Fall 2011 Initiation Speech

The Alpha of Florida Phi Beta Kappa Chapter
Fall Initiation Address
Dr. Garnett S. Stokes
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
December 4th, 2011
Beth Moore Lounge


Congratulations to each of our initiates and to your parents. We are so proud of you and impressed with the record you have achieved during your years at Florida State. 

After 76 years, only 3,200 of you from Florida State University and the Florida State College for Women are Phi Beta Kappas – our very best and brightest, shining examples for all members of our university community. Your Phi Beta Kappa key not only symbolizes your accomplishments and excellence, it also stands as a point of pride for Florida State, the first of only six chapters in Florida. It is a message — for the rest of your lives —about you and your university. 

As you accept this mark of distinction today, I’d like you to take a few moments to consider its relevance. Robert Maynard Hutchins, the former president of the University of Chicago, once said, "The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives." He also said, "There is only one justification for universities, as distinguished from trade schools. They must be centers of criticism." 

Universities do no less than produce graduates who shape culture, ethics and how our world functions. Their vital role is to create critical thinkers, who are well-rounded, who can see all sides and emerge with the clearest vision. We know there is great value in this for society, and in January 1926, 10 members of the Florida State College for Women knew it, too, when they went to work compiling the extensive academic documentation they would need to submit to the national office of Phi Beta Kappa in applying for a chapter here. They were dedicated and determined, and eight years later, in 1934, they were granted the Alpha chapter in Florida. The official installation occurred in 1935 and was attended by eminent dignitaries such as Congressman Claude Pepper and speakers from Princeton University and the Florida Supreme Court. 

Three years later, in 1938, the Beta chapter was established in Gainesville at the University of Florida. Four others would eventually follow. The relevance of this in the history of higher education in Florida cannot be overstated. 

In highest regard, several of the buildings on the FSU campus were named in honor of the faculty who helped to found that Alpha chapter, and Professor Emeritus and Honorary Doctor of Chemistry Katherine Blood Hoffman, a 1936 initiate, served as an officer and active member of our chapter for more than 60 years. 

We might ask, "Why did they strive so hard to make this happen?" And. . . why, in 2011, should an academic honor society that dates all the way back to 1776 matter very much? The answer lies in the knowledge among that small group of academics of what membership in Phi Beta Kappa meant. It was a treasure they held dear that automatically spoke volumes about the excellent college they were part of and the great foundation they had built for any university to come. They wanted to be taken seriously —for their prowess in the liberal arts and their love for freedom of inquiry and expression, values that lie at the heart of the nation’s oldest and most respected academic honor society.

Today, we find ourselves in difficult times for higher education. In an era when the liberal arts are being questioned for their usefulness and the definition of education is being narrowed, I believe that academic societies such as Phi Beta Kappa are more vital and more meaningful than ever. 

By virtue of your selection and the exclusivity of this order, we know you have earned the right to be placed on a continuum going back decades that connects the brightest, clearest minds of the past with those of the future. You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that constancy and structure defining and guiding us with a sense of purpose, blending reason, emotion and human need. When the picture is blurred and the "right" ways for civilized nations to move forward are all over the map, societies such as Phi Beta Kappa provide a compass. It is reassuring to know we are producing the critical thinkers such as yourselves who will lead us, who will demonstrate what is noble, what is heroic, what is just. 

It is also true that belonging to a society as prestigious as Phi Beta Kappa can be transformative in and of itself. Some students don’t come from backgrounds where their academic and intellectual successes were celebrated. Having such societies that assign importance to achievement is crucial. While President John F. Kennedy may not have come from humble, uneducated beginnings, plenty of other Phi Beta Kappas have. It was the honor society that pulled them all into an ethos of shared values, creating the critical mass that allows for courage and the strength to lead. 

While you may identify yourself with a specific discipline, remember there is this broader, larger view, one you may not yet recognize. In achieving success at Florida State, you have identified yourself as someone who is extraordinarily gifted in asking fundamental questions and probing for new insight. Whether you go on to graduate school or professional school or directly to a career, or to pursue some other endeavor, each of you connects to a core that is much greater than your discipline. 

At the heart of what you have studied is an exploration of how things work, and this quest for knowledge is what yields our ability to predict or anticipate the future. There is power in that because it allows us to improve our quality of life, to solve problems, to be good stewards of each other and of our planet. 

The faculty of Florida State College for Women wanted Phi Beta Kappa because it is lofty. It is the pinnacle. Companies and professions across the nation understand it and appreciate it. They know it recognizes undergraduates who have excelled in the arts and sciences and all that that means for their future contributions. They know you can use your knowledge to anticipate and then determine what the future will be. They look to you in admiration and expectation, and we are all depending on you, especially now. 

That is the relevance of this honor. I urge you not to see this initiation as another addition to your impressive resume for which you worked very hard but which becomes forgotten through the years. My intention is to remind you you’re here because you are exceptional and because people who came before you thought it was crucial you be elevated and publicly recognized to make a statement. 

Today, you have become a member of an elite group known around the world. Wear your membership proudly and do your part to promote and protect it. Keep in mind those early Florida State inductees for whom this was so very important. Many carried their key on their person their entire lives and some took it to the grave. Its message — we intend to be the best — meant that much to them. 

I know you will add distinction to whatever path you choose. I hope you will continue to appreciate and treasure this particular distinction of Phi Beta Kappa as you make that journey, and that you will continue to question and be guided by a strong sense of values and ethics. 

I congratulate you again on attaining membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and I wish you the greatest possible success.