Student Notebook

Psi Chi Reaches 75: The Youth Psychology Beacon Celebrates an Illuminated History

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, Psi Chi is sponsoring special activities at all the regional psychological association meetings including the APS Annual Convention. In addition to its symposia on graduate schools and careers in psychology, Psi Chi, in conjunction with APS, will award the first Albert Bandura Award for outstanding graduate student research, have David Myers present the first Psi Chi address at APS, sponsor a special anniversary reception, and highlight the Kay Wilson Leadership Award at the APS Annual Convention.

Originally founded as a national student psychological organization, Psi Chi became an affiliate of APA in 1958 and has held meetings in conjunction with APS since 1996. It officially became an honor society in 1964. Its purpose is to encourage, stimulate, and maintain excellence in the scholarship of its members in all fields, particularly psychology; it does this by recognizing outstanding academic achievement, sponsoring annual programs (including student presentations) at national and regional conventions, publishing the Eye on Psi Chi and Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, undertaking several national service projects, and underwriting a growing set of awards and grants.

Psi Chi has an amazingly successful story to celebrate. After two years of preliminary work primarily by Edwin B. Newman and Frederick Howell “Bud” Lewis, then students at the University of Kansas, Psi Chi was founded in September 1929 at a meeting at the Ninth International Congress of Psychology at Yale University. However, the organization had a somewhat inauspicious beginning. When asked for his opinion about the proposal for the new society, prominent Harvard psychologist Edwin G. Boring demurred: “It would be too bad … for psychology to start another abortive, debilitating organization,” Boring said, adding that psychology students should pursue productive research, not waste their time on “lodges and … societies and pins to wear.”

Despite Boring’s misgivings, Psi Chi flourished to an extent that its founders could hardly have envisaged. There were 22 charter chapters in 1929. Twenty years later, Psi Chi had grown to 73 chapters. The number of chapters increased annually ever since, surpassing 1,000 by 2003. The number of members (membership in the society is for life) has seen a similar surge, billowing from 1,000 in the early 1930s to 445,361 in 2003. Psi Chi has long been the largest psychological association, student or otherwise, in the world. Its astonishing growth is all the more remarkable because membership is an honor bestowed only on applicants who meet stringent criteria of excellence in academic performance.

Many prominent psychologists have been involved in Psi Chi’s history, among them J. P. Guilford, Stuart W. Cook, Florence L. Goodenough, Wayne Dennis, Roger W. Russell, Florence L. Denmark, Charles D. Spielberger, Virginia Staudt Sexton, and Raymond D. Fowler, all of whom served as officers at one time. Invited Psi Chi lectures at national meetings have been given by prominent psychologists such as Otto Klineberg, Jerome Bruner, Rollo May, Neal E. Miller, Carl R. Rogers, Ernest R. Hilgard, Philip Zimbardo, Steven Pinker, Robert Sternberg, Elizabeth Loftus, and B. F. Skinner (who spoke for Psi Chi at six different conventions), and even Edwin G. Boring, who despite his initial objections accepted an invitation to present in 1960. In addition, Albert Bandura, Brewster Smith, and Joseph Wolpe are among Psi Chi’s Distinguished Members.

But far more important to Psi Chi’s vitality than those figures has been the hard-working people in the Psi Chi national office, which was initially the home desk of a secretary-treasurer. After a recent move, Psi Chi’s national office is now located in an historic house in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ruth B. Guilford, J. P.’s wife, was secretary-treasurer from 1930 to 1935 and began national-office practices that would be followed for decades, initiating a newsletter and issuing the first Psi Chi handbook. The youngest officer ever was E. Louise Hoffeditz (later E. Louise H. Porter), who became eastern regional vice president in 1931 at 21 years old.

The one individual who probably did the most to build Psi Chi into the enormous, respected organization that it has become was Ruth Hubbard Cousins, executive secretary 1959-1968 and executive director 1968-1991. She led the national office longer than all of her predecessors combined. For years she handled the myriad chores of the national office (issuing certificates and newsletters, processing chapter applications, responding to correspondence, arranging and attending conventions, etc.) either alone or with just one assistant. She also contacted the Association of College Honor Societies, with which Psi Chi became officially affiliated in 1965. By 1990, Psi Chi had more chapters than any of the other 57 societies that were members of ACHS. During her tenure, Cousins became the spirit and soul of Psi Chi; her devotion was total. During a tribute to her in 1991, founder Newman told her, “Far more than most people recognize, Psi Chi is not what we founded – it is what you have made it.”

When Cousins retired in 1991, Kay Wilson took over. Wilson made substantial contributions to Psi Chi, helping it establish a sound fiscal foundation; she more than tripled Psi Chi’s assets, from $1 million to over $3 million. Kay also transformed the Psi Chi newsletter into a lively multi-color magazine called Eye on Psi Chi and supervised the launching of the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, which is now in its eighth year of publication. Kay oversaw Psi Chi’s continuing growth in members and chapters, streamlined several Psi Chi governance functions, and computerized many Psi Chi routine chores. She also managed a growing program of awards and grants. Psi Chi’s award program currently has 12 awards and 6 grants with a combined annual budget of $225,000. Kay carried on the productive cooperation between Psi Chi and the ACHS begun by Cousins. In 2001, she was named president-elect, and had recently assumed her position as president at the February 2003 ACHS meeting. Tragically, Kay died in June 2003 after a brief illness. Kay Wilson, Ruth Cousins, Chief Operations Officer Paula Miller, and a handful of other national-office personnel are the ones who have made Psi Chi what it is today. They have been a tireless crew, running the enormous Psi Chi enterprise with remarkably few dedicated workers.

In this 75th anniversary year, Psi Chi celebrates its past success and looks forward to continued growth in programs and events to better meet the needs of its members.

For more information on Psi Chi anniversary events at the APS Annual Convention, view the regular updates at www.psichi.org.

Observer Vol.17, No.2 February, 2004

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