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A Scholar, with Highest Honor

CAS Professor Allison Blakely elected president of Phi Beta Kappa

Allison Blakely was recently named president of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious honor society. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

For a man who is fluent in Russian and Dutch, well-versed in French and German, author of a highly respected book on the African-American experience in Europe, and a decorated war veteran, Allison Blakely is surprisingly modest.

The 66-year-old College of Arts and Sciences professor of European and comparative history is particularly self-effacing when asked about his latest accolade: election last fall as president of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. 

“It came out of nowhere,” says Blakely. “For president and vice president, the society nominates only one candidate. I would not have thought of myself as most likely to be noticed by the nominating committee.”
 
Nominees for president of Phi Beta Kappa do not campaign; society members vote solely on their qualifications and merits. The recognition, Blakely says, is an honor. “It’s an indication from the society that they appreciate the service an individual has given,” he says. “It’s an affirmation of the belief that the person can carry out the sort of honorary and supportive role the office represents.”

The society’s president, who serves for three years, presides over meetings of several internal bodies, but the day-to-day operation is overseen by an executive secretary.

“But I am supposed to know what’s going on,” says Blakely. He says it’s important that “someone is trying to make sure all the different elements are working well together and to make sure we’re doing everything we can to continue to promote the ideals of excellence in liberal arts and science learning in general.”

As an organization that promotes learning, Phi Beta Kappa couldn’t have found a better representative, says Donald Altschiller, a librarian at BU’s Mugar Memorial Library, who wrote a profile of Blakely for an upcoming book on African-American scholars. “He is modest and the opposite of a self-promoter,” Altschiller says. “He really deserves some attention.”

John Churchill, secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa, says Blakely and Judith Krug, the honor society’s new vice president, “are two of our outstanding members. Both have distinguished records of service to Phi Beta Kappa. I look forward to working with them as they bring their wisdom and experience to the leadership of the society.”

Being tapped to head the society is the culmination of Blakely’s more than four decades among elite scholars. He was first named a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1962, while an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. After graduation, he spent several years working on his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of California at Berkeley.

He later served as an army officer in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star after a rocket attack leveled a building where he and several other soldiers were camped. The attack killed seven men.

Despite his decorations, Blakely says his service in Vietnam remains a sore subject. “It’s still painful, and this recent turn of events is like tearing scabs off old wounds,” he says. “What made this military experience so difficult for me wasn’t being wounded; I was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War.”

After returning to the United States, Blakely became active in antiwar groups, met and married his wife, Shirley, finished his dissertation, and began his teaching career at Howard University, where he became involved again in Phi Beta Kappa, serving for 12 years on the society’s board of trustees.

“One of the nice things about this particular honor is it’s not something you could have gotten just by seeking,” Blakely says. “It’s an honor I didn’t seek. It has taken a while to get used to the idea.”