“Picture us under the oak tree in Shields Courtyard, with a gentle breeze blowing.” Naomi Janowitz, a professor of religious studies and president of the campus Phi Beta Kappa chapter, sets an imaginary scene on May 27 for about 90 students and family members attending the first-ever online induction ceremony of the campus’ Phi Beta Kappa society.
We may be in cyberspace, but in her academic regalia, Janowitz, along with history professor Eric Rauchway, music professor Beth Levy, and librarian emerita Kate Mawdsley, maintain the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony traditionally held under Shields’ majestic oak. In 2019 a rogue thunderstorm forced a last-minute move to the Wright Theater — serendipitously the namesake of Celeste Turner Wright, founder of the campus Phi Beta Kappa chapter. This year, on a day when the temperature hit 103 degrees, meeting online had its advantages.
Janowitz led the ceremony, Rauchway shared the history and Mawdsley read out the students’ names from an online yearbook before pronouncing them members. When Janowitz gave the cue, the party erupted in cheers.
The Zoom ceremony is a long way away from the society’s founding by five college students in a Virginia tavern on December 5, 1776. But in a way, it’s closer than we might imagine. Formed during the political and social turmoil of the American Revolution, the founders envisioned a secret society that would give members the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. They believed that a new nation required new cultural and political institutions, and they were committed to intellectual fellowship shaped by the values of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor.
Students who were invited to join Phi Beta Kappa but did not attend the ceremony can still accept their invitation.