By Isaac Hughes
For President of Middlebury College Laurie L. Patton, being a member of Phi Beta Kappa isn’t just a matter of academic achievement. It’s also a family affair.
This is because Patton exists at the nexus of an entire family tree of Phi Beta Kappa members, which includes her mother, sister, and niece.
Growing up, Patton felt a pressure to meet the high standards set by the women in her life. For example, she described how her grandmother would frequently mention her mother’s status as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, making sure to use it against her.
“Whenever my mother did anything stupid or made a mistake [after being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa], my grandmother would say ‘and you, a Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley?’” said Patton.
These memories served as Patton’s initial relationship with Phi Beta Kappa. Hinging on this relationship was her notion that in order to gain the respect of the matriarchs of her family, she would need to get herself inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, too.
“It was originally a thing about being good enough for the family, and being a person who had smarts and could accomplish and wouldn’t be condescended to if I achieved this honor,” she said.
While Patton initially viewed Phi Beta Kappa as another hoop to jump through in order to fit in with her high-achieving family, she has since learned a much different lesson about the true meaning of Phi Beta Kappa.
Spurred by her experience in leadership positions in higher education—including her role as dean of arts and sciences at Duke University and her current role as president of Middlebury—Patton learned more about the origins of Phi Beta Kappa, which are rooted in the life of the mind and the friends that you find along the way. This aspect of Phi Beta Kappa can be elusive at elite colleges, where there is already so much pressure to succeed.
Patton now believes that Phi Beta Kappa can serve as an antidote to this pressure. Instead of being another stressor among the student body, Patton asserts that Phi Beta Kappa membership can actually promote a healthier, more joyful academic environment on college campuses.
“Wisdom is not about the academic accomplishment; the wisdom is about pursuit of the life of the mind in the context of friendship,” she said. “And that’s a really, really different kind of thing . . . we have an opportunity with Phi Beta Kappa to pursue those values, and that is what matters to me more than the accomplishment.”
In her current role as president of Middlebury, Patton keeps these core values in mind and is proud of the ways that Middlebury’s Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony champions them.
“We have a really lovely ceremony at Middlebury, and people get the chance to hang out afterwards and so on,” she said. “It feels very intimate in a way.”
One example of the nature of the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Middlebury is the inclusion of biographies of each inductee.
“It is so much fun to hear how and what their plans are for their future, what their next steps are, and I have enjoyed that immensely,” said Patton.
By being able both to look back on her past relationship with Phi Beta Kappa and forward in her role as a leader and role model to current inductees, Patton has an incisive yet comprehensive point of view to share in the advice she has for new members: “Focus on the life of the mind and the meaning it can bring.”
While Patton may have wished to receive this advice herself when she was a young inductee, she is ultimately grateful for the members of Phi Beta Kappa who adorn her family tree, and the life of learning which has grown from these generational roots.
Isaac Hughes is a recent graduate of Knox College, where he majored in environmental studies and philosophy. He was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior in 2020.