Behind the scenes with Stanford’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter

Nov. 14, 2022, 9:49 p.m.

Magna cum laude and summa cum laude of the Latin honors system are the graduation honors that come to students’ minds at many higher education institutions across the country.

But Stanford has taken a different tack. Students with high grades are recognized with “distinction,” and a select group of students are invited to be a part of the University’s Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) chapter — an award that, according to University leaders, carries prestige but is also one that few students said they knew about.

“In my experience, people don’t really talk about [PBK] that much so I hadn’t really heard of it before,” said Sophia Nesamoney ’23, a former Daily editor who was elected to Stanford’s chapter.

Latin honors spread through higher education institutions as the emblem for high-achieving college graduates after it was first adopted by Harvard College in 1869. The specific qualifications for the system’s three levels of distinction — cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude — vary between institutions and are usually based on a combination of student grade point average (GPA), time spent in classes and faculty recommendations. 

Stanford does not offer Latin honors, but students are able to graduate with distinction, an honor awarded to the top 15% based on cumulative GPA. Meanwhile, the Stanford PBK chapter also recognizes students who have demonstrated academic excellence in their major and across a breadth of disciplines. 

General conditions for PBK elections are detailed by the national office and vary by school. But first, the school must be selected to have its own chapter.

“It’s considered a mark of prestige for the college itself to qualify [for] Phi Beta Kappa. It’s kind of picky in which schools it lets in. So my recollection is they probably add two or three new schools a year,” said law professor Hank Greely, who heads Stanford’s PBK chapter in addition to his work directing the Center for Law and the Biosciences.

But despite the prestige a school may feel for having a chapter, students said they were generally not aware of the University’s PBK offering.

PBK electee Hailey Horowitz ’23 said she “didn’t really know what it was.”

“I got an email and I thought it was just spam, so then I deleted it,” she added. “And then the academic advisor for my neighborhood sent out an email being like there have been so many different scam or fake awards and honor societies. But [this] was actually legit.”

While talk of PBK may not be very present in students’ daily lives, the Stanford PBK chapter has had a long history on campus.

Stanford first established its chapter of PBK in 1903, according to Greely, electing 10% of the graduating class for its membership each year since then. Of the 10%, up to one-fifth of the students are elected during their junior year, while the rest are elected in their senior year. 

Greely added that GPA is the first factor taken into consideration before looking at the breadth of a candidate’s academic exploration. Students must receive a letter grade of B-minus or higher in at least three Stanford courses taken for at least three units in each of the three major disciplines: humanities, social sciences and STEM. 

Classifying interdisciplinary classes also presents a challenge, Greely said. 

“One thing that we did under my leadership was recognize that some classes really fit more than one category,” Greely said. “A class I teach gets put in all three — it’s [Introduction to] Law and the Biosciences. So if you take that class, it can count toward any of the three, but it can only count toward one of them.”

Students said they appreciated that earning honors isn’t necessarily a prevailing culture at Stanford.

“I think it is nice to have [PBK] be kind of a very small group, very private and not have it feel like you underperformed if you didn’t get it,” Horowitz said. “I know, [at] other schools, people can feel like they underperformed if they didn’t get some kind of Latin honors. Since it’s such a small group here and it’s not a big deal at all, I don’t think that it’s like you’re missing anything if you don’t have it.”

Kelly Wang is the vol. 264 Music desk editor for the Arts & Life section. Contact Arts & Life at arts 'at'

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