Honor society faces national criticism
By Megh Duwadi, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, April 16, 2002
Entangled in accusations of scandal, corruption and rampant over-commercialization, Golden Key International Honour Society's presence at Dartmouth continues to grow despite the society's alienation from its peers in the academic community.
Golden Key, established nationally in 1977 to recognize college juniors and seniors in the top 15 percent of their respective classes, boasts an annual inductee count of over 120,000. But the tremendous size of its membership -- especially in comparison to older honor societies -- is just one factor in what critics fear may catalyze the downfall of the historically exclusive field of honor societies.
Unlike other honor societies, no student members sit on Golden Key's board of directors, which is responsible for outlining the society's current and future objectives. Instead, employees of large corporations -- Ford, Gateway and Motorola are included on the list -- pay Golden Key in return for board seats and exclusive access to its membership list.
Golden Key representatives support this entrepreneurial move, arguing that corporate sponsorship promotes successful management and enhanced career opportunities for members.
"I believe it has enhanced the efforts towards excellence and service," Dartmouth's Golden Key chapter adviser Kathie Savage '95 said. Savage, a department administrator at Dartmouth Medical School, also serves as Golden Key's Northeastern regional academic coordinator.
"Golden Key has a strong network," Savage said, the result of a strong corporate presence. "It puts Golden Key members one step ahead after graduation."
Savage defended the exchange of corporate funding for access to Golden Key members' information -- added to sponsors' mailing lists upon payment of a $60 lifetime membership fee -- as necessary to Golden Key's success.
"Growth costs money," she said.
Where this money goes is a contested issue. Golden Key founder James Lewis recently resigned from the organization amidst charges of financial mismanagement, adding to recently surfaced accusations of improper relationships with students.
"I don't know of any organizations that don't have personnel issues," Savage argued. "James Lewis is a brilliant man. He made some bad personal judgements."
Golden Key director of chapter relations and past president Pat Carroll, currently the chapter adviser at Utah State University, attributed Lewis' abrupt resignation to more professional reasons.
"Mr. Lewis and the board of directors talked about a new direction for the society," Carroll said. "Mr. Lewis indicated that he wanted to pursue other opportunities."
Dartmouth chapter president Bridget Canavan '02 -- one of approximately 30 active members at Dartmouth -- was unaware of the scandals surrounding Lewis, although she agreed that Golden Key's corporate nature is visible and prevalent.
"When you're working like a business, you can streamline the process and minimize the cost," Canavan said. "It provides Golden Key members opportunities with different corporations."
Canavan said that the Dartmouth chapter of Golden Key focuses primarily on community service projects, leaving the organization's corporate aspect to regional and national offices.
"One of our big things was to co-chair the United Way fundraiser with the Green Key society" during Winter term, Canavan said. "We raised $2,500, which was way more than our goal."
In spite of Golden Key's professed community service involvement, the Association of College Honor Societies -- an organization that oversees 67 such groups throughout the nation -- still finds fault. The association has denied repeated applications by Golden Key to join the group.
"The standards that they didn't meet had to do with the governance of the organization," ACHS secretary-treasurer Barbara Mitstifer said.
She added, "ACHS feels that we have attempted to make sure that honor societies serve the members and that it's not just a way of adding to purposes other than serving the goals of the organization."
Golden Key isn't the only honor society with a commercial twist, Mitstifer said. Such groups "are out there, especially on the Web. They don't even pretend to have a chapter."
Mitstifer cited a recent case of a dog enrolling in an Internet-based honor society as an example of such fraudulent ventures.