Membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society makes for
a good conversation topic among academics. At the very least, its
a great bullet on a resume.
Phi Beta Kappas membership consists of the smartest of the
smart. Just the top 10 percent of a schools graduating class
is eligibleand in order to join, one must be nominated. The
honor society is as old as the Declaration of Independence (it was
founded at the College of William and Mary in 1776), and its golden
key of membership is widely viewed as an important talisman of academic
achievement in the liberal arts.
Emorys Phi Beta Kappa chapter encompasses about 100 faculty
and staff members, and between 2030 juniors and 5070
seniors are inducted each year. Those numbers are pretty good for
a university of Emorys size, but there is one statistic that
sets it apart from the 269 other Phi Beta Kappa chapters around
One of Emorys members is the societys president.
Niall Slater, professor of classics, was elected to a three-year
term as Phi Beta Kappa president at the organizations most
recent triennial council meeting last August in Seattle. He had
been Phi Beta Kappas vice president.
Slater was first invited to join Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate
at the College of Wooster (Ohio) but didnt become seriously
involved until he joined the faculty of the University of Southern
California in the early 1980s. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappas
senate in 1994, three years after coming to Emory, and moved up
to vice president six years later.
The last (and only other) Emory professor to serve as Phi Beta Kappa
president was Goodrich C. White, elected in 1952. At the time, White
was Emorys president (he served from 194257) and his
name currently graces several chaired professorships. Slater clearly
has ascended into some lofty company.
To be president of Phi Beta Kappa is to be committed first
and foremost to the health and flourishing of our existing chapters,
said Slater, who, with his bowtie and very distinguished speech,
looks and sounds every bit the professor of classics he is. Its
an organization that runs on a vast amount of volunteer labor for
very little reward other than recognizing, honoring and bringing
into the society the best and brightest of liberal arts students
from around the country. So, one of my chief priorities is ensuring
that that continues to happen.
Slater said his position as president shouldnt give Emory
any advantage within the national organization, but there is no
doubt this election gives the University a proverbial feather in
This academic year is a big one for Emorys Phi Beta Kappa
chapter for another reasonit will be celebrating its 75th
anniversary in the spring. Planning is ongoing, and Slater said
he hopes to bring a prominent guest from off-campus to join in the
Slater will serve as president until Phi Beta Kappas next
triennial council meeting in 2006. In addition to rallying participation
among Phi Beta Kappas local chapters, Slater said he has another
prominent goal: Raising money.
Our endowment is relatively modest for the size of our organization,
Slater said. Nationally, Phi Beta Kappa boasts more than 500,000
members, and its endowment is about $23 million. We are moving
toward a capital campaign to build that endowment to fund some of
our national programs, such as the Visiting Scholar program.
That program, begun in 1956, sends scholars to Phi Beta Kappa institutions
for two days of lectures and seminars. Slater said visiting scholars
come to Emory about every other year.
Slater said he is still learning about the work that encompasses
the presidency and that he does some Phi Beta Kappa-related activity
each day. Not that he isnt busy already.
Ive having a wonderful semester, because its an
all-Greek semester, said Slater, who is teaching the beginning
Greek course and an advanced course in Homer. I dont
know if I have ever taught two Greek courses at the same time.
Normally, Slater splits his time between ancient Greek and ancient
Slater has written three books on ancient theater and prose fiction;
his most recent, Spectator Politics: Metatheater and Performance
in Aristophanes, was released in 2002. Well-schooled in both
ancient comedy and drama, Slater prefers comedy (Aristophanes is
generally seen as the greatest comedy writer of his day).
Oh, I think Im just a deeply frivolous person, and thats
why I love comedy above all, he quipped.
Comedy is where contemporary ideas and issues are tested and
debated, Slater said, more seriously. Im interested
in the ways comedy and humor work, but also in the ways in which
the stories of comedy work with the social issues that are of most
immediate concern to their audiences.
Not only is Slater interested in the subject matter present in ancient
theatrical productions, but also in the nuts and bolts of the productions
themselves, as well as their importance to ancient Athenian and
Today we think of theater as often elite and specialized entertainment,
Slater said. But in the ancient city, the majority of the
male population could and did show up for theater performances as
part of the religious festivals.
In addition to his teaching and his new Phi Beta Kappa presidency,
Slater is working on several research projects. He is compiling
material for a short book on The Golden Ass of Apuleius,
one of just two surviving Roman novels; he is writing a commentary
on the third book of the Roman poet Ovids Ars Amatoria
(The Art of Love), which is distinctive because it addresses
a female audience, a remarkable tone for the time; and he wants
to write a short book on the Greek dramatist Euripides Alcestis,
a trend-breaking play that eliminated the satyr chorus, which until
the time of its performance (438 B.C.) was a standard of the genre.
A common thread of Slaters current research is how audiences
received the plays they saw or interpreted the works they read.
The technical term is reader-response criticism, the
readers sometimes being a theater audience.
There has been a lot of work on reader response, but less
on how our visual imagination and how our visual repertoire operates
in the process of reading, Slater said. Apuleius, for
instance, is a very visual writer and very interested in the visual
aspects of his storytelling, and I think he makes a very good case