The overwhelming predominance of Division III majors among this year’s junior year inductees to Phi Beta Kappa has raised eyebrows across campus.
Of the seniors who will be inducted into the honor society tomorrow night, 76 percent have at least one Division III major. But according to statistics from the Registrar’s Office only 34 percent of the senior class is majoring in a Division III department. At the end of junior year the class is ranked by grade point average and the top five percent is inducted into the collegiate honor society at the start of senior year. This year’s 25 honorees will be inducted tomorrow night.
While 65 percent of the seniors have at least one Division II major, only 36 percent of the Phi Beta Kappa inductees are majoring in a Division II department. Similarly, 28 percent of the entire senior class has at least one Division I major, while 16 percent of the new Phi Beta Kappa inductees are majoring in a Division I subject.
Dean of the College Peter Murphy said he has not yet received any hard-and-fast statistics as to the breakdown of Phi Beta Kappa majors, but said he is not surprised.
“Given that most valedictorians in recent years have been from Division III, frequently with GPAs above 4.0, I guess I am not surprised,” Murphy said. “Why this is true seems to me to be a complicated business. I am sure that thinking about it would turn out to be very interesting. Do Division III departments give out more grades of A+?”
Students express their views
Brian Gerke ’99, one of the new members of the Society and a physics and English double major, hazarded some guesses as to why the number of Division III majors is higher.
“In my experience [Division III] has been neither easier nor harder, although the fact that there tend to be more well-defined “right” and “wrong” answers in Division III may make getting good grades less of a hit-and-miss affair,” he said.
Gerke added that Division III majors tend to have more confidence than majors in subjects such as English.
He explained this observation by noting that if a student does poorly in an English course, he might blame it on a professor’s grading bias or a lack of effort, while a student who does poorly in a Division III course would be more likely to come to the conclusion that he is not cut out for that subject.
As a result, Gerke said, the students who end up majoring in Division III subjects are those who have experienced academic success early on in their Williams careers. “I’ve never met a math major who thought she couldn’t do math,” he said. “But I’ve met some English majors who are afraid their writing is bad.”
Kate Dreher ’99, a biology and economics major who is also a new member of Phi Beta Kappa, said she attributes her slightly higher grades in Division III to her ability to grasp the concepts in biology more easily than in economics. But she added that the objective grading of biology classes may also have something to do with the higher grades.
“I do believe that in biology classes, some assignments can be graded more objectively,” she said. “ I think that professors might feel more comfortable giving a student full credit on a 20-point biology question if he or she mentions all of the relevant details than in giving full credit on an essay written for a Division I or Division II class where elements of style and presentation might receive more attention.”
One of only a scattering of single Division II majors to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa was religion major Jonathon Kravis ’99.
“In general I think professors in quantitative disciplines are more likely to give out very high grades for very good work than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences,” Kravis said.
He explained this by comparing two hypothetically excellent students, one from Division III and the other from Division I or II.
He said whereas it may be possible for the first student to answer all the problems correctly on a hypothetical test, and thus earn an A+ from the professor, it seems less likely for the second student to be able to demonstrate a comparable mastery of his or her subject material.
Kravis also noted that many Division III majors are pre-med students, and thus highly motivated.
Of the Division III majors in Phi Beta Kappa, nine come from the biology department. Chair of Biology Daniel Lynch attributed this trend to the high motivation and academic excellence of the biology majors.
“I would guess it may have to do with the fact that we are a large major, and a sizable proportion of our students are pre-meds who are very motivated students. Having said that, I can think of biology Phi Beta Kappas that were only interested in graduate school and were superb students.”
A history of the organization
According to archival information, the original chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded at the College of William and Mary in 1776. Four years later, this chapter granted charters to the Alpha of Connecticut at Yale and the Alpha of Massachussetts at Harvard. When Williams first attempted to get a charter in 1797, Harvard blocked its petition with a pocket veto because at that time the custom was to have only one chapter in each state.
Williams tried a second time to establish its own chapter in 1833. President Griffin supported the effort and sent two students to Union College to petition for a grant. They were unsuccessful, but they did return with the key of Kappa Alpha, another fraternity. This marked the beginning of fraternities at Williams College.
The grant for a chapter at Williams College was finally secured in 1864, but the document announcing the College as the 17th chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was not delivered until 1867.
Today’s new members still attend an induction ceremony where they receive their certificates and keys. In addition, they still wear the Williams chapter colors of pink and blue on their academic gowns at Convocation and Commencement.