When I arrived on campus in 1977 as vice president of academic affairs, I became part of a remarkable administrative team, headed by President James McComas. In 1978, the new goal was set forth to obtain a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious academic honorary organization for students in the country.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded Dec. 5, 1776, by a group of students at the College of William and Mary. The stated purpose of the society was to recognize and honor academic achievement in the liberal arts. Current admission requirements included a focus on liberal arts course work, knowledge of a second language and good moral character. No more than 10% of the graduates in arts and sciences would be eligible to join the society.
We knew, also, that PBK operates on a three-year cycle of admissions and assesses those aspects of the university which pertain to the arts and sciences. We realized, therefore, that our goal could not be accomplished quickly, especially since a university must have a nucleus of PBK faculty members before it can be considered. Over a period of years, then, we did work with PBK visiting teams; each of these visits pinpointed certain deficiencies, which we then addressed.
My own concern, after I left the office of vice president, was that future presidents would not keep pursuing the goal. However, eventually, three things came together: hiring of the requisite number of PBK faculty; the creation of the Society of Scholars, with admission requirements paralleling those of PBK; and, in 2011, the Institutions of Higher Learning-approved establishment of a program in the Classics—the study of ancient Greece and Rome which anchored the curriculum in all early colleges. A departmental name change to the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures further solidified the university’s commitment to the discipline.
Finally, on Aug. 4, 2018—my birthday—the news came that we would be awarded a chapter. On April 2, 2019, the installation took place, with 73 students being inducted and “foundational members” announced, including MSU President Mark E. Keenum, then provost Judy Bonner, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Rick Travis, and me.
Our goal was now realized, 40 years after it had been declared. Our chapter is number 287 of the current 290 chapters among more than 3,000 colleges and universities. MSU is now among the elite institutions of the country, and my lifelong dream of being a PBK member came true! The moral: never give up!
Robert E. “Bob” Wolverton, 95, retired in June after 43 years at Mississippi State. He holds a bachelor’s from Hanover College, a master’s from the University of Michigan, an honorary Doctor of Letters from the College of Mount St. Joseph and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina.
The Indiana native has been an educator for nearly 70 years, holding positions at the University of Georgia, Tufts and Florida State before coming to MSU. Since coming to State in 1977, he has served as a vice president, department head and professor. He was named a Grisham Master Teacher, the university’s highest teaching honor, in 2004, and in 2014 he became the first recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Legacy Award, an annual honor that now bears his name. He is also the namesake of Old Main Academic Center’s rotunda, which ushers thousands of students to and from their classes daily.