From the Secretary: Love of Learning in a Time of Crisis

Frederick M. Lawrence photo

Phi Beta Kappa has served as a beacon throughout American history, confronting troubled times by championing truth, learning, and service. We have recognized the achievements of young scholars in the midst of the Revolution, Civil War, the 1918 flu pandemic, two world wars, the Great Depression, and more recently the Great Recession.

Now, we are facing another great test: the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis has revealed the resilience, generosity, and courage of our ΦBK family. We are particularly grateful to the many Phi Beta Kappa members playing leadership roles at this critical moment: the doctors and healthcare professionals on the front lines, the policy-makers grappling with enormous social and economic issues, and the educators revamping in real time the education of literally millions of primary, secondary, and college-level students.

The Society’s best-known mission is the recognition of the most accomplished liberal arts and sciences graduates in the country each spring. At a time when students have lost so many opportunities, we knew the Society must work to ensure that the deserving scholars in the 2020 and 2021 classes would still receive the recognition they earned as the top liberal arts and sciences students in the nation. To make this possible, our chapter officers worked tirelessly to reach scattered students with their invitations and to create meaningful induction experiences using available online platforms. 

At the same time, we recognized that this year, the cost of the induction fee presented a particular burden. Students have lost campus jobs or post-graduation employment opportunities. Their families have suffered physically and financially from the pandemic.

In some cases, chapters and their institutions had resources to help cover these fees, and we are especially grateful for this commitment both to the students and to the Society on those campuses. Given the devastation to many campus budgets, however, we knew this kind of support would not be available for many of our chapters. That is why the Society launched the Emergency Fund for Student Inductions, a tangible recognition of the widespread financial challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis. As of the time of writing this column, the fund has raised well over $150,000. 

I am particularly grateful to Peter Buck (ΦΒΚ, Bowdoin) for his extraordinary generosity and to Jonathan Gray (ΦΒΚ, University of Pennsylvania) for his foundation’s significant support. Because of their commitment, along with the dedication of other supporters, nearly 2,000 new ΦΒΚ members with demonstrated financial need received the opportunity to accept this honor that they worked so hard to earn. 

Would our founders in 1776 have imagined our circumstances today? Actually, they started ΦBK in the early days of the Revolutionary War under the bombardment of a visible foe, as we face an invisible one. I believe they would understand our moment very well, and they would tell us to persevere and to trust in the future. They would remind us that it is the love of learning that will sustain us and propel us forward with the creativity and imagination needed to move beyond this moment of crisis. Stay safe and stay healthy. 

Frederick M. Lawrence
Secretary and CEO