Goucher College (then the Woman’s College of Baltimore) was granted a charter by the National Council of Phi Beta Kappa on September 7, 1904 as the Beta of Maryland Chapter. Thus, Goucher became only the second college in the state of Maryland (after Johns Hopkins University) and the 63rd in the United States to be granted a charter.
Since that time, Goucher College has inducted approximately ten percent of each graduating class into this academic honor society, which ranks as the oldest and most distinguished in the nation. Not coincidentally, many of Goucher’s most distinguished alumnae earned induction into Phi Beta Kappa as a portent of their future success. These include Olive Wetzel Dennis, Sarah Tilghman Hughes, and Sara Haardt Mencken.
Only a few years after the college was founded in 1885, the faculty took the initiative to form a local chapter. The original book of minutes from 1905, held in the Goucher Archives, records the following history of the chapter:
“The first movement toward a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in the Woman’s College of Baltimore was a word of inquiry to the Secretary of the United Chapters as early as 1898. No petition however could be prepared for the Council that year, as the date of application for charter had already passed. For the council of 1901, a petition was prepared, but as there were technical mistakes in the method of drawing it, the Senate set it aside. The petition for the Council of 1904 was drawn up in due time, and was signed by the five members of Phi Beta Kappa then in the College faculty- Messrs William H. Maltbrie, Maynard M. Metcalf, and Charles W. Hodell, and Misses Fanny Cook Gates and Jennie L. Whitbread. A brief statement of the charms of the Woman’s College to such consideration were duly prepared and printed by Dr. Maltbrie. Formal endorsements to the number of twelve were secured from separate chapters, including Johns Hopkins, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Columbia, Chicago, Northwestern, and DePauw Universities.
Dr. Maltbrie as delegate of the Hopkins Chapter attended the meeting of the United Chapters at Saratoga, Sept. 7, 1904 and very largely through his presentation and defense of our petition, the Council granted the charter.
The organization of the chapter was taken up by the four petitioners- Miss Whitbread in the meantime having resigned from the college- and the details of establishing the chapter were gradually worked out. The constitution
and by laws were adopted and a list of 31 original members were elected from the alumnae. The formal inauguration of the chapter was accomplished May 18, 1905 with an address by Dr. Hamilton W. Mabie, a Senator of the United Chapters, the subject: ‘Ideals in a Commercial Age.'”
Although not the first chapter to admit women (that distinction belongs to the University of Vermont in 1875),
Goucher College does rank among the first all-women’s colleges to be granted a charter. In the same year that the National Council granted a charter to the Woman’s College of Baltimore, it also granted charters to Smith College, Wellesley College, and Mt. Holyoke College, all of which represented leaders in the field of women’s education. What makes Goucher College most remarkable is that the college had only existed for twenty years at the time the charter was granted and was a relative newcomer on the scene of prestigious institutions. When the college decided to become coeducational in 1986, men were also granted the honor of induction into the Beta Chapter of Maryland. In 2005, the chapter celebrated its centennial year.
Today, Goucher College continues its mission to reward academic excellence, in part, by the induction of its brightest students into Phi Beta Kappa. The election of new members has always been based on a variety of indicators including grade point average, good character, a demonstrated commitment to learning across multiple disciplines, and a track record of challenging oneself. Visual evidence of this reward can be seen on Commencement Day when inductees are granted the privilege of wearing their blue satin stoles adorned with the gold embroidered Greek letters “ΦBK.”
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, induction into the society has been largely honorific. The majority of inductees are poised to graduate shortly after induction, and therefore the chapter does not receive active participation from students in the same way as do most clubs and organizations. The chapter is largely run by the Senate, which is composed of those faculty members who themselves are members. Chapter Offices may be held by alumnae/i or Senate members.
The Beta Chapter of Maryland exists as an organization separated by both geographic and temporal space, but grounded in the shared belief that a love of learning is the guide of life. The concepts represented by Phi Beta Kappa are most important. Those students who receive membership are supported throughout their lives by ideas held in common among fellow initiates. Thus, by the thoughts and actions of its individual members, Beta of Maryland will forever carry the torch of intellectual curiosity and scholastic excellence.