much of their work was done in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In 1927 the chapter voted to elect yearly not more than fifteen juniors of exceptionally high academic standing. Since 1930 graduate students who meet the rigid requirements have also been eligible for election; an amendment passed at the 1928 triennial council meeting made such elections possible. The first students from the School of Music were chosen in 1942.

On May 9, 1908, the first annual banquet Page  1935was held at the Michigan Union, at which the principal address was given by Professor George H. Palmer of Harvard University. The election of new members takes place once a year in the spring, and the initiates are honored at a banquet with a guest speaker and two student speakers, one representing the women initiates, the other the men. All in all, to June, 1956, a total of 3,561 elections have been made: 452 alumni members, 5 honorary members, 206 graduate students, 2,366 seniors and 313 juniors from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, 162 seniors from the School of Education, and 57 seniors from the School of Music.

In addition to the students who have been elected, all members of the faculty who have been chosen by this or any other chapter are considered active members of the Alpha Chapter of Michigan. Members of other chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, living in the vicinity, may affiliate with this chapter.

The selection of members is based on experience that undergraduate scholarship is a good test of both ability and character. It is impossible to avoid occasionally missing an eligible student. Sometimes, men of great ability make poor showing in their college work, but in the long run the intellectual leaders in a class are at its head, and these are they whom Phi Beta Kappa wishes to add to its list. Since the Alpha chapter of Michigan was ushered into the University community, it is believed that high ideals of scholarship have been materially promoted.