A university 121 years young: Why Phi Beta Kappa is just the beginning
There was an overwhelming sense that history was being made in McKinnon Hall on April 13 when 47 Elon students took turns signing their names on the first pages of Elon’s Phi Beta Kappa membership roll. The moment echoed a sentiment I expressed earlier in the afternoon when I welcomed the community to the Convocation for Honors, which marked the installation of the Society’s chapter on our campus.
I took care to emphasize what a young institution Elon is in so many respects. The College of William and Mary, whose students gave birth to Phi Beta Kappa, is 196 years older than Elon. Fifty-four percent of our alumni are under 40 years of age.
The plaques depicting Elon’s history in the Belk Library colonnade tell the story of an institution that struggled mightily for survival in the first half of its history, recovering from a disastrous fire, the Great Depression, two world wars and even loss of accreditation. The sheltering of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter here seems even more signifi cant given our humble beginnings. But adversity shapes character, and Elon’s institutional character—a lack of pretension, a constant restlessness to be better, an ethic of service to others, and a deep and true commitment to transforming the lives of students who enter through our gates—has served us well through our many metamorphoses as a college and university.
The phrase “journey to Phi Beta Kappa” has been used on campus throughout the past decade as shorthand for a comprehensive effort to examine and improve many dimensions of Elon’s academic programs. The goal has been to emphasize the centrality of the liberal arts and sciences as the essential core of the undergraduate experience. We have created new honors and fellows programs for academically talented students, added dramatically to the faculty ranks and further supported faculty scholarship, built a stronger library collection, restored a foreign language requirement after a 35-year hiatus and much more. The journey has been challenging but immensely rewarding. The Phi Beta Kappa Society expects an unwavering commitment to academic freedom and to excellence and found considerable evidence of those values at Elon.
As significant a milestone as our Phi Beta Kappa chapter is in our institutional history, it is by no means a capstone achievement. We are still engaged in the important work of creating the modern Elon and thus must regard our Phi Beta Kappa chapter and all it represents as a cornerstone on which to construct our future.
At the inaugural induction ceremony, Professor Don Wyatt of Middlebury College, a Phi Beta Kappa senator who helped evaluate the university’s application for a chapter, described a singular quality his committee encountered among Elon students, faculty and staff . “It was the pervasive attitude of never really being satisfied that things are being done as well as they ever can possibly be done,” he said.
May it always be so.