A Tradition of Excellence

Rhodes has a longstanding tradition of educating bright and socially responsible students who work together under the college motto, “Truth, Loyalty, Service.” Several times in Rhodes’ distinguished history, the most prestigious honor societies in the United States have established chapters on the campus that nurture and encourage this culture of excellence. Rhodes hosts chapters of Omicron Delta Kappa, Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board, three of the most prestigious national honorary fraternities, as well as a complement of societies specific to individual fields of study.

Omicron Delta Kappa

Omicron Delta Kappa was originally founded by three students at Washington and Lee University Dec. 3, 1914. John Rone ’71, director of college events and director of Rhodes’ Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning, explains, “Those students sought to recognize campus leaders—students and faculty—of exceptional quality and representing all phases of college life, and promote activism on campus and in the community. At Rhodes, nominees must excel and demonstrate leadership in at least one of five areas: scholarship; athletics; community service, religious activities or campus government; journalism and media; or creative and performing arts.”
The Phi Circle of ODK was established at Rhodes May 25, 1927, becoming the college’s first honor society. “Phi” is the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet, and Rhodes was the 21st college to be “tapped” into the society’s fold. There are currently 310 active chapters across the country.

Membership requirements in some ways are more liberal than those of other societies, allowing nominations of students, graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni. Members select only the most highly qualified individuals, limiting nominations to just three percent of the student body in a class year.

Last year the Phi Circle inducted 53 new students, plus English professor Rebecca Finlayson and Russian professor Alexandra Kostina, and local activist Ms. Onie Johns, on the basis of their outstanding records of leadership and service to their communities, Rone says. Johns founded Caritas Village, a thriving community service center near the college, where many members of the Kinney service organization, ODK, Mortar Board and the English honor society, Sigma Tau Delta, volunteer.

Omicron Delta Kappa also sponsors the Rhodes  Salvation Army Angel Tree every year before the holidays. Students, faculty and staff contribute to the popular gift drive for underserved children and senior citizens in the Memphis area.

“Membership in ODK is as much an obligation and responsibility in leadership as it is a mark of the highest distinction and honor,” Rone continues, citing that the society promotes an active role in the community, though that role is largely up to each member to decide. Invitation to the Phi Circle is regarded as the highest extracurricular honor a Rhodes student can attain. The society historically accepted only males into its ranks until the passage of Title IX in the 1970s, a federal law that forbade gender discrimination in federally funded higher education organizations, including honorary fraternities. In the same tradition, Mortar Board began as an organization accepting only females. To maintain a sense of tradition, ODK selects one Sophomore Man of the Year, and Mortar Board selects one Sophomore Woman of the Year.

Phi Beta Kappa

Rhodes’ culture of excellence and service through the liberal arts was recognized with the highest possible distinction in a meeting the evening of Dec. 5, 1949. On that night, Dr. Goodrich White of Emory University installed on the Rhodes campus Phi Beta Kappa’s Gamma Chapter of Tennessee. Founded in 1776, PBK is the nation’s oldest academic honor society. The charter was accepted by Dr. R.P. Strickler, professor of Greek and a member of PBK. Today, Dr. John H. Churchill ’71 serves as secretary (CEO) of the national society in Washington, DC.

Since Phi Beta Kappa celebrates and advocates excellence in the liberal arts, all local chapters require that prospective members demonstrate both depth and breadth in their liberal education. Election to Phi Beta Kappa entails an evaluative process carried out every spring, initiated by the chapter’s membership committee and then confirmed by a vote of the full chapter, whose resident members include current as well as retired faculty and staff. Students do not apply to Phi Beta Kappa, nor can they be nominated.

Professor of Greek and Roman studies Susan Satterfield, secretary-treasurer of the Rhodes PBK chapter, further specifies the guidelines for eligibility: “Every year our Rhodes chapter is permitted to invite up to two percent of the junior class and up to 10 percent of the senior class to become members. Similarly rigorous standards regarding academic achievement and integrity of character are maintained across each of the society’s 283 chapters, meaning that far fewer than one percent of all college students in the country are eligible for consideration.” English professor Scott Newstok, current chapter president, adds: “Since only seven percent of American colleges and universities have the honor of sheltering a chapter, the presence of Phi Beta Kappa on campus reflects well upon our college’s unfaltering commitment to a liberal arts curriculum.”

In addition to recognizing outstanding students, Rhodes’ Phi Beta Kappa has been hosting visiting speakers nearly ever year since 1956. It’s an impressive roster that has included notable writers, diplomats, scholars and Nobel laureates. This April 11, the chapter will bring to campus Dr. Randall Fuller to discuss his award-winning book From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, as part of a series of events commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Instrumental in securing the chapter’s 1949 charter was Dr. Peyton Nalle Rhodes, professor of physics and later president of the college. In honor of Dr. Rhodes, Gamma of Tennessee presents each year the Phi Beta Kappa Prize, the college’s highest academic honor. It is awarded to the graduating senior who “best exemplifies an exceptional combination of scholarship, creativity, achievement and a commitment to the liberal arts,” Professor Satterfield explains. The first recipient of the Rhodes Prize, Brian Thompson ’80, gave a compelling address to 2012 inductees about the enduring value of the liberal arts education he received at Rhodes, and how it has served him well across multiple career paths.

Rhodes Phi Beta Kappa alumni are always encouraged to attend the induction ceremony during commencement, as well as an annual PBK reception during Homecoming/Reunion Weekend.

Mortar Board

The first Mortar Board chapter, was established at Cornell University in 1892, became a national society in 1918. It was the nation’s first all-female honor society, recognizing the “three tenets of scholarship, leadership and service,” according to Regina Simmons, director of new student programs and adviser to the Rhodes chapter of Mortar Board. Rhodes’ own Torch chapter of Mortar Board was established in 1964 and is currently one of only 226 chapters nationally.

“Similar to ODK, Mortar Board is not affiliated with any particular major,” Simmons explains. New members are inducted at the end of the junior year by the senior membership based on qualification of the three equally weighted tenets. Last year, Mortar Board received about 100 qualified applications and accepted around 25 new members, about five percent of the junior class. In addition, Simmons was presented with the Advisor of the Year award by the Mortar Board national office.

While the three tenets have not changed over time, the interpretation of them has broadened somewhat. Says Simmons: “In the past, we looked at ‘service’ as community service, as we have in the Bonner and Kinney organizations. In recent years, we began to acknowledge student athletes as well. They provide a huge service—it takes a lot of time to practice, to go out and play and represent Rhodes in a powerful way, and there isn’t any compensation for that. We also welcome students who participate in other groups like the Rhodes Singers and the jazz band, who do not always get recognition.”

Of course, Mortar Board looks at the traditional meaning of service as well. One of the organization’s major interests is promoting literacy. It is a philanthropic partner of First Book, a national book donation organization that serves primarily underprivileged families. It also has held tutoring sessions at the nearby Caritas Village community center and hosted book clubs at a local women’s prison.

In addition, Mortar Board also promotes service in the form of campus citizenship. Rin Abernathy ’13 recalls: “Recently, we hosted a breakfast for the Rhodes housekeeping and physical plant staffs, because we feel they do a lot for the campus but may not always get recognized for that.”

Colleen Parrish ’13, current president of Mortar Board, has been working on an initiative to increase awareness of the society and its values. The project, codenamed “Cupcake Celebrations!” works by requesting nominations for outstanding faculty, staff and students who exemplify scholarship, leadership, service or outstanding character and campus citizenship. Nominees receive a cupcake, a token of thanks for their service to the campus community.