By Maria Benevento
Creighton University’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa awarded an alumna membership to Melissa Kean on April 24, 2015. Jeffrey Hause, secretary of Phi Beta Kappa at Creighton, describes Kean as “an outspoken advocate for the liberal arts and sciences and for the Creighton faculty” with a “distinguished career in public service to higher education.” She is employed as Rice University’s Centennial Historian, is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council at Iowa State, became the president of Creighton’s National Alumni board in 2009, and has held a seat on the Creighton Board of Directors since 2011.
Kean has a bachelor’s degree in history and a J.D. from Iowa State, master’s degrees in history from Creighton and Rice, and a Ph.D. in the history of the American South from Rice. She won Rice’s John W. Gardner Award for the best dissertation in the humanities and social sciences. Her book, Desegregating Private Higher Education in the South: Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane, and Vanderbilt, was published in 2008 by Louisiana State University Press.
Kean’s interest in studying higher education began after her advisor at Rice suggested that she research the topic and she “fell in love with it.” Her favorite part of her job, (which also includes researching, writing articles, reviewing books, and occasionally teaching), is investigating and preserving Rice University’s history. Based in the university archives, Kean often goes out to collect historical artifacts. For example, before Rice renovated its old gym, she searched “every nook and cranny where people could shove things” and collected four hundred boxes of objects from athletic records to game film to old uniforms. She does the same thing on a smaller scale every week when people discover things in storage and call her in to sort out the important items. Kean also regularly updates the “Rice History Corner” blog with comments on interesting artifacts, often photos, from the university archives. She says that while the blog is “not the scholarly part” of her job, it is “a lot of fun.”
Kean became re-involved with Creighton after accompanying her daughter there for a college visit and noticing how much it had changed; as a historian of higher education, she wanted to understand how that had happened. She was asked to join the Alumni Board and loved coming back to campus, learning about the interesting things that were happening, and seeing a lot of “wonderful people.”
As a member of Creighton’s Board of Directors, Kean has been a strong proponent of the value of the liberal arts and sciences, a characteristic which Hause says helped lead to her selection for an alumna membership from “a large pool of highly impressive candidates.” He adds that Creighton University proudly maintains “the vision of the importance of a robust liberal arts education,” and its Phi Beta Kappa chapter “wanted to celebrate someone who has dedicated her talents to keeping that vision squarely before us.” Kean believes that while the liberal arts do “provide value in terms of career” by teaching people to communicate, they also have “inherent value” because “seeing and learning about beauty and truth, whether it’s truth in the chemistry lab or truth in a Victorian poem, helps you make sense out of your life and the world.”
Asked what receiving an alumna membership to Phi Beta Kappa meant to her, Kean replied, “A lot! I have worked as hard as I can—on the Creighton Board of Directors, on Creighton’s alumni board, and as an individual—to be a voice for the faculty, staff, and the students. To be given this honor makes it all worthwhile. It means more to me than anything else I’ve ever gotten. I’m so profoundly grateful—I can’t express how much—to have my colleagues think so highly of me.”
Photo credit: Brett Coomer.
Maria Benevento is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Theology and American Studies. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.