On the afternoon of October 9, 2015, the atmosphere in the Honors College was a little like Mission Control during the moon landings. There was a lot of nail-biting and monitor-watching as personnel awaited news from a distant, rocky place—Denver. That’s where the Triennial Council of the Phi Beta Kappa Society was meeting, and about to vote on the admission of its newest chapters. There had been multiple attempts in the past to bring a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to the University, dating back to the 1980s. Coogs everywhere were hungry for this victory.
Committed to the idea that “love of learning is the guide to life,” Phi Beta Kappa is “the nation’s oldest academic honor society”; it was founded in 1776, just five months after the United States declared its independence, and more than 150 years before the University of Houston opened its doors. PBK is also widely regarded as the most prestigious of those honor societies—fewer than 300 colleges possess the coveted charter and iconic gold key that signify PBK members of a university faculty have been granted a chapter.
The UH delegation in Denver was led by President Renu Khator who, along with Provost Paula Myrick Short, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the faculty’s efforts to make the University a Phi Beta Kappa institution. Sitting alongside Khator at the council’s plenary session were the co-chairs of the Organizing Committee, Honors College Dean Bill Monroe and Moores School of Music Director Andrew Davis.
Davis spent the 2013-14 academic year as an associate dean in the Honors College, working with members of the Organizing Committee—Stuart Long in engineering; Jeremy Bailey in political science; Sarah Fishman and Cathy Patterson, both historians and associate deans in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences; Ann Cheek in biology; and Randy Lee in chemistry—to draft the General Report, which was submitted to the Society’s Washington office in September 2013. “The General Report asks for information on all aspects of campus life and operations,” Davis said, “from the very general, such as mission statements and enrollment statistics, to the very specific, such as detailed curricula in all arts and sciences units and descriptions of extra-curricular programming.”
Just as important as submitting the General Report was preparing for the arrival of PBK’s site visitation committee. “The thing I’m most proud of is the collaboration that led up to the site visit,” Monroe said. The Organizing Committee received campus-wide support as they delivered their campaign message to numerous groups, including the UH System Board of Regents, the President’s Cabinet, the Deans Council, the Faculty Senate, departmental chairs and directors, and various student assemblies. The assistance and counsel of faculty at institutions that had recently received chapters, including Clemson, Oklahoma State, and James Madison, not to mention the wisdom of PBK Secretary John Churchill, were also important factors in making the UH case.
In February 2014, the site visitation committee toured nearly every corner of the University, from classrooms to athletic facilities, from the library to the recreation center. “The visitors were impressed with the quality of UH students and the diversity of our campus community,” Davis said. “They left completely convinced that this was a place where the values of the liberal arts and sciences were lived strong.”
The success of the site visit propelled the University of Houston’s application forward: by the end of 2014, the Society’s Committee on Qualifications and the Phi Beta Kappa Senate had voted unanimously to endorse UH’s candidacy.
But there was still a long wait-almost a year-before these decisions could be ratified by the Triennial Council of Phi Beta Kappa, the final arbiter for all chapter applications. During this time, Monroe and Davis answered questions and articulated the University’s qualities in monthly
calls to Professor Amy Mulnix, who would serve as the Society’s advocate for UH in Denver.
When October came, the wait was over and the UH delegation was off to the Triennial Council, which Davis described as “a high- intensity situation.” Mulnix called Davis and Monroe needing last- minute information for the 295 voting delegates. Word was relayed to Houston. Susan Moreno in the Provost’s Office, as well as Brenda Rhoden, Ornela Santee, and Andy Little in the Honors College, supplied the requested data. The meeting began in Denver; in Houston, colleagues were on tenterhooks. Finally a message came through late Friday afternoon: we were in, with over 90 percent of the vote. One short tweet from a president, one giant leap for the University of Houston.
What does it mean for us? “It means that we’ve joined the ranks of the very best institutions in this country,” Monroe said. “It means that we’ve earned the Tier One standard for undergraduate academic excellence. It means that the University of Houston has arrived.”
The Cougars have landed.
By Robert Cremins