Tracing TCNJ’s Path to Joining the Nation’s Elite Academic Honors Society
by Tony Marchetti ’96, ’02
When the Delta of New Jersey chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) was installed on TCNJ’s campus this past April, it put the College in select company. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher education have achieved membership in PBK, the oldest undergraduate honors society in the country.
Upon announcement of the honor this past fall, President R. Barbara Gitenstein said, “The distinction of Phi Beta Kappa is a welcome acknowledgement of the tremendous educational experience offered at TCNJ, and the presence of a chapter on campus will even further enrich that experience.” The road to establishing the chapter, though, was a long one.
“There has been interest in having a chapter on campus for almost 20 years,” Assistant Provost Nancy Freudenthal said. She and Professor of English David Venturo were the lead authors of the College’s PBK application.
TCNJ’s first application for membership, submitted in 2000, was denied, which is not uncommon. “Of the schools that submit that first preliminary application, only a very small fraction” attain a chapter three years later, Freudenthal said. After a careful examination of the factors that contributed to the College being denied, TCNJ reapplied in 2003, and this application was eventually approved last fall. That the application process takes three years indicates just how rigorous the process is.
After TCNJ’s 70-page preliminary application was approved in 2003, work began on the College’s general application. This mammoth, 230-page document detailed the College’s programs, student outcomes, and facilities among other things.
According to Freudenthal, PBK’s selection committee reviewed the general application on several measures of quality. It looked at the caliber of students TCNJ accepts, examining factors such as incoming students’ average SAT scores. The committee also examined the curriculum at the college; the work students were doing, such as their senior theses and research projects; and the College’s Liberal Learning Program. The reviewers were “looking for dissemination and encouragement of liberal arts learning in the curriculum,” Venturo said.
In addition, PBK examined TCNJ’s faculty, specifically the schools they had attended, the degrees they had attained, and the research they were contributing to their fields. Ten percent of an applying college’s arts and sciences faculty must themselves be PBK members, or “key holders” as they’re called. Venturo explained that this is necessary because, technically, the College only “shelters” the PBK chapter. The key holders on campus, along with each new member who is installed, are charged with keeping the chapter alive. Both Venturo and Freduenthal are PBK key holders from their undergraduate days.
After TCNJ’s general application was reviewed, PBK’s national office sent members of its Committee on Qualifications to campus for a three-day visit in March 2005. While here, the representatives met with President Gitenstein, former Provost Stephen Briggs, faculty, and staff. They also met with students to discuss the students’ current research, their academic experiences, and their plans for after graduation.
Based on its positive observations, the committee forwarded TCNJ’s application to the PBK Senate, which met in December 2005. From there, the College’s application was approved and forwarded to PBK’s national Triennial Council, which met in October 2006.
Once there, council delegates reviewed a summary of the application. An applying institution is allowed to send two representatives to the Triennial Council, and Freudenthal and Venturo were on hand to represent TCNJ. However, they could not speak at the event, nor could they answer any last-minute questions that delegates. Instead, as stipulated by PBK bylaws, the council appointed a spokesperson from among its membership to answer the council’s questions about the College’s application. Don Wyatt, a professor of history at Middlebury College who was one of the Committee on Qualifications members to visit campus in 2005, served as TCNJ’s spokesperson. He helped steer the College’s application down the final stretch.
Once the delegates’ questions were answered, a vote was taken by secret ballot. An institution must receive at least a two-thirds majority of “yes” votes to gain acceptance. Finally, on October 28, after nearly 20 years of discussing it, and several years spent applying for it, TCNJ was granted permission to shelter a PBK chapter.
“TCNJ has been recognized for being the ‘hot college’” by The New York Times Freudenthal said. “Receiving a Phi Beta Kappa chapter affirms that TCNJ meets the gold standard for excellence in education as well.”
Membership in PBK has its privileges for both the institution and those inducted as key holders. As a member institution, TCNJ is now eligible to take part in the society’s Visiting Scholar Program, Venturo said. The program will bring distinguished scholars who are internationally known in their field to campus for two-day visits. While here, the scholars will meet with students and faculty, participate in classroom discussions, and give a lecture that will be open to the campus community. According to the society’s Web site, “The purpose of the program is to contribute to the intellectual life of the campus by making possible an exchange of ideas between the Visiting Scholar and the resident faculty and students.”
For the 44 TCNJ students who were inducted during the April 9 ceremony—as well as for TCNJ President R. Barbara Gitenstein, who was inducted as a founding member—the status of key holder is a distinction each will carry with them for life. They join an exclusive society whose members include 17 former US Presidents, six of the nine current Supreme Court Justices, as well as such notable personalities as director Francis Ford Coppola, cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., former poet laureate Rita Dove, and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.