Chapter History






A Brief History of Kappa of New York
the Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at Syracuse University

Phi Beta Kappa is as old as the nation itself, having been founded on December 5th, 1776, just five months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At first a literary and social club, Phi Beta Kappa gradually emerged into its modern identity as an honorary society recognizing undergraduate achievements in the arts and sciences. It was also a secret society at first (with the obligatory secret handshake), but it dropped that approach the 1830s.

By the time that some twenty-five chapters, nearly all of them located in colleges in the northeastern United States, organized a national society (the United Chapters of PBK) in 1883, Phi Beta Kappa had begun to take on its modern identity. It had become the honorary that it is today, had shed most of its social functions, aspired to national presence and influence, and focused on recognizing the attainments of undergraduates in the liberal arts. Its chapters admitted women and, in the northern ones at least, had no racial bar to membership. It was in this climate that faculty at Syracuse University took steps to create a Phi Beta Kappa chapter here, in 1896, through what was then called the College of Liberal Arts (now The College of Arts and Sciences). The fledgling Chapter initiated its first undergraduate members, six women and three men. Soon Kappa of NY was admitting the top twenty percent of the College of Liberal Arts class, but it eventually conformed to more selective standards promulgated by the United Chapters, and today selects no more than the top tenth of Arts & Science undergraduates.

Phi Beta Kappa has included among its members some of the nation's most illustrious figures: six presidents elected in course (that is, as undergraduates) -- John Quincy Adams, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George H. Bush, and Bill Clinton -- plus another eleven elected as honorary members, and one first lady elected as an honorary, Eleanor Roosevelt. Other eminent members include Chief Justice John Marshall, Eli Whitney, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, W. E. B. DuBois, Helen Keller, Henry James, Booker T. Washington, Jane Addams, Paul Robeson, George Santayana, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, John Updike, Daniel Boorstin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Susan Sontag, Benazir Bhutto, Francis Ford Coppola. . . . The roll goes on and on.

Phi Beta Kappa is sustained by the faith that the liberal arts, humanities, and sciences are more important than ever to educated young men and women, and that the Society can play a useful role in promoting liberal education. We bear in mind Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 peroration titled "The American Scholar," still among the most renowned document produced by the Society: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. . . . Love of man shall be . . . a wreath of joy around all."


Founded in 1896, the Syracuse Univsersity has inducted over 4,000
members to date