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Eckerd College joins Phi Beta Kappa ranks

The Pinellas college becomes Florida's sixth with a chapter of the prestigious society.

Published August 10, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Donald Eastman III waited nervously.

Friday came and went. No word. On Saturday evening, as the college president sat in his kitchen, the telephone rang.

Good news.

Eckerd College, a private liberal arts school, was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, a milestone in the institution's 45-year history.

"This confirms Eckerd's realistic ambition to be one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country," said Eastman, Eckerd president.

The chapter will be the sixth in Florida and one of about 270 nationwide.

This was Eckerd's second try for the prestigious distinction. The college made it to the final round in 2000, but its application was not approved after news broke that the school was having financial problems, Eastman said.

The small college started the process all over, reapplying in time for the council's next meeting, held this weekend in Seattle. Applications are considered every three years.

"A lot of institutions wait a long, long time for this," Eastman said.

The University of South Florida has applied six times for its own chapter and failed.

Officials with Phi Beta Kappa could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The application process is lengthy and comprehensive, and the final paperwork has the thickness of a small dictionary.

If the society approves an application, administrators schedule a visit. From there, they make a recommendation to the national council, which ultimately decides.

"It's an extra vote of confidence in the quality of what's going on at Eckerd College," Eastman said.

Eckerd College has about 1,600 students and 100 faculty members, about a dozen of whom are Phi Beta Kappa members, Eastman said.

The new distinction places Eckerd a step further from its troubled financial past.

Three years ago, college trustees were embarrassed to learn that almost two thirds of the institution's endowment had been lost through projects and operations they had not approved.

Trustees restored the endowment, but the fiasco forced the retirement of Eastman's predecessor, Peter Armacost, who had led the college for 23 years.

Phi Beta Kappa are the initials of the Greek motto meaning "Love of wisdom, the guide of life." The academic society was founded at the College of William & Mary in 1776.

The society's emblem is a golden key. Notable members include former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., author John Updike, director Francis Ford Coppola and poet Rita Dove.

The chapters elect more than 15,000 members, typically senior undergraduates, every year.

In fact, Phi Beta Kappa members at a school are awarded a new chapter, rather than an institution.

Students cannot apply for membership, but must be nominated by current members after meeting certain academic requirements.

The news was bittersweet for faculty members at USF, who have started on their seventh application, said Charles Arnade, a distinguished USF professor of government and international affairs.

"It's the worst failure of my life," said Arnade, who has taught at USF for 47 years and has led four of the six attempts. But Arnade is happy for Eckerd.

"You cannot be a top university without having a Phi Beta Kappa chapter," he said.

Other chapters have been formed at Florida State University, the University of Florida, the University of Miami, Stetson University in DeLand and Florida International University in Miami.

[Last modified August 10, 2003, 02:02:50]

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