Last year 62 students at the University of Arizona were tapped for membership of Phi Beta Kappa. The price of putting the lofty Greek letters after their names was a measly $30.
Traditionally people have found it hard to say no. Phi Beta Kappa carries a frisson of elitism, or at least another line on the CV. But this time 23 of them never even bothered to respond, the Arizona Daily Star reported, under the headline "Phi Beta What?" The society's ranks run to nearly half a million Americans and include President Bill Clinton. Usually universities vie for permission to establish a local chapter. So when the article was reprinted in its normally sleepy newsletter, The Key Reporter, it had loyal members choking on their cornflakes.
Not only had some students never heard of Phi Beta Kappa, which selects suitable candidates from the top 10 per cent of liberal arts graduates, they failed to distinguish it from less venerable interlopers like Phi Kappa Phi.
Phi Beta Kappa was originally a secret club founded by students at the College of William and Mary in 1776. But its heyday began in the late 19th century when, on the back of American industrial wealth, many of the country's exclusive private clubs and academic societies were formed. Members receive a gold key with the Greek letters inscribed these being the first letters of the phrase philosophia biou kybernetes (wisdom is the guide of life).
In a survey, it turned out that Arizona was not alone. The University of Hawaii and the University of Texas had similar take-up problems. But at many colleges acceptance was still close to 100 per cent. The society is now engaged in discreetly raising its profile.
That was not enough for member Robert Hellman. "If students cannot distinguish Phi Beta Kappa from a host of other Greek letter organisations, they are not Phi Beta Kappa material," he thundered in a letter to the Key.