Interview with New ΦBK Secretary Frederick M. Lawrence

By Krysta M. Larson

On August 1, Frederick M. Lawrence began his position as the 10th Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Lawrence was inducted into the Society during his junior year at Williams College and later graduated from Yale Law School, where he now serves as Visiting Professor of Law and Senior Research Scholar in Law. 

Lawrence is a renowned lawyer, scholar, teacher, and activist who has spent much of his career advocating for the arts and sciences, free expression, and civil rights. He is a leading advocate of strong bias crime legislation and has written about the subject in numerous journals and in his book Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law (Harvard University Press, 1999). 

President of Brandeis University from 2011 to 2015, Lawrence previously served as Dean of George Washington University Law School. Read more about Secretary Lawrence here


What are the greatest benefits you’ve received as a result of your liberal arts education, both in your career and in your personal life? 

LAWRENCE: I think of my entire career – as a legal scholar and teacher, attorney, law school dean, university president and now especially as secretary of Phi Beta Kappa – as “applied liberal arts” in action. My coursework, from English, art history and music, to history, philosophy and religion, to political science, economics, mathematics and physics, continues to influence my understanding of the world and help me shape solutions to pressing challenges. I always told my law students that the essence of a first-rate legal education is an advanced program in applied liberal arts. In my personal life, my education has allowed me to experience the cultural life of the places I have lived and to which I have traveled. And literary fiction has been my lifetime companion. I always have a work of fiction on my night stand and iPad.

You are hailed as one of the nation’s leading experts on freedom of speech and civil rights. How does a liberal arts education lend itself to the pursuit of equality and justice?


LAWRENCE: The lifeblood of liberal arts is a commitment to free inquiry and respect. Either in dialogue with others, or through the study of texts, this engagement drives our commitment to free speech and expression, and to equal treatment of all members of society. Free inquiry requires not only speaking but also listening. Thus a society dedicated to free inquiry must be one in which all are able to participate equally and the dignity of all is respected.

What do you see as the major barriers to freedom of thought and inquiry in American society today?

LAWRENCE: I am deeply concerned that a lack of civility for other members of society can cause people to self-censor their own expression and their willingness to explore new ideas and approaches. The fear of an excessive and ad hominem attack causes some to withdraw from discussion and debate. What is required is a robust exchange of ideas in which opinions are challenged but those who hold alternative positions are not delegitimized. In my own writing I have referred to this as the need for “vigorous civility.” 

The challenge of building a society in which we disagree agreeably is exacerbated by the role of social media. This is especially challenging for students who find that a single expression, perhaps even one they may subsequently regret, can go viral and have deleterious affects. But my concern is not limited to students. We must all commit ourselves to a more reasoned and civil form of dialog in which we challenge each other’s positions but not our motives. This is essential if freedom of thought and inquiry are to thrive.


What are you hoping to accomplish during your term as the secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society?


LAWRENCE: I am privileged to build from a platform that my predecessors have constructed. I hope to expand the impact that The Phi Beta Kappa Society has on the cultural and intellectual life of the nation and in the lives of our roughly 500,000 members. In particular, I would like to see us continue to champion the liberal arts and sciences, so much under assault today, and expand our focus on the role of free expression and academic freedom in our society. I also hope that, just as the student population of American colleges and universities has become increasingly multi-cultural and international, our Phi Beta Kappa family too will become increasingly diverse. We are in the midst of an exciting transformation. 

On a lighter note, have you always been a singer? What do you like to sing most?


LAWRENCE: Yes, I have always been a singer and a musician. In college, I had to choose between serious dedication either to my French Horn or singing. Ultimately, I chose the latter, and participated in the Williams College Choral Society. (I did play in, and ultimately co-led, the Williams College Marching Band, but that’s another story for another day!) During law school, I sang with the New Haven Chorale, which helped me keep perspective and become part of the wider town life. As a young assistant US attorney in New York, I sang with the New York Choral Society and performed at Carnegie Hall, most memorably with Peter, Paul and Mary. My favorite choral works are Brahms’ Requiem, Britten’s War Requiem, and Bach’s B Minor Mass. I also enjoy singing folk music and rock. 

When you read for pleasure, what captures your attention?

LAWRENCE: We read imaginative fiction because we cannot know enough people. I am particularly drawn to the people I “meet” in fiction. Most recently, I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, encountering Sebald’s extraordinarily compelling cast of characters in the rich and detailed world that he creates. His novels amount to a new genre where fiction and non-fiction merge. 

Would you rather explore outer space or the deepest parts of the ocean? Why? 

LAWRENCE: Outer space because we do not yet know what kinds of intelligent life may exist in other galaxies that we might explore. The ocean, as deep as it may go, has a limit. Space, so far as we can understand the concept of infinity, is limitless. But as Emerson said, the most important journey is the one within, the intellectual quest.

Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “Learning for all of life.”  So, what do you want to learn next?

LAWRENCE: In preparation for Phi Beta Kappa’s Book Awards dinner in December, I have a splendid curriculum set out for me. I look forward to reading each of the winning works, which cover a remarkable range of subjects, from Gordon Tesky’s The Poetry of John Milton, to Thor Hansen’s The Triumph of Seeds, to Emily (E.M.) Rose’s The Murder of William of Norwich. As a legal scholar, I am also exploring the consequences for American education of a more global student body and how American law can enable them to contribute to our society. Many of them will become members of Phi Beta Kappa, so this really brings us full-circle.

Krysta M. Larson is a senior at Creighton University double majoring in English and journalism. She is a recently inducted member of Phi Beta Kappa. Creighton is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.