Wofford College received its chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the 1940 triennial meeting of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, bringing to fruition more than 10 years of work by three Phi Beta Kappa members who then were serving on the faculty: President Henry Nelson Snyder; Dr. David Duncan Wallace, class of 1894; and Dr. John West Harris class of 1916, a brash and brilliant young English professor not afraid to campaign vigorously in the conviction that his alma mater deserved membership. (Dr. Harris later founded the National Beta Club, which still has its headquarters in Spartanburg).
Students are normally considered for election to Phi Beta Kappa at Wofford after they have earned 100 credit hours with a cumulative GPA of 3.600. Election is not automatic. Resident members of the chapter consider scholarship, character, intellectual curiosity, creative thinking, diversity of academic interests and pursuits, and other factors in the election process. The chapter may elect only 10 percent of a graduating class in any year.
At the end of the last academic year, there were approximately 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States. Only 276 of them have the right to induct their graduates into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's most prestigious liberal arts honor society. There are five independent Phi Beta Kappa colleges and universities in the Carolinas: Wofford, Davidson, Duke, Furman and Wake Forest.
Founded at the College of William and Mary in December 1776, Phi Beta Kappa was the first of the Greek letter fraternities and adopted such rituals as the badge, the secret oath, and the special handclasp from the various secret societies of the day.
Phi Beta Kappa, however, also was devoted to the principles of "friendship, morality, and literature (or learning)," and these characteristics gradually attained the greatest emphasis. John Quincy Adams, Edward Everett and Joseph Story, members of the Harvard chapter, are credited with making the fraternity a public literary and honor society for undergraduates in the 1830s. Women were first admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in 1875 at the University of Vermont.
Only two chapters of Phi Beta Kappa existed in the Southeast before 1900, but gradually the historic state universities and the most outstanding private colleges began to secure chapters. The process of earning a charter often takes many years and standards are very high. Final approval comes by vote of all the chapters at the triennial meetings of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. At the August 1994 triennial meeting in San Francisco, 53 colleges and universities sought chapters, but only seven institutions even qualified for a vote.
With about 500,000 members across the country, Phi Beta Kappa today sponsors numerous programs to encourage scholarship and learning, including the Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards and the visiting scholar, academic fellowship and leadership programs. The society's official journal is The American Scholar, a quarterly magazine featuring articles of cultural and intellectual interest.