Big Idea: Rejuvenating Phi Beta Kappa Chapter

Big Orange Big IdeasChemistry Professor Jeffrey Kovac is working on a big idea—reactivating UT’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society.

Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and best-known honor society. It was founded at the College of William and Mary in 1776, during the American Revolution. UT established its Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1965.

“At one time, Phi Beta Kappa was active on campus and lots of faculty participated. But over the years, fewer and fewer have. We are trying to get a core of members to keep this thing going,” said Kovac, president of the UT chapter. Dawn Coleman, associate professor of English, is the chapter secretary.

Students who meet the membership criteria, which include taking a sufficient number of liberal arts courses, are invited to join Phi Beta Kappa in their junior or senior year. Kovac is focusing on identifying faculty and staff who are already members.

Kovac said he has a membership list, now several years old, which includes about 100 names of UT faculty and staff, some of whom are retired or have left the university. Only a handful of members are actively involved, however.

He suspects there are many faculty and staff who became members at the colleges and universities where they received their degree. He wants to them to come forward to help bring the campus chapter back to life.

“It’s important, first of all, for our students,” he said, noting that UT can’t initiate new members unless there’s an active campus chapter to do it. “Our best students should be recognized in this way. If they put it on their resume, it carries weight.”

A revitalized Phi Beta Kappa chapter also could host academic events, such as speakers or awards ceremonies, he said.

Having an active Phi Beta Kappa chapter is something expected of a Top 25 university.

“Those places that we aspire to be like all have Phi Beta Kappa chapters,” he said.

Phi Beta Kappa members who would like to be regularly informed about the campus chapter’s activities are asked to contact Kovac at jkovac@utk.edu. Include your name, electing institution and year, and your e-mail address.

For more information about Phi Beta Kappa, visit the website.

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