September 29, 2003

A classical president

Eric Rangus

Membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society makes for a good conversation topic among academics. At the very least, it’s a great bullet on a resume.

Phi Beta Kappa’s membership consists of the smartest of the smart. Just the top 10 percent of a school’s graduating class is eligible—and 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.

Emory’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter encompasses about 100 faculty and staff members, and between 20–30 juniors and 50–70 seniors are inducted each year. Those numbers are pretty good for a university of Emory’s size, but there is one statistic that sets it apart from the 269 other Phi Beta Kappa chapters around the country.

One of Emory’s members is the society’s president.

Niall Slater, professor of classics, was elected to a three-year term as Phi Beta Kappa president at the organization’s most recent triennial council meeting last August in Seattle. He had been Phi Beta Kappa’s vice president.

Slater was first invited to join Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate at the College of Wooster (Ohio) but didn’t become seriously involved until he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California in the early 1980s. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa’s 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 Emory’s president (he served from 1942–57) 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. “It’s 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 shouldn’t give Emory any advantage within the national organization, but there is no doubt this election gives the University a proverbial feather in its cap.

This academic year is a big one for Emory’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter for another reason—it 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 festivities.

Slater will serve as president until Phi Beta Kappa’s next triennial council meeting in 2006. In addition to rallying participation among Phi Beta Kappa’s 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 isn’t busy already.

“I’ve having a wonderful semester, because it’s an all-Greek semester,” said Slater, who is teaching the beginning Greek course and an advanced course in Homer. “I don’t know if I have ever taught two Greek courses at the same time.” Normally, Slater splits his time between ancient Greek and ancient Roman coursework.

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 I’m just a deeply frivolous person, and that’s why I love comedy above all,” he quipped.

“Comedy is where contemporary ideas and issues are tested and debated,” Slater said, more seriously. “I’m 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 Roman society.

“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 Ovid’s 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 Slater’s 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 study.”