West discusses honor society at Rotary

Staff Writer

In September, a long-awaited vote was made, granting Mississippi State University a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa Society.

The society was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, and is the premier liberal arts honor society for colleges and universities in the United States. Mississippi State University has made several efforts to shelter a chapter beginning in 1979. The university’s new chapter will officially be activated and induct its first members in April 2019.

On Monday, Phi Beta Kappa member and MSU English professor Robert West discussed the organization and MSU’s efforts to establish a chapter at the Starkville Rotary Club meeting.

“From the very beginning, it wasn’t just a social organization,” West said. “It was a group of young men, at the time, who enjoyed talking with one another about literature, history, science and other subjects.”

Members of Phi Beta Kappa include 17 U.S. presidents, 40 Supreme Court justices and over 140 Nobel Laureates.

West said MSU was one of four universities who were just approved to shelter a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. In total, 290 colleges across the U.S. shelter chapters. The process for an institution to be approved can be lengthy, often taking several attempts.

He said the Morrill Act of 1862, which paved the way for MSU and other land grant universities, stated that the schools should still teach the liberal arts, even with their agricultural and mechanical focus.

"Even from the beginning of land-grant education, it’s in that note that we can’t leave behind that notion of broad, classical education,” West said.

He said there were several other attempts to bring a chapter to MSU, in addition to the initial one in 1979.

He discussed the ways having a chapter at MSU would benefit the university.

“The fact that Mississippi State University can say that it shelters a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa really gives State a lot of credibility for its liberal arts program,” West said. “It really does a great thing for the college of arts and sciences here. That is the largest college at State.”

A given university can only induct 10 percent of its students in liberal arts programs into the society. At MSU, That number would amount to approximately 110 students. However, a far smaller number will be inducted initially, due to few students currently having four semesters of foreign language as required by the society.

“I know that there are a lot of people who are really concerned about the rankings of colleges. This can only help.”