Pacific professors recognized with Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Excellence Award

Phi Beta Kappa Ceremony

Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 and is the nation's oldest and most well-known academic honor society for the liberal arts and sciences. 

University of the Pacific professors Courtney Lehmann and Bill Swagerty have received the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Excellence Award. The prize recognizes excellence in teaching and the ability to inspire intellectual and personal development in and beyond the classroom.

Pacific's two faculty award recipients matches Stanford University for the most winners this year among the eight Phi Beta Kappa institutions in Northern California, which also includes Santa Clara University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and others.

"Being recognized with the Phi Beta Kappa award provides validation for me, but also for our university," said Lehmann. "At Pacific, teaching is paramount and this award shows that the hard work being done by educators to positively impact the lives of our students is still valued."

Swagerty, a Phi Beta Kappa member since 1973, said in a video for the award, “I thank you for this special honor at the end of my 42nd year of teaching. It came as a surprise and as the capstone of my career.”

Pacific has 24 faculty, staff and administrators who are members of Phi Beta Kappa. Both Lehmann and Swagerty were nominated for the award by Sarah Hess ’21, a history graduate, who joined Phi Beta Kappa during her last year at Pacific.

“I knew that they deserved to have this teaching award,” said Hess. “It’s hard for me to articulate how much they’ve done for me over the course of my time at Pacific.”

Hess said Lehmann is not only hospitable and kind, but will go above and beyond for her students. Hess wrote in her nomination letter, “What distinguishes Dr. Lehmann is her dedication to her students as human beings and not just as students. She welcomes us into her life with open arms.”

Hess lauded Swagerty for his commitment to his craft, explaining his teaching philosophy promotes curiosity in all his students. He champions delivering high quality and challenging curriculum, and makes field trips to places such as Yosemite and the Gold Country a major part of his courses.

“Dr. Swagerty is the archetype of a dedicated and passionate teacher,” Hess wrote in her nomination. “… it is so clear how much he genuinely cares about his students, something unique to University of the Pacific's small class size and welcoming community … (he) constantly believed in me and gave me the confidence to achieve.”

Swagerty was grateful for the nomination by Hess, as he said, “It’s a tremendous honor and I’m so appreciative of the nomination from Sarah. I’m also somewhat humbled by the fact that there are so many members of Phi Beta Kappa on our faculty who deserve it.”

Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 and is the nation's oldest and most well-known academic honor society for the liberal arts and sciences. In 2006, Pacific was chosen to host the Chi Chapter of California after completing the society’s extensive vetting process underscoring the university’s quality of programs.

“It’s really a mark of distinction for our College of the Pacific—the liberal arts and sciences core of the university,” said Director of General Education Chris Goff, Pacific’s chapter president.

Phi Beta Kappa celebrates education and recognizes individuals who have committed themselves to their academics. Its members include 17 U.S. presidents, 41 Supreme Court justices, more than 140 Nobel Laureates and other civic and business leaders.

“Fewer than 10% of universities have a chapter, and of that, the most you can induct is 10% of your student body,” Goff said.

Phi Beta Kappa makes for a well-rounded individual, Goff said. The goal is that members promote a view of education that is not only about making themselves better but making society a better place.

A student must first meet requirements set by both the national and local chapters to become a member, but joining Phi Beta Kappa is a rare distinction that has lifelong benefits and membership. It includes opportunities to participate in events and programs, a competitive edge in the graduate school or job market, access to scholarships, as well as a network of Phi Beta Kappa alumni across the country.

For Tierra Smithson ’22, however, the advantages start before being inducted, she said.

“The benefits begin the moment you decide to commit to learning from a variety of areas,” said Smithson, a political science major with a concentration in criminal justice. “I remember seeing the flyer for Phi Beta Kappa with the requirements on it and feeling a bit apprehensive, but that feeling went away as soon as I started taking courses, seeing connections between them and meeting so many people from outside of my major.

“Phi Beta Kappa is rooted within a love of learning and a liberal arts education. We each bring unique interests and experiences that I find insightful and inspiring, especially with my interest in attending law school after I graduate.”

Smithson said Pacific empowered her to pursue Phi Beta Kappa membership through her courses, dedicated faculty—in particular her adviser Dari Tran—and participation on the speech and debate team, which sparked her interest in learning about various subjects, she said.

Hess learned of Phi Beta Kappa as a first-year student. With guidance from her professors and the ability to fulfill the language requirement while studying abroad in Spain, Hess earned an invitation during her last year at Pacific.

“Anybody who wants to become a member can really set their mind to it at the beginning and work toward that goal by their junior or senior year,” Hess said.

“I think that being part of such an amazing society will open doors for you, it stands out on resumes to employers just because it shows that kind of dedication to your studies and your school, it shows not only academic dedication and excellence but also an interest in a wide range of subjects, which I think is unique. Phi Beta Kappa shows a depth and breadth of knowledge.”

Pacific students interested in learning more about Phi Beta Kappa can contact Chi Chapter of California President Chris Goff for more information.