Harvard’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest academic honor society, welcomed its last batch of graduating seniors on Tuesday morning.
Ninety-two seniors joined the ranks of the nation’s oldest continuously operating Phi Beta Kappa chapter, enjoying some desert-themed poetry and a scientific reading at the 224th installment of the annual literary exercises in Sanders Theatre, an event which has been a staple of the College’s Commencement activities since 1782.
All students in the top 10 percent of each academic division according to grade point average are automatically considered for the honors society, and final elections are conducted by chapter officers on the basis of transcripts and departmental honors recommendations. Students not recommended for honors within their concentration typically will not be elected to the society.
Environmental Sciences professor Ann Pearson, president of Harvard’s chapter, which is called Alpha Iota of Massachusetts, opened the ceremony by discussing the award as not simply a “feather in the cap” of the seniors being honored but a “roadmap” for their futures, praising them for their “skills in critical thinking.”
The literary exercises also featured readings by poet Donald Revell and author Andrea Barrett, along with two performances by the commencement choir. Past speakers include New York Times reporter Linda J. Greenhouse ’68, a former Crimson editor, Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow, and poet Allen Ginsberg.
In addition to the graduating seniors, five members of the Class of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, were inducted as honorary members into the society, including Harvard Law professor Robert H. Mnookin ’64 and Kennedy School of Government professor Sheila S. Jasanoff ’64. The ceremony also recognized three professors—English professor Philip J. Fisher, Philosophy professor Alison Simmons, and Molecular and Cellular Biology lecturer Thomas Torello—who received teaching prizes from the society.
Although the chapter typically awards an honorary degree each year to a faculty member who will retire in that year, English professor Daniel G. Donoghue departed from tradition when choosing this year’s honoree, English professor emeritus Daniel B. Aaron. Aaron, who helped found the Library of America and received a National Humanities Medal in 2010, became an honorary member of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter even though he retired in 1983.
Donaghue lauded Aaron’s accomplishments, noting that despite collecting many awards and recognitions, the 101-year-old professor had never been invited to join the honors society.
“Today, we correct that oversight,” Donaghue said.
During the ceremony’s concluding benediction, Rev. Jonathan L. Walton, Pusey Minister in Memorial Church, encouraged the class to combine their knowledge with service.
“As you leave this place, be sure not to leave the presence of Harvard behind,” Walton said.
University President Drew G. Faust and interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister were among those in attendance at Tuesday’s event.
—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.