Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the induction ceremony of the newest members of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. About twenty juniors and around 50 seniors were invited to join this year. It was a wonderful event for them and for the many proud family members, faculty, and staff in attendance. And as an alumna of WFU and a member of PBK as well, I was proud to see these exceptional young men and women being honored. I knew a few of them and they are terrific.
In addition to celebrating the students, a member of the faculty was given an honorary membership as well. The professor was Mary Foskett of the Religion department. I have worked with Mary for many years and she is an exceptional teacher-scholar and has such a heart for both students and scholarship – a most deserving recipient of this honor.
The keynote speaker at the event was Blake Morant, dean of the School of Law (and a PBK member as well.) Dean Morant opened by asking the audience if we knew some of the most famous members of Phi Beta Kappa (see list here). He then shared a story about his first job following law school. He had been on an Army ROTC scholarship and then was part of the JAG Corps (Judge Advocate General).
Disclaimer: Dean Morant is a phenomenal speaker and a very charismatic storyteller, so I can not do his live performance justice. But it was a good story.
In his first JAG Corps assignment, he was at Fort Bragg here in NC and was working on general contract law, which is evidently one of the most complicated forms of law to practice. His commanding officer assigned him to work on a contract for a particular piece of equipment – a tank – that the 3 star general of the base wanted to purchase.
Dean Morant researched this exhaustively and found that there was an endangered species of bird on base that was protected by new EPA rules that applied to military bases (as well as the general population) and that the general could not get this tank because of the risk to this endangered bird.
He presented his masterfully written briefing memo to his commanding officer, basically saying the general could not get the tank. The officer read it and said it was one of the most thorough and well-developed briefings ever – and that Dean Morant would have to be the one to meet the general to tell him no in person. Evidently the general was a real Patton-style guy and not used to hearing the word “no.” The prospect of having to break this bad news to the general was fearsome indeed.
Being extremely well rounded in his own liberal arts undergraduate experience at the University of Virginia, Dean Morant relied on his critical thinking skills and tried to think outside of the box (or base as it were) to find other solutions. He drove all around the base to see if there were other areas that did not have this bird in residence, but would also meet the needs of the general and would allow him to get the tank. He was able to find a different section of land that had no endangered birds and room for the types of tank drills required.
He amended the briefing memo to show that the general could both safeguard the endangered bird and get him the tank he wanted. A win for everyone. But especially for Dean Morant, who had the academic training to think creatively and problem-solve. He credited his undergraduate experience for helping him develop those skills.
After this story, Dean Morant urged the students to let this induction into Phi Beta Kappa be the *beginning* of a life of great things, not the crowning achievement. Hard work and a firm grounding in the liberal arts can make anything possible – and he stressed that now more than ever, we need people with liberal arts backgrounds to help look into the problems of the world and find solutions.
Following the induction ceremony, the new members, their families, and faculty and staff celebrated the success of these great students. It was a great night for all.
Congratulations to all our new members!