Phi Beta Kappa Chapter Alpha of California celebrates 125th anniversary

November 29, 2023

Phi Beta Kappa logoPhi Beta Kappa Chapter Alpha of California is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its charter with two noteworthy initiatives: a public lecture series and the compilation of an Honor Roll of members of Phi Beta Kappa among faculty, staff, and graduate students.

Phi Beta Kappa originated during the American Revolution as a college society. Providing an alternative to traditional drinking clubs, it aspired to promote discussion of a broad range of intellectual topics. In 1883, the 25 chapters in existence formed the national Phi Beta Kappa Society, and today, there are chapters at about 300 U.S. institutions. The modern society continues to celebrate excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and champions freedom of thought and the ideals of a liberal arts education. 

The local chapter goes back to 1898, a period of significant growth and change for the University, including the origins of the Beaux Arts campus plan that gave us many of the central campus’ core landmarks and green spaces. In the spring of that year, at the urging of Martin Kellogg, then president of the University of California, several members of the Berkeley faculty who had been initiated elsewhere into Phi Beta Kappa petitioned the National Council of the Phi Beta Kappa Society for the establishment of a chapter at the University. In response, a charter was granted on September 7, 1898, and Alpha of California was organized at Berkeley on December 14, 1898. 

Alpha of California is not only the first chapter established in California but also the first chapter created west of the Rockies. Alpha of California is managed by a committee of volunteers who are PBK members of the faculty or staff. Its main activities are to select those to be invited to join PBK, that is, high-achieving graduating seniors (and a few juniors) who have completed a broad program of studies with distinction; to raise money for and select the recipients of several fellowships to be awarded to graduate students who are PBK members; and to fund induction fee waivers for invited students with financial need. 

125th Anniversary Lecture Series

With the co-sponsorship of the College of Letters & Science, Alpha of California has arranged a special series of public lectures celebrating the breadth of studies in the liberal arts and sciences offered by our campus.

Images of series lecture speakers

Khiara M. Bridges, Saul Perlmutter, Eileen A. Lacey, Thomas W. Laqueur

Wednesday, November 15, 2023 at 5:00 pm
Khiara M. Bridges, Professor of Law
"Race in the Roberts Court"
Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall 

Professor Bridges was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Spelman College, where she was valedictorian of her class. She received a J.D. from Columbia Law School and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. Her areas of expertise range from civil rights and constitutional law to critical legal theory and law and society, as well as family law, children’s rights, reproductive rights, and racial and social justice. She was co-lead scholar for a major Amicus Brief in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and testified at a Senate Judicial Committee about the legal consequences of the Dobbs decision. In her lecture, Bridges will argue that the Court’s impoverished conceptualization of what “counts” as racism against people of color is a strategy that the Court deploys to accomplish regressive ends. This constrained understanding of racism permits the Court to do nothing to destabilize and disestablish the country’s existing racial hierarchy. Her lecture will use the Court’s Dobbs decision to make the argument.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023 at 4:00 pm
Saul Perlmutter, Franklin W. and Karen Weber Dabby Professor of Physics, Senior Scientist Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics
“Scientific Critical Thinking: A Missing Ingredient in Science Education”
Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall
This lecture will be followed by a reception.

UPDATE! This lecture will also be livestreamed. Register here.

Professor Perlmutter graduated from Harvard University and received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He is an experimental astrophysicist and shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Among many other leadership roles, he is now the leader of the international Supernova Cosmology Project. He is an Honorary Member of Phi Beta Kappa. He has a long-standing interest in teaching scientific-style critical thinking to scientists and non-scientists alike, and that is the inspiration for his lecture. His view is that there is a body of techniques and practices, a language and culture, that is usually implicitly taught by apprenticeship and osmosis to graduate students and postdocs in the sciences. His lecture will ask whether we can make these implicit concepts explicit and teach them to scientists and non-scientists alike. Could this help our society address difficult issues such as those raised by the global environment and economics? And how could citizen scientists use these tools to help build sources of credibility on the web and in the news? This lecture, closest in date to the actual 125th PBK anniversary, will be followed by a reception.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024 at 5:00 pm
Eileen A. Lacey, Professor of Integrative Biology and Curator of Mammals, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
“Dead and Alive: Behavioral Ecology, Natural History Specimens, and Environmental Change”
Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall

Professor Lacey is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University and received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She came to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in 1994 and joined the faculty in 1996, and she is now co-chair of Integrative Biology. Her research centers around behavioral ecology and population biology, with an emphasis on the ecology and evolution of social behavior, and she has worked mostly with mammals, especially rodents. Her lecture draws on her roles as a behavioral biologist and a museum curator, where she works at the interface between the living and the dead—living organisms in their natural environments and no longer living specimens in drawers. Using examples drawn from her studies of tuco-tucos in the Andes and chipmunks in the Sierra Nevada, she will show how the integration of data from the living and the dead can enrich our understanding of the natural world and its response to changing environmental conditions.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024 at 5:00 pm
Thomas W. Laqueur, Helen Fawcett Professor of History Emeritus, Director Emeritus of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities
“Are Dogs Our Best Friends?”
Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall

Professor Laqueur is a graduate of Swarthmore College with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, and has spent his entire teaching career at Berkeley. He works in social history and the history of science, and much of his work has been concerned with the body, sex, and death; his most recent book is The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Over his career, he has been much in demand as a visiting lecturer, and a few years ago, when selected as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, he set a record for the number of campuses visited. He is an Honorary Member of Phi Beta Kappa. His current major project concerns dogs in human society. For this lecture, he starts with philosophical accounts of friendship, then, using ethnographic, literary, and visual evidence, he asks whether we can be friends with animals and specifically whether we can be friends—and indeed best friends—with dogs.

The 125th Anniversary Honor Roll

How many Phi Beta Kappa members are currently at Berkeley as faculty, staff, or graduate students? The answer is unknown, but Alpha of California hopes to get a rough estimate by inviting campus members to self-identify using an online form, An Honor Roll of names will be compiled as a record of the anniversary. Who is a member? If you were invited to join Phi Beta Kappa when you graduated from your undergraduate school and accepted and were inducted, you are a member, whether or not you have ever responded to appeals for dues or donations since then. For more information, contact PBK Executive Council President Donald Mastronarde at or