Steven House Reflects on Time as Provost, Elon’s Journey to Phi Beta Kappa

By Alycia Wilson

“The journey is as important as the goal.” The mantra that kept Steven House focused on securing a Phi Beta Kappa chapter for Elon University in 2010 is one known all too well by Phi Beta Kappa alumni as they share in a scholarly identity earned through a rigorous journey to excellence. 

“Phi Beta Kappa has changed the university. We had a board member who, for the past 20 years, used to tell us all the time, ‘My job is to make you think scary thoughts.’ And one of those scary thoughts was Elon can earn a Phi Beta Kappa chapter if we really focus on making academic excellence the center and bring in good students and good faculty,” House said. “I don’t think people really thought it could be done, but we set our mind to it. It took a while, but we got it done. You don’t just decide tomorrow you want to be excellent. You have to strive to do it over a long period of time.”

House recently announced that he would be concluding his service as provost of Elon in December 2019 and said his partnership with the faculty in Elon’s journey to Phi Beta Kappa was one of his proudest contributions to the university. This was an accomplishment that took a long journey of nine years, dating back to his first position at Elon University as dean.

“When I was hired by President Lambert in 2001, he had just merged the units of arts and humanities and the social sciences and the sciences together to create a college of arts and sciences, and they gave me the charge of trying to get Phi Beta Kappa,” House said. “That is literally the best charge a new dean can get, because what you’re trying to do is move the university in an extremely positive way towards academic excellence.”

Taking the charge of trying to get Phi Beta Kappa and complete Elon’s current strategic ten-year plan, the Elon Commitment from 2010-2020, worked to House’s advantage as his commitments centered around strengthening the arts and sciences throughout the university. These would serve as a core that was necessary to earn and maintain the accreditations and honors in all of the schools at Elon.

One of House’s primary goals was to increase the number of arts and sciences students, one of the institution’s prerequisites for earning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Currently, House said, Elon is up to two-thirds of the students having a major and/or a minor in the arts and sciences. In addition, he helped to reduce the student-to-faculty ratio and attract more Phi Beta Kappa faculty. Elon’s foreign language program was also enhanced, and a center for the advancement of teaching and learning was created, where experts work with faculty to make sure that they understand what it means to be an Elon teacher-scholar, and that they understand how to teach in Elon’s way of engaged and experiential learning. 

“We have more than half of the faculty at the university in the arts and sciences, so certainly that is stressed,” House said. “We have an honors fellows program, but we also have fellows programs in each of the schools that stress the liberal arts and sciences. We’re proud to call ourselves a residential, liberal arts institution.”

At the end of this year, House will be passing the torch as provost of Elon, having helped to make it a more flourishing institution for liberal arts students. He will stay with Elon as its executive vice president through June 2021. 

The liberal arts experience, according to House, helps students learn to think critically and analytically, improves students’ ability to communicate, awakens a joy and passion for learning, teaches students to be informed and responsible global citizens, and develops disciplined habits of mind within the chosen major. Additionally, Elon prepares students to deal with messy, unstructured problems and, yes, to be able to handle failure.

“This is the essence of an Elon liberal arts university education, and we believe these graduates can change the world,” House said.

Alycia Wilson is a senior at the University of New Hampshire majoring in journalism with a concentration in political science. She interned at Plugged in with Greta Van Susteren in the fall. The University of New Hampshire is home to the Beta of New Hampshire chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photo courtesy of Elon University.