Phi Beta Kappa, one of the oldest academic honor societies in the country, continues to attract the best and brightest after more than a century.
Founded in 1913, Pomona’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter was the third of its kind in the Golden State. And what was once a secret society, has now emerged to openly honor students and their academic achievements by bringing them into this special organization.
Pomona’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter recently received the Society’s Outstanding Chapter Award for its work to select a more diverse group of student nominees for Phi Beta Kappa. Pomona’s chapter was one of two small liberal arts colleges to be nationally recognized. The award is presented every three years to recognize chapters across the country that promote innovation in campus visibility, staff engagement and student outreach.
Neuroscience Professor Karl Johnson says that in August 2018 they began to take a deeper look at how they selected nominees to be inducted into the organization and how they can improve the process to be more inclusive.
“We started generating a more holistic nomination process into Pomona’s Phi Beta Kappa. Where instead of looking at very easy, highly quantifiable information, that we look more at the student as a whole and look at their growth, we look at their contributions to the College and their efforts in being exemplary liberal arts college students,” Johnson says. “We are all really interested in figuring out ways to increase the diversity of the nominees to more accurately reflect the diversity of our institution.”
Along with Johnson, Classics Professor Benjamin Keim, Mathematics Professor Jo Hardin and Politics Professor Susan McWilliams Barndt — all members of Phi Beta Kappa and tasked with choosing the next generation of members —worked to develop a holistic approach to choosing nominees that would include more underrepresented students and first-generation college students.
“I work with so many students who are amazing, but for whatever reason they are slipping through the cracks when it comes to the less holistic criteria. Seeing students who weren’t recognized raised the awareness that clearly it is better to use holistic criteria,” Hardin says.
The President’s Office covers the membership fees of nominees, lowering a barrier to being part of this organization that has been known to stand out on a student’s CV or resume.
Keim explains this is just one piece of an overall effort by the College to produce a more inclusive academic environment. This aligns with Pomona College’s strategic vision, which includes efforts to “create more equitable experiences for our diverse community members.”
“I think it is very much keeping with the College’s emphasis on flourishing and inclusion. We seek here in the 21st century to better recognize the range of our students’ experiences off campus and on campus as they demonstrate excellence in their liberal arts studies,” Keim says.
The new selection criteria have been in place for the last few years and the approach yielded a more diverse group of nominees, and they plan to continue to improve the process.
“This is a change that impacts all of our students. We are going to continue to be sensitive and responsive to other emerging conversations about where our community is in the classroom and out of the classroom,” Keim says. “It’s better recognizing the many ways in which our amazing Pomona students achieve excellence in the liberal arts.”