Phi Beta Kappa

About Phi Beta Kappa

Phi Beta Kappa’s small gold key

Phi Beta Kappa’s small gold key has come to represent a true mark of distinction. The pointing finger and three stars signify the ambition of the young scholars who founded the organization and the three distinguishing principles of their Society – friendship, morality, and learning. The letters SP on the back of the key stand for Societas Philosophiae.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is the oldest and most respected undergraduate honor society in the United States. The Society has fostered and recognized excellence in the liberal arts and sciences since 1776. The society’s emblem, a key, is widely recognized as a symbol of academic achievement. For more than two hundred years, election to Phi Beta Kappa has been a recognition of intellectual capacities well employed, especially in the acquisition of an education in the liberal arts and sciences. The objectives of humane learning encouraged by Phi Beta Kappa include intellectual honesty and tolerance, a broad range of intellectual interests, and understanding — not simply knowledge gained in pursuit of a career, although that is important also.

Meet the members of the Executive Committee of the Washington Alpha Chapter

Founding in 1776

Phi Beta Kappa was founded on December 5, 1776, at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Regular meetings were held at which chief attention was given to literary exercises, especially to composition and debating. Shortly thereafter charters were granted to Harvard (voted December 4, 1779) and to Yale (voted December 9, 1779). Thus were established the Alpha of Connecticut at Yale on November 13, 1780, and the Alpha of Massachusetts at Harvard on September 5, 1781. These two chapters largely determined the permanent character of Phi Beta Kappa and shaped its policy in the establishment of new chapters, which are admitted only after careful scrutiny of the quality of the petitioning institutions. All chapters are required to maintain similar high standards for the election of members.

Phi Beta Kappa chapters

At the present time, over 285 colleges and universities in the country have active chapters—only a fraction of the over 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. PBK elects over 15,000 new members a year across the United States, has over 50 associations, and supports the ideals of the Society through academic, social, and community-based programs. There are about 400,000 living members elected from among the top scholars of their respective institutions. Originally Phi Beta Kappa was a society of congenial spirits, similar in its basis of membership to a present-day fraternity and in the character of its meetings to a debating or literary club. As time passed, it tended more and more to become an honor society celebrating excellence in academic achievement and life-long commitment to intellectual pursuits in the liberal arts and sciences.

Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa

In addition to the chapters at the colleges and universities, there are about fifty alumni associations that meet regularly and sponsor lectures, awards and scholarships. In our region, the Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa, composed of local residents elected by other institutions as well as the University of Washington, maintains an active program. Through one of these alumni groups, it is possible for a member of Phi Beta Kappa to associate with many distinguished people with excellent academic backgrounds.

About PBK at the University of Washington

The movement to secure a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Washington was begun in 1907, but it was not until 1914 that the Alpha Chapter (the first chapter in the State of Washington) was established at our university. The Beta Chapter is at Whitman College (1920), the Gamma Chapter at Washington State University (1929), and the Delta Chapter at the University of Puget Sound (1986).

At the present time, election to Washington Alpha is based primarily on high scholarship, with an added requirement of a sufficient number of courses outside of the field of specialization. Most of those elected are enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, but unlike some chapters, Washington Alpha elects members from those graduating from any college or school of the university if the program of study is judged to be sufficiently broad. In the past few years approximately five percent of the class of graduating seniors have been elected to membership. See the requirements for election.

The membership of the Washington Alpha Chapter comprises those elected as undergraduates by this chapter, and those who were elected by other chapters and are now faculty or staff members at the University of Washington.